Tenure – but for whom?

I am sure that readers of this blog do not need me to rehearse the arguments for tenure in higher education. Whether you agree with it or not, it has been one of the principles underpinning higher education, and it is generally assumed that only tenure can sufficiently protect the freedom of academics to pursue knowledge and disseminate it without fearing the personal consequences.

However, what has always seemed obvious and necessary to most academics has not necessarily looked that way to everyone else. In America, for example, there has been a growing public debate, in which perhaps a majority of contributors have argued that tenure has stifled academic innovation and prevented universities from operating flexibly to adapt to changing circumstances.

I’m not intending to trawl through all that, but one particular argument has caught my eye. One of the more vocal critics of tenure has been the journalist and academic Naomi Schaefer Riley; it was a key theme in her book The faculty lounges : and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for. One of the points she made did cause me to think: that tenure has pushed a large number, perhaps the majority, of academics into insecure employment. How so? Well, as over recent years the resources of universities and colleges have declined, they have been unable to risk the financial commitment of large numbers of tenured staff, and so they have resorted to hiring people  in ever larger numbers of temporary, casual and otherwise insecure positions. If you think that’s a weak argument, then just take a minute to look at recent recruitment statistics on this side of the Atlantic. Most universities over here now also rely on a disproportionate number of young academics with virtually no job security. In fact, legislation designed to reduce that condition by giving part time employees contracts of indefinite duration after they have been in employment for a minimum period has actually exacerbated this, as colleges decide to terminate their posts before the threshold kicks in.

The truth is, universities are becoming organizations in which there is a reducing enclave of protected, permanent, tenured academics – generally now ageing fast – and a peripheral but critical community of temporary and unprotected academics who are now often the real workers of the academy. And as resources continue to decline, there is no realistic chance that this will change any time soon; indeed in Ireland it was even made worse by the appalling ’employment control framework’, which actually prohibited the hiring of any tenured staff.

We all need to think again.

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14 Comments on “Tenure – but for whom?”

  1. Al Says:

    No mention of remuneration/entitlements relative to the surrounding economy/society?

  2. Vincent Says:

    Surely an argument for the retention of tenure. If employment was secure tenure would be largely ceremonial if not totally pointless

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    The shorter Ferdinand: job security leads to job insecurity therefore in order to make everyone’s jobs more secure we should make them all insecure.


    • Ha! But no, I actually believe in tenure and want it to work. My fear is, though, that it has become something for a decreasing, ageing privileged minority, and that’s not how it should be. This cannot be solved by the universities, it needs government agreement, because it’s all about funding and how it’s used.

      • Al Says:

        There may also be a view that the tenured lecturer who starts below the bar today, quite affordable now, will be the senior lecturer/ professor in X years time, possibly not affordable?


  4. I’ve experienced both worlds. As a graduate student in New York there was a culture of all but dissertation ‘ABD’ lecturers who would teach in 2, 3, or sometimes 4 places as adjuncts. They were paid peanuts, had no benefits, and the departments that hired them were generally fourth rate and didn’t care about their students all that much. Many of the students were disadvantaged. The ABD lived in fear of finishing their dissertation properly, because then they would need to go look for tenure track jobs (rare as owl’s teeth unless your PhD was from an Ivy League place), and so they delayed the defense date again and again. The result was a sort of sub-stratum of permanently temporary lecturers who didn’t have time to research, and no incentive to finish their doctorates at all. The permanent faculty were 100% aware of the inequity of the situation, but they weren’t all that bothered to be honest, they had more time to get on with their research.

    Here in Ireland the situation is much more equitable, as far as I can see. First off there are very few temporary lecturers, at least where I teach. Most are permanent or CID, and most of the smaller courses are taken by PhD students en route to completion. The inequity I can see coming down the road is for contract research staff, who are diligent and talented, and contribute to research, but not to teaching, and so there is no way to award them permanency on that basis, unless they move into the ‘teaching’ stream, as it were. And those jobs are currently not there.

  5. anna notaro Says:

    a tangential, but to my mind, interesting issue with regards to this topic are the criteria and procedures according to which tenure and other academic promotions are awarded, often such mechanism are far from being ideal so much so that staff nominated for promotions are assessed by colleagues whose area of expertise is remote from the one under examination…the whole thing risks becoming a box ticking exercise..


  6. Remind me again. Why should some people in society enjoy a higher level of job security than others?

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Indeed. And why should some enjoy greater wealth than others?


      • Erm, where to start Ernie. How about because they work harder. That might be one reason. Maybe, because they generate more wealth for society. What about people who take more risks. How about “if we give everybody equal wealth people lose incentive” (I think they recently did an experiment in eastern europe on that). I’m sure there may be other possible reasons as well.

        Which brings us back to tenure. While I agree that it is very important in the business of “thinking” that we have some people who are free to express any ideas and give them the time to find evidence to support these ideas, we do have to worry about the lack of accountability that might be associated with that.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          So Jedward obviously contribute more to society and take more risks than I do. Duly noted.

          The first part of your second paragraph answered your initial question.

          As for “accountability,” that is just a euphemism for the dominance of an ideology (economism) inimical to the academic enterprise. I am accountable to my peers who have some inkling about what my work concerns and entails. I am not accountable in the narrow economic sense to the massy mass who are in thrall to dangerous ideologies (market infallibility and the universality of capitalism chief among them), as the events of recent years make clear.

          Virtually all academics are called by the vocation and put in much more than the sort of contractual thinking implied by “accountability” would call for. The university operates under a very different value system from the capitalist one that dominates the world of business. What you are saying when you insist on such narrow notions of “accountability” is that the values of business must dominate every domain of human endeavour and that they are a kind of second nature.

          One of the things the university is designed to question is precisely all such ideologies that “seem to go without saying” and it is so designed because there are great risks to societies from the sorts of ideological bubbles Ireland just experienced, where everyone saw certain things as natural and immutable that were nothing of the kind. Your view is but the perpetuation of that ideology. It has no “business” in the university.

          See also my comment here from yesterday


          • Well Ernie, we do seem to be agreeable on 2 points. Ideologies are not very useful and that there is some place for tenure. Notwithstanding that you dismiss the term accountability as a euphemism and then proceed to use the term as you feel it applies to you, it does have a technical meaning, and in that regard I would ask you how the taxpayer should determine how they are getting value for money from an academic and what they should do if the find they are not. If you answer is that in the interests of having unfettered thinkers in society, they should have no role in this, I would suggest that we would need to keep the numbers of such thinkers to a minimum and that such a role would only be given to those who have shown a talent for original thinking (not a lot of that about).

            You view about academics being called by vocation reminds me of being at the Christian Brothers in the sixties. Creepy and almost ideological.

            Your comments on the “massy mass” and Jedward are very brave for an academic nowadays, who generally try to avoid giving the impression of being elitist. As a jazz fan, I tend to think the same about U2, the Dubliners, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and so on, but I do admit that these bring a lot of joy to a lot of people (including my friends) and so it is an acceptable part of the economic system that we have that these earn a significant amount of wealth.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Here’s how you’ll know when the taxpayer thinks they are not getting value for money from third level: when she is no longer desperate for her kids to get in. Right now demand outstrips supply, which suggests that it is perceived as very good value indeed. This is one reason I am in favour of the return of fees: to remove this ridiculous argument from the table.

            As for the state determining who is worthy of being free of fetters: do you think the state has a good track record in picking winners? Who is the capitalist here, you or me? You think bureaucrats can recognise who has “shown a talent for original thinking”? How so? Actually, the need for autonomy stems in part from a recognition that the state is, by definition, inexpert in most of the domains in which third-level research and teaching takes place and therefore unable to judge appropriately what would constitute “value for money.” Indeed, proceed further down this route and suddenly whole disciplines seem very poor value indeed: Philosophy? what has that ever done for us? Literature? Nothing but stories! History? Didn’t that talented and original thinker, Henry Ford tell us that it was “bunk”?

            In fact, every accountability regime for third level invariably ends up doing nothing more than counting publications, as though a publication were like a widget and the more produced the better. This perverts the entire academic enterprise, where the quality (and, yes, truth) of what one says is all that matters. One article containing truth outweighs and infinite number of false articles produced because someone was riding herd on those compelled to produce them.

            As for the charge of elitism: I plead guilty. Elitism is misunderstood. People get confused the moment it is mentioned, thinking it can only mean some sort of hereditary elite. The fact is, there is no idea more central to the democratic experiment than the notion of merit and that necessarily results in elites of merit. The University, contrary to what the likes of Ferdinand like to claim, is by definition an elite institution. Not everyone can get in and not everyone can succeed. Only the best can as determined by expert professional judgement (e.g., grades). The great mistake made in third level in recent years is to assume that “democratisation” can only mean an end to the university as an elite institution, a race to the bottom and a dumbing down of everything we do, when what we should be striving for is a democratisation that raises as many as possible up to the elite standards required. That’s real democratic education in action: help all to reach toward the highest levels of understanding. The opposite is declaring that there are no such standards or that they are all relative, that Jedward is as good as Thelonious Monk and who are we to say. Then, as in the UK, we let them all in and let the “customer” decide what is worthy. Again, they confuse capitalism with democracy when, as the people in Greece will tell you, the two are inimical to each other.


  7. @ernie Sorry for the delay in responding – busy giving my employer some value for money.

    Nice to see you quoting the law of supply and demand as an indicator that people are getting value for money in higher education. Never mind that the state has a virtual monopoly in this area and that the prices charged do not reflect the cost of provision.

    I do agree with you that it would be foolish to allow the government to determine who can get tenure, but my real question is how many people can the state afford financially to give this to. To be honest there are only a relatively small number of original thinkers in academia. For most of the others, it is their job to present the best of other people’s ideas to students. I would argue that this should be done efficiently.

    If you are suggesting that the academic publishing game is a bit of a racket, i’m not sure I would disagree with you. Still, as you say yourself, we do need some sort of peer evaluation system (for new ideas).

    As I said, you are brave to be so brazenly elitist and in many ways I would agree with you. However, as I have said above, if we do need such an elite set of unfettered thinkers, a relatively small group will do the trick just as well (if not better) than a large one, and the rest of us will just have to admit that our jobs are to teach effectively and efficiently and to, as you said above, “help all to reach toward the highest levels of understanding”.


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