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Tenure trouble

Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
What should we do about tenure? Tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom, which is important for teaching and research, but also produces collective benefits. We are currently in a time when tenure is under threat by shifting finances, political skepticism. And the professors who cherish it might not be as good stewards of it has we think. It is time to think both about why tenure protections should be defend vigorously and what we can do to assure tenure does not become a personal privilege of the few.

Oh boy, do we need tenure
Brendan Cantwell
Tenure is not about individual job protections it’s about constraining the power of those who would fire a professor for writing and speaking about racism.
A few years ago, I scrapped with instructional designers on Twitter about non-faculty involvement in the curriculum. Specifically, I said that forced collaboration between faculty and those without faculty status is dangerous. They understandably took umbrage, but I stand by my thinking. And I think recent events show why. 
It’s not that faculty don’t stand to gain from working with instructional designers. Often we do. Designing a course is requires care and attention, and most faculty members don’t have training to do it. Add in challenges associated with adopting new pedagogical techniques or learning online or through hybrid instruction, and help from an instructional designer is probably a good idea. Faculty can improve their teaching and produce more thoughtful classes when they collaborate with experts in instruction. 
So my issue is not with instructional designers or collaboration or even with academics who aren’t faculty members involved in the curriculum. My beef is the idea about forcing a faculty member to collaborate, and therefore involuntarily give up some control over the curriculum. 
Instructional designers often work with a good deal of autonomy, have command over an abstract body of knowledge, and are guided by epistemic norms. In many ways, they are professionals. But they don’t have academic freedom protected by tenure. They are not primarily accountable to peer review. Usually, instructional designers can be fired by administrators. There are somewhat less protected from the influences of administrative preference, vendor (ah-hem EdTech companies) priorities, or even partisan political pressure. Because instructional designers don’t enjoy the same protections that tenure system faculty do, mandating collaboration cracks open the door for eroding academic freedom. That’s my argument. It’s not about who’s worthy or who is valued. It’s about professional realpolitik. 
Faculty should collaborate with instructional designers but on faculty member’s terms. 
Now, you might think I am taking an arbitrary, needlessly absolutist, and self-serving position. And you’d have a point. None of us are above a little motivated, reasoning from time to time. Academic freedom is not some cloistered gem, unblemished by the world around. Hell, most classes are taught by faculty who don’t have and can’t earn tenure. Faculty are real people in the real world subject to all kinds of social and political influences. Faculty members aren’t special guardians of the truth because we are uncommonly intelligent or wise. To the extent that faculty do protect truth (whatever that is), it’s because of the organization of the academic profession. 
Recognizing what is good about US higher education.
An aside, the US academic labor set-up, the source of a lot of justifiable dissatisfaction, looks reasonably strong in comparative context. Yes, contingency is a major challenge. I’m not trying to minimize that. But there is a pretty robust tenure track system that still works (even though I entertain some reform ideas) that does not exist in many countries. For instance, check Jelena Brankovic‘s reflections on the situation in Germany.
Who decides what academic freedom and tenure are?
Academic freedom is not some absolute right to say whatever you want. You don’t have to take my word for it. Check out what the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) says. You will recall that I said that higher education is an institution guided by professional norms and expirations. The AAUP helped to codify those professional norms.
(I’ve excerpted extensively below, you can skip to the next section if you don’t need or care for this refresher and not lose anything.)
Tenure is the way to protect academic freedom. Here is what the AAUP 1940 Statement, the backbone of the US conception of academic freedom and tenure, says about academic freedom:
Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, … but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution. 
Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their controversial teaching matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. … As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
And here is what it says about tenure:
The precise terms and conditions of every appointment should be stated in writing and be in the possession of both institution and teacher before the appointment is consummated.
Beginning with appointment to the rank of full-time instructor or a higher rank, … but subject to the proviso that when, after a term of probationary service of more than three years in one or more institutions, a teacher is called to another institution, it may be agreed in writing that the new appointment is for a probationary period of not more than four years, even though thereby the person’s total probationary period in the academic profession is extended beyond the normal maximum of seven years.
During the probationary period a teacher should have the academic freedom that all other members of the faculty have.
Termination for cause of a continuous appointment, or the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution. … In the hearing of charges of incompetence the testimony should include that of teachers and other scholars, either from the teacher’s own or from other institutions. …
Termination of a continuous appointment because of financial exigency should be demonstrably bona fide.
Back to my problem with forced collaboration.
I’m no lawyer but from the AAUP statement, forced collaboration with instructional designers might not violate academic freedom on tenure in some strict sense. Things hinge on what “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” means. I’m sure there is case law on this and a body of legal scholarship and opinion. I don’t know it and that’s not really the point. The point is that as soon as you force faculty to plan, design, and conduct classroom (virtual included) activities you cede some control of the academic profession over to other organizational interests.
At a minimum, if mandated collaboration is going to be part of the faculty job, it should be one of those conditions made clear at the time of appointment. But, I don’t like the idea of it anyway. Mandated collaboration is a space bad faith actors could use to exploit.
Again, I don’t think nor do I have any reason to believe that instructional designers are bad faith actors looking to corrupt academic work (the opposite is often true). That is not my argument. My argument is that they don’t have the professional control over their work sufficient to resist such coercion from other bad faith actors.
So explain how you think this could happen?
The most obvious and, in a sense, the least problematic tension is when instructional best practices (which may or may not be best, but that’s another question) conflict with the way the professor wants to present ideas. Again, this is not because the professor is necessary “right.” I, and other faculty members, stand to learn from people who think a lot about instruction. I, and some other faculty members, are likely open to ideas offered by instructional designers and can and have included those ideas in our teaching practices and course design. But faculty might want for good or not good reasons (it actually doesn’t really matter) to teach ideas a certain way and forced collaboration could result in coerced abandonment of those practices. The ideas about how to present disciplinary knowledge, by the way, is disciplinary knowledge and protected by academic freedom. So that’s one reason why I don’t like forced collaboration.
If the issue is that we need to make faculty more accountable for teaching, fine. That’s a legitmate goal. I know student evaluations are a damn mess, so we need another way. But forced collaboration isn’t it.
Another reasonably plausible problem is that forced collaboration increases exposure to pernicious surveillance. I don’t know how to understand the raft of legislation banning or limiting the use of Critical Race Theory and other ideas in education other than as proto-authoritarian censorship. To comply with bans or even in anticipation of potential political blowback, some colleges and universities are identifying where CRT might appear in their curriculum, an issue that is identified in Twitter and then verified by standard reporting, and even canceling classes based on vague allegations by white students. If faculty are forced to collaborate with institutional designers - who again, I do not think are culture war narcs - then the content of classes will be easier to scan by administers looking to comply with bad faith curricular oversight. 
The threat, by the way, is real. The University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governance, for one example, is refusing to re-appoint the faculty member who runs the UNC Press, presumably because that person has criticized the university and board in the past. Not a violation of tenure. Not a violation of academic freedom in a limited sense, but the situation does demonstrate the real potential for political retaliation.
I’m not saying the content of classes should be a secret, especially at public universities where they are subject to open records laws and where some level of public oversight is appropriate. I am saying that we don’t want to build systems through well-intentioned collaborations that are mandated and tracked that provide an entry point for authoritarian censorship. The pillars of academic freedom and tenure are already imperfect protects of inquiry, and we shouldn’t weaken them.
David M. Perry
Here is an email from a department chair forwarding to their faculty a request from the provost to promptly identify "if critical race theory is being taught" in any classes at @pittstate in Kansas.

The incoherence of the purge makes it no less a purge.
The trouble with tenure.
Faculty demographics.
Faculty demographics.
At this point, I’ve probably irritated anyone who is an academic worker without tenure faculty status. Tenured faculty like me can come off as entitled dismissive our colleges who don’t have tenure and maybe we ought to be a little bit more mindful about the way we talk about academic and freedom and tenure to not be so exclusionary. But I earnestly believe that tenure is vital to democracy (yes, roll your eyes, I deserve it).
Still, the faculty also cause trouble. Yes, faculty can do some bad things. Faculty misconduct occurs and it’s a sub-genre in the literature on the academic profession. That stuff makes for good TV and more than a little faculty gossip. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the problem with tenure itself. I’m talking about how to make tenure work better for new scholars and institutions.
I think we need a two-pronged approach. First, fiercely defend academic freedom and tenure boucle it is necessary to protect scholarship, research, and teaching, and health for democracy and all that high minded stuff. Second, take a sober look at to use and protect tenure but also re-think it to address some of the challenges facing higher education.
In 2020, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), published a report on the age profile of faculty based on data from their annual survey of higher education staff. They found the faculty is reasonably old.
Higher education tenure-track faculty require advanced training, so they are naturally older than typical U.S. workers — the median age in the U.S. labor force is 42 years compared to the median tenure-track faculty age of 49. There are also significantly more faculty aged 55 or older compared to the general workforce. Just 23% of all U.S. workers are 55 or older, compared to 37% of faculty.
CUPA-HR and I probably don’t see eye-to-eye on everything (yes, I know CUPA-HR is an organization and I have just anthropromorphised it using a bad metaphor). For example, the report concludes this way: “The aging of the faculty workforce — in addition to changing enrollments — presents an opportunity to shift resources to meet evolving student and institutional needs.” To me that sounds like it could be an invitation to reduce the faculty, which I don’t think is a grand idea. But the data are useful.
The report shows that lots of professors get promoted to the rank of full professor, that full professors stick around for a long time (13% were over the age of 65 in 2018, compared to only 6% of the US workforce overall), and that full professors with long tenure end up making more money than their peers because they have more years to get raises, with are typically allocated as a percentage on the base.
The median salary for full professors at age 40 was around $95,000 and the median salary for full professors at age 80 was over $120,000. At age 50 the median salary for full professors was just over $95,000 for full professors, around $78,000 for Associate Professors, and about $67,000 for assistant professors.
I’m not saying that faculty should make less money. The variation is wide and these salaries are for tenure track faculty who make up probably little more than a quarter of the entire faculty workforce. Adjuncts are payed much less, sometimes below what most consider to be a living wage. But the CUPA-HR study does show that tenured (full) professors who work deep into their golden years tend to command a considerably higher salary than their younger colleges. Because labor costs are the biggest expense in higher education, long-term faculty (which are vital to democracy, remember I just said that!) are one factor that contribute to the overall cost structure of higher education. When we are talking about a tenured professor working beyond the traditional retirement age, we are talking about a privileged few in the overall higher education picture.
I want to be cautious. I am creeping up to agism and I don’t want to do that. Let me be clear, I don’t think older professors are bad, or don’t “pull their weight” or are overpaid or anything like that. I don’t. Faculty often work long careers because they are productive and engaged and the experience and expertise they bring is beneficial to colleges and students. A new open access study, for example, debunked the idea that faculty “peak” and become less productive over time.
The old white male expensive professor.
But some things are not in dispute.
  • The tenure system faculty age profile is older than the overall labor profile and the overall faculty profile (the academic literature shows this).
  • Most tenure track faculty over the age of 55 are full professors, and older full-professors have manfully higher salaries than their younger colleges.
  • Older full professors are disproportionally white and male.
  • The academic labor market has a bit of a bottle neck. It’s not that faculty appointment overall are shirking (even the number of tenure track jobs isn’t going down much in absolute terms; teaser, I have some collaborative research on this in the works). But there are not a lot of new tenure track jobs either, in part because those who have the jobs tend to keep them for a long time and institutions aren’t expanding the ranks of the tenure track.
Check out data from the US Department of Education (I pasted a chart at the top of this section) to get a sense of the different demographics by faculty rank (below). White men make up 53% of those with the rank of Professor. The Chronicle recently provide an interactive database that spotlighted just how few black woman faculty there are on most campuses.The need for a more diverse faculty.
I think it is important for new scholars to enter the academy and to have the protections, security, and adequate compensation that a tenure track appointment can provide. I think a more diverse faculty will energize fields and disciplines, help to support students, and just plain be more fair than the current situation.
What can be done to ensure new faculty members are brought in with tenure protections? Well one simple answer would be just to higher them. Add them to the ranks. But that seems unlikely in the current environment where the very idea of tenure is politically unfashionable (isn’t that a nice way of putting it?) and colleges and universities are trying to control costs and anyway are trying not to invest what resources they do have in a bunch of tenure track positions.
I think the only way to do this that satisfies both what I see as the need to bring in a new, more diverse group of faculty and protect tenure is to trade older faculty for newer ones. This gets super messy fast, I get it. For one, we have no guarintee that colleges and universes would replace retiring tenured faculty with newly hired tenure track faculty. At this stage of my career (I am not close to retirement, and I’m also not a full professor), I feel like I will be much more willing to retire before I get (deep?) into my 70s if I knew that my line would be transferred to a new faculty member rather than dissolved. Guarantees are thin on the ground.
Can some time-limit be set on tenure to protect it?
Mandatory retirement is out because it’s Illegal. Rebecca Natow reminded me of that.
Another possibility would be to set time-limits on tenure. Say 25 or 30 years. After that, you’d enter into shorter-term contracts. Maybe salaries would reset a bit too. Jeff Sellingo introduced this idea to me, giving credit to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow.
Jeff Selingo
@cant_b Larry Bacow suggested something like this years ago: a clock on tenure. Tenure would be for a specific time commitment — perhaps 20, 25, or 30 years — followed by one-year contracts.
I’m intreated in this idea, but I am not fully sure about it. My concern is that faculty would give up lifetime tenure in exchange for noting to protect their disciplines, their younger colleges, or the civic benefits of tenure. Perhaps senior faculty could leverage their position. Cut a deal. Accept a one or two, or three year renewable contract at a lower wage and give up tenure, IF the line is replaced with a new tenure track professor.
The details of how this would work? I don’t know. But I am worried that if the faculty who cherish tenure and who know why it is so important don’t act to preserve it by using the leverage we have now, tenure will evaporate.
In short, I think the better reforms to the faculty and tenure do not run through wearing faculty authority over its traditional domains (teaching and research). But we’ve got to this creatively if we want to save the faculty (I hate myself a little bit for writing that sentence). Ok. Enogh.
A favor, please.
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education ( Speak only for my self.

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