Twenty years ago I was awarded tenure at Vanderbilt University. The senior faculty put me up two years early because they didn’t want me to come up at the same time as Holly McCammon. Tenure meant nothing to me. I expected it. I deserved it. Having tenure changed nothing about my work habits, how much research I did, how I taught my courses, or treated my students. But I don’t think about tenure the same way anymore, or, I guess I should say tenure means more to me now than it did in the rarefied air at an elite private university.
Like all bad things, the War on Tenure began with Ronny Raygun. The general war on education forever changed public universities. Cuts to direct funding, student aid, the development of a “student loan” racket, and the decline of publicly funded research squeezed the entire sector. Competition for scarce jobs led to a dramatic escalation of requirements for tenure—I know several people who were actually hired in as tenured professors straight out of grad school. One publication would suffice for tenure at any low-tier research university such as my current humble institution, and there was no research expectation at colleges requiring 3 or 4 course teaching loads. Now, I’ve lost a lot of sleep worrying about junior colleagues coming up with six or eight publications—and even non-research institutions are now expecting to see publications and regular conference presentations (even though less and less money is available for conference travel).
The growth of obnoxious administration led to an increasingly intrusive culture of “accountability” whereby it is assumed that professors in general, and especially tenured professors, must not be doing their jobs. Student evaluations became increasingly important, even though real research shows that they are bogus. Professors were not only supposed to do more research, but also to be more available to students as advisors and to increasingly prioritize teaching and pleasing the children . Now we have assessment administrators asking us to prove that our students learned anything, as if our grades are meaningless.
Tenure became more directly relevant to me when my spouse did not make tenure at Vanderbilt. We spent a year on the job market searching for places that would hire us both. But, the new trend in administration was to make it nearly impossible to hire someone with tenure. I mean, what if you wind up being a psychopath, or if your research record doesn’t mesh with your classroom teaching? SIU didn’t want to hire me with tenure even though I’d had tenure at Vanderbilt for 6 years. In the end, after Herculean effort from my eventual chair Rob Benford the Dean and Provost relented and we moved to SIU.
But, now, we have a new war on tenure and the professors are losing. Post-tenure review has become commonplace at many institutions, even though most are “toothless” policies. Now, ALEC inspired laws are flooding state legislatures going for the jugular—ending tenure entirely. Giving administrators and boards the power to fire tenured professors at their whimsy. As the Salaita case showed very clearly, wealthy donors and political interest groups can now influence who is hired and who is fired—to the extent that you don’t even know if you have a valid contract. Our speech utterances are being monitored and punished for infractions of civility or content. Administrators are sitting in on our classes and judging what they think to be controversial materials to be a fire-able offense. Soon, we will see conduct codes that will further enable administrators and boards to fire us at will.
I’m 49 years old, and I expect that by the time I am 60 I will no longer have tenure. I may not even have a job. I’ll be forced into early retirement. I’m lucky. If I was 29, I’d be fucked. The AAUP just slammed the University of Illinois over their abridgement of academic freedom, tenure norms, due process, shared governance, and failure to rectify their wrong in the Salaita case. I just joined.