Perhaps the profession that requires job security more than any other is teaching, especially college teaching. Tenure traditionally meant that a teacher/professor could be terminated only for moral turpitude (e.g. sexual abuse of students), blatant racism, unfair or unjust grading, gross incompetence, failure to obey basic institutional rules such as not showing up to class on time, or not teaching the subject matter he or she was hired to teach. Nowadays, however, “Just Cause” is often grounds for termination of a tenured faculty member. But “Just Cause” in any work contract is far too flexible an instrument for employers and far too vague for employees who rightly worry about job security.
Job insecurity prior to acquiring tenure and tenure granted with a “Just Cause” basis for termination of employment work to stifle academicians’ free expression of creative ideas, theories, and perspectives in and outside of the classroom. Any psychiatric or psychological clinician knows, or should know, that the threat of losing one’s livelihood produces stress and anxiety. Going to work each day, knowing your job is “contingent,” can become a dreaded and stressful experience.
Not only does academic tenure reduce or eliminate anxiety and stress: It ensures the free expression in the classroom of controversial and unorthodox ideas and pedagogical methods. Colleges, all schools for that matter, should remain faithful to the ultimate purpose of education, to bring students out of darkness—e-ducare in Latin. It therefore should be difficult to dismiss a teacher/professor once that person has acquired tenure.
Alas, much has changed in the groves of academe. “Make America Great Again” has come to mean—long before Trump—make life easier for administrators of educational institutions, especially those who primarily view education as preparation for the world of work. Colleges and universities are top-heavy with administrators. In fact, it’s easier to find employment as an administrator than it is as a full-time faculty member.
Colleges are also becoming increasingly technocratic in their organizational structure. Form is becoming more important than content. The typical teacher/professor is expected to be virtually robotic in his/her performance. (God help a member of a college faculty nowadays who does not know the finer points of PowerPoint or refuses to use technology at all in the classroom.) Scores on multiple-choice faculty evaluations are more valued than what students are learning. The goal (often unstated) of pedagogy is to prepare students for becoming employees who will fit neatly and quietly into niches in the business and corporate world. Professors are subtly urged, sometimes threatened, to become unindicted co-conspirators in what appears to be the ultimate purpose of education in contemporary American society: to produce graduates who will unreflectively accept the status quo.
Today’s system of compromised tenure limits the ability of teachers/professors to encourage students to question and challenge the status quo. At its best, traditional tenure promoted an atmosphere in the classroom where teachers felt free to discuss contemporary political, social, and science/technology issues. Job security encouraged teachers to provide the cognitive tools for what Neil Postman called “crap detecting” (critical thinking) in his book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” Education for Postman included the ability to distinguish reality from propaganda—and it often worked. For example, college-educated students were more likely to resist the draft, protest the Vietnam War, and oppose Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. In short, they questioned authority because they had the tools, mindset, and commitment to do so.
In his 1923 book, “The Goose Step: A Study of American Education,” Upton Sinclair had this to say regarding colleges and universities: “Suppose I was to tell to tell you that this education machine has been stolen? That a bandit crew have got hold of it and have set it to work, not for your benefit, nor for the benefit of your sons and daughters, but for an end very far from these? That our six hundred thousand young people (supposedly in higher education) are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.” Worshiping or conforming to a socio-economic system based on the values and goals of capitalism is the leading obstacle to an education that promotes democratic and humanitarian values, according to Sinclair.
Sinclair further argued that college professors should not “merely have job security” but also should have “collective control of that job.” He insisted that the faculty “must take from the trustees, and from the man they hired, the president, the greater part of their present functions.” Sinclair’s message is telling: It’s undesirable for democracy for administrators to treat professors as employees who are readily dismissible.
“Readily dismissible” is an apt description of adjunct/contingent faculty today. The number of adjuncts teaching college courses now outnumbers full-time tenured faculty. On the adjunct level there is no job security from semester to semester. The academic goosestep is always outside the door.
Teachers on all levels of formal education have vital roles to play in getting all of us to question authority. How can they do that, however, when their jobs can be eliminated by administrators whose first loyalty is often to an establishment that sustains that authority? To challenge hegemonic social systems and structures, teachers and professors need job security. They need tenure. Is that why they’re not getting it?
Richard Sahn, a retired professor of sociology, taught at the collegiate level for four decades.