Why Academic Tenure Is Vitally Important

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The way it should be: Enthusiastic teachers, engaged students

Richard Sahn

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.

Freethinkers Fighting for Fair Play: The True Goal of Higher Education

Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights?  (Movie poster from "Flash of Genius")
Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights, and to fight for what’s right? (Movie poster from “Flash of Genius”)

W.J. Astore

A New York Times editorial back in February caught two trends in higher education today: the proliferation of underpaid adjunct professors as well as the expansion of administrative positions within America’s colleges and universities.  These trends are unsurprising.  America’s colleges and universities are becoming more and more like businesses every day, with a small legion of administrators being hired in fields like assessment, retention, recruitment, student affairs, workforce development, and the like.  Adjunct faculty, meanwhile, are treated as interchangeable providers of ephemeral product, to be hired and dismissed at the whim of administrators.

As faculty increasingly inhabit lower niches within higher ed, students’ aspirations are increasingly shaped by the pursuit of high salaries.  How else to obtain “aspirational products” such as the latest Kate Spade handbag, the latest Apple iPhone, perhaps a BMW or even an Ivy League degree if you’re truly seeking to flaunt “success.”  An inherent contradiction in higher ed today is the way colleges and universities flaunt their success in helping graduates to get high-paying jobs, even as these same colleges and universities underpay adjunct professors.  Contradiction – what contradiction?

Administrative bloat and faculty contingency (“contingency” as in no job security for adjuncts, therefore little in the way of academic freedom, i.e. speak your mind, lose your job) are contributing factors in the loss of purpose within higher ed.  After all, if not for higher salaries or aspirational credentials, what is the higher purpose to higher ed?

Critical thinking should be one such higher purpose.  Alerting students to societal inequities – maybe at their very own colleges, perhaps even staring back at them in their dormitory room mirrors – is a start.  Remediating these inequities should be a goal.

Education, after all, should wake us up.  It should disturb us.  It should also strengthen our democracy.  It should reinforce our freedoms as defined in the Constitution.  It should counter prevailing anti-democratic trends toward plutocracy and authoritarianism within American society and government.

Too many students today are apathetic because they see little connection between their “higher” education and living a life that is fulfilling in wider settings.  They lack a compelling vision of what education is all about.  It doesn’t help when colleges and universities focus on making the educational money train run on time with little thought given to the passengers on board and their ultimate destination.

So, what should be the ultimate destination?  A questing and questioning mind.  Critical and creative thinking.  Curiosity about the world.  At the same time, students need to think and act to preserve what’s best about our world: our freedoms.  Fairness.  Fighters for fair play: that’s what we need more of in America.

Let me give you an example.  One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes in “Flash of Genius” (2008).  It’s about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.  His idea was stolen from him by the Ford Motor Co., and he takes them to court (true story).  When he’s asked why he’s fighting so desperately hard against Ford, why he’s risking everything, he replies: That idea was my Mona Lisa.

That line has always stayed with me.  Not only because it highlights the fact that technology is an act of creation, a work of art (or artifice).  But also because it highlights the need to be a fighter, the need to fight for what’s fair.

I like to tell my students that they too are society’s creators, that they too can create their own Mona Lisa (even if it takes the form of a new windshield wiper).  But that they too may also need to fight for their rights, and to fight for what’s right.

Motivating and equipping them for that fight: That’s what higher education should be all about, Charlie Brown.

The Education Business: Money, Money, Money (Updated)

W.J. Astore

As a college professor, I’m in the education business, a word that repels me but which nowadays is undeniably true.  One of the marketing slogans where I teach is “A degree is measured by its success in the workplace.”  In other words, if a college degree leads to a decent salary in the “workplace,” it’s worth it, but if the “workplace” does not reward you with a position with good pay and benefits, your degree is without merit.

Education in America has become just another business.  It’s increasingly monetized and corporatized.  Hence it’s unsurprising that educational results are measured increasingly by standardized tests developed by corporations.  If education is reducible to standardized metrics, you can run it and control it just like a business.  Professors become providers, students become consumers, and education becomes a commodity which is marketed and sold to consumers. Administrators are the middle managers who ultimately answer to corporate-dominated boards. “Success” for an administrator is measured mainly by money: funding drives, corporate donations, endowments, and similar issues related to budget and “the bottom line.”

As usual, Joe Bageant knew the score.  And he knew how to express it in pungent prose:

Now that education has been reduced to just another industry, a series of stratified job-training mills, ranging from the truck-driving schools to the state universities, our nation is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.  Education is not supposed to be an industry.  Its proper use is not to serve industries, either by cranking out feckless little mid-management robots or through industry-purchased research chasing after a better hard-on drug.  Its proper use is to enable citizens to live responsible lives that create and enhance their democratic culture.  This cannot be merely by generating and accumulating mountains of information or facts without cultural, artistic, philosophical, and human context or priority.

Consider the harsh reality of Bageant’s statement: America “is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.”  It’s impossible to deny this statement, especially when institutions of higher learning use the “workplace” as the measure of success for their degree programs.

Education today is disconnected from democracy.  It’s disconnected from producing an educated citizenry with critical thinking skills.  Rather, it’s connected to consumption; indeed, education is just another ephemeral consumable in a world of goods.  It’s valued only for its monetary fungibility, i.e. how much money can I make with this degree?  Alternatively, from a provider’s perspective, how much money can I make from offering these degrees?

Increasingly, there’s only one true degree offered by American colleges and universities: the business degree.  Such is the uniformity of market-driven ideology applied to education.

Say what you will of “diversity” in higher education as measured by differences in age, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, and all the rest.  Such diversity doesn’t matter much when all these “diverse” students are striving for the same thing: a fungible degree that’s translatable into money, money, money.

Show me the money!
Show me the money!

Update (12/4): When you treat students as consumers, there’s a tendency to buy the idea that “the customer is always right.” In other words, don’t offend the customer with disturbing ideas, such as the legacy of structural racism in society. Better to ignore such topics, especially when the “customer” complains about being offended by the ideas the professor (whoops — I meant the provider) introduces in class. See this story from Slate for more details.