God Help Me I Will Never Write About the Issue of Tenure Again Please Help Me God

by zunguzungu

Did you read that “Room for Debate” thing the NY Times staged about academic tenure a few days ago? Were you sorry you did? Me too. Five academics respond to the moronically phrased question “What if College Tenure Dies?” and produced a result no less predictably unsurprising than these sorts of things sort of always are. After all, to say that there are problems with the academic tenure system is not wrong exactly, but it’s a formulation that obscures so much more than it reveals that to even have that conversation is to produce nothing meaningful.

Tyler Cowen, for example, is completely dead on when he points out (in response to that NYT thing, as well as a dreadful Megan McArdle post) that:

“Tenure critics have yet to spell out what the alternative — and thus the debate — really looks like…When I hear answers to…what the alternative to tenure looks like, then the tenure debate will be getting somewhere.”

But of course, mostly, they don’t. Instead, the debate takes the same mindlessly pro or con approach that it always does. First, for example, the NYT taps Cary Nelson, stalwart leftist, to argue blandly that what is good for labor is good for America, that “Tenure and academic freedom…have helped make American higher education the envy of the world” and “The only way to preserve and rebuild our higher education system is to grant long-term adjunct faculty members the protections of tenure and appoint more tenure track faculty.”

Now, I like Nelson and would agree with some versions of this argument, but even I’m struck by how boring his argument is; this isn’t an argument for tenure, it’s a performance of being-for-tenure, almost a party platform. But the other side is worse; for the “off with its head” side, the NYT chose Richard Vedder and Mark Taylor, men whose heads are so deep in the ass of the governance-by-accounting mindframe that they actually produce columns even more assertively absent of argument. Their collective claim goes something like this: because tenure hampers flexibility, innovation, capitalism buzzword, and capitalism buzzword, it has to be gotten rid of because, you know, obviously, right? Taylor actually frames the question by asking “If you were the C.E.O. of a company” (and then — shock! — we find that the answer turns out to be cut costs and screw labor) while Vedder makes it sound like employing teachers at a university is a scandalous waste of resources:

My academic department recently granted tenure to a young assistant professor. In so doing, it created a financial liability of over two million dollars, because it committed the institution to providing the individual lifetime employment.

Seriously. An employee is a liability because you have to pay them? I don’t even have to argue that this is a good use of resources because he doesn’t even argue it to be a bad one; he simply presents the fact of an employee as a liability. But since the money that is paid by students for instruction (or the state on their behalf) is sort of contingent on the presence of a professor in the classroom, it would be just as intellectually dishonest to say that, in hiring that young assistant professor, your university created a financial asset ex nihilo. From the fiscal perspective Vedder pretends to be adopting, an employee costs money and brings in money. Ignoring half of the equation is just dumbing himself down in service of his ideology.

(Among the other WTF moments in that piece, by the way, we also have the breathtaking assertion that “given competition for good talent, really good scholars have little fear for job security if harassed because of their academic viewpoints.” Which is sort of like saying “given an abundance of jobs, unemployment will be less of a problem.” On the planet we actually live on, contra Vedder the massive imbalance between the number of people looking for academic jobs and the number available means that people who have jobs have very few options if they piss off a dean or whatever. Which is to say, reality is the reverse of what he dishonestly implied: because the competition of job-seekers for jobs skews the job-market in that direction, really good scholars have very little or no recourse if they are harassed because of their academic viewpoints.)

But the real problem is simply that this was never going to be a real discussion anyway; in 350 words, not much can be said about a complicated issue, and so it’s hardly surprising that not much was said. And the NY Times’ decision to limit these contributions to such a microscopically small word count — in a virtual forum whose space is virtually infinite — illustrates that they were far more interested in the pretense of debate than an actual discussion (the same way grabbing onto a reliably orthodox leftist and two reliably orthodox conservatives demonstrates an interest in the pretense of balance, rather than the reality of actual discussion). Which is why, as irritating as this non-discussion is, it’s totally unsurprising.

Of course, if you read past those three bloviaters, there were two more contributors. I focused first on the three males, because they define the parameters of the “debate”: Tenure should live! vs. Tenure should die! Whereas the two female writers (and why does it always it always break down this way?) actually approached the issue with a certain amount of subtlety and respect for the fact that “TENURE! UP OR DOWN?!” might be a stupid way to ask the question. Adriana Kezar and Cathy Trower actually take a moment to think about how to make incremental changes, how tenure might exist within a broad range of possible reforms: while Kezar points out the obvious — “We do not know what the implications are of the decline of tenure” — and considers some of the reasons why academics are uninterested in talking about the big structural issues that are transforming the economics of higher ed, Trower imagines a constitutional convention style meeting of university people to think through what a replacement for tenure would look like. But even those pieces are so hampered by their microscopic word count as to have the opportunity, actually, to say very little, which is why, in the end, the whole thing is just pointless and stupid.

I started writing this piece because the whole exercise pissed me off — though particular aspects more than others — but trying to make sense of the whole makes me wish I hadn’t. Mark Taylor’s argument that “nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure” is a half-truth that hides the actual truth: what prevents the “free expression of ideas” is the lack of anything like real job security for academic labor, and getting rid of the one real structure of job security that exists won’t change that. I wish Cary Nelson hadn’t doubled down in support of Tenure As Presently Constituted, because Tenure As Presently Constituted is part of a clusterfuck of a system that has to be reformed in some way, such that if people who actually care about quality education don’t do it, people who don’t care will. (Or rather, they are). And I came away from those pieces with the sense that Trower and Kezar were the only writers with half an interest in actually thinking creatively about the problem, while being struck by how that sense of creatively looking for new ways of thinking about the problem got overwhelmed by the simple, and stupid, formulation of “YES OR NO!” that otherwise defines the problem-space of the piece. Finally, no one mentioned what seems to me — as a graduate student — to be the real crux of the issue: if you’re going to require up to a decade of poverty-stricken credentialing to even qualify for an academic job, there better fucking be one there at the end. And since, at present, there isn’t, getting rid of tenure would remove even the delusion that an academic vocation is something a person could feasibly risk investing their twenties in. Which means that if academic labor is rendered completely flexible, in the terms that Taylor and Vedder anticipate, no one but a real moron would ever go into that line of work. Some of you more jaded graduate students out there will doubtless say we’re already there.

In other words, this conversation goes nowhere without addressing the fact that to qualify for a job as a university professor basically requires you to spend your twenties working ninety hour weeks for poverty wages, often without health insurance, provision for maternity leave, or all sorts of things that make it possible to live in life. I’m entering my ninth year of grad school, in one of the best programs in my field, and I’ll be on the job market in the fall, competing with dozens to hundreds of other applicants for each job that’s available. I’m not complaining and I’m not bitter; I knew what the odds were, I knew what the trade-offs were, and I chose to do this job because doing the work was more important to me than a career which would be more economically satisfying. But without the prospect of some possibility of job security — whether you call it tenure or something else — there is no way I would have spent my twenties working my ass off and living on peanut butter sandwiches. I would have gotten a job that paid a living wage and could support a family. But if the only light at the end of the tunnel was a decade or so of gainful employment followed by unemployment (and unemployability), no one in their right mind would ever choose this career path.

In other words, if you care even a little about higher education — and frankly, most of the “abolish tenure” people seem like they could care less and are just enjoying a bit of spiteful schadenfreude — you have to ask yourself how exactly you’re going to staff universities with qualified professors. If the system doesn’t offer some form of compensation for people who have to spend their twenties living extremely modestly even to qualify for those positions, it will become the kind of job which only the independently wealthy could ever afford to aspire towards (and we’re already halfway there). If there is no job security once you get a job, who’s going to choose to spend 7-10 years working in poverty to get the qualifications for it? But, of course, most people don’t want to actually think about problems like that; much easier to complain about the problems without actually coming up with a better system or understanding why we have the system we have. And tenured college professors are always easy targets for lazy arguments and lazy journalists like the people at the NYT.