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Tenure must die

November 29, 2006

This is a cross-post from the comments section of Dean Dad’s page here.

Tenure = job security. Sounds a lot like the dinosaur of having a “union job” at the local factory. Both were relicts of an age when the individual put faith into the institution to take care of him into old age. As I watch Ford, GM, Delphi, etc. implode and renege on this social agreement, I wonder if a similar reckoning will occur in academia. Tenure = free time (to research, serve on committees, etc.). Dean Dad rightly described the tendency for tenured faculty to migrate to lower enrollment, upper-level courses, leaving the high-need, large-enrollment courses to the part-timers or adjuncts. He speculates that such movement is inherent in the system. It is. I don’t know, though, if tenure is the agent of this dynamic. If a prof is given tenure, one of the assumptions is that he is granted academic freedom to explore ideas with less pressure to conform. That is, he is free to be radical (to a point, it would follow) adventurous in exploring ideas, breaking ground, etc. Publishing (for most institutions) is an expected result of tenure.

So, the dynamics at play are:

  • tenured faculty teach fewer students
  • tenured faculty have more time for research
  • tenured faculty are expected to spend time on institution business (committees, etc.)
  • If tenured faculty capitalize (read: economic sense) on these advantages, then they will continue to ensure their position in the institution

So, if an institution wishes to retain the best and brightest that it is able to, then tenure is a nice carrot to dangle in front of profs.

But I agree with Dean Dad that this carrot may not be good for the institution as a whole. A segment of the profs will definitely like it. But the largest pool of workers (adjuncts and part-timers) are either led by the mistaken notion that they will achieve the promised status (few actually do) or resent the caste system altogether (lots do).

One final note is the quality of instruction. A recent story in EdOnline reported a study that indicated that the quality of cc-instruction was diminished by an over-reliance on adjuncts. The jist was, adjuncts teach the bulk of the students (especially the lower level freshman/sophomore type and non-trads), those who would greatly benefit from contact and exposure to profs, were not getting that exposure because adjuncts and part-timers didn’t spend the same amount of out-of-class time with them. Especially telling in non-trads (night and weekend or online users) were likely to have limited or reduced prof exposure.

My final point. Institutions are part of the problem. If they continue to offer the sanctity of tenure and allow the Chosen to withdraw (into research, small classes, etc.), then the quality of the bulk courses (and those students—those who probably need the exposure the most) will continue to suffer (caveat—not all part-time or adjunct instruction is of lesser quality—but, on average without the fiduciary carrot to put out extra effort quality will suffer). It seems that the mission of the institution should be clarified. For CCs, student-to-prof interaction should be highlighted. For land-grant, I would argue the same. Eliminate tenure and the dynamics of withdrawal and work to increase access and exposure.

For R1’s, the school brand might trump, even for the student, the benefits of higher student-prof interaction. That is, for R1’s (not to mention the Elite or Ivies), brand maintenance might be a better force on keeping quality instruction than other factors. Or, more directly, quality instruction is measured differently. I go to a CC in order to acquire skills. I go to land-grant to acquire skills-knowledge. I go to R1 to gain access (skills, knowledge, etc. are benefits).

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Bonus Extra…

Below is the first paragraph of the Inside HigherEd article:

A new report on community college student engagement suggests that the academic experience of full-time students is substantially more interactive than that of their part-time peers and also documents a disparity between the proportion of students who value academic advising and those who obtain it.

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2 Comments
  1. December 5, 2006 4:15 am

    I’ve often caught myself arguing for tenure like some middleclass-Fox news parrot arguing for tax policies that favor the wealthy.

    Waiting for they day I get mine.

    I’m so ashamed.

  2. ThatsOurDad permalink
    December 6, 2006 3:11 am

    The fading appeal could be the time of the semester too PPP. I graded tests today and several students informed me that the hole in the ozone layer is causing global warming. Oh the joys of the Old CC.

    formerly posted as SJ

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