How We Lost the War on Tenure

I feel the Pulse of the Populace, I can feel it!

What do you mean it’s not real? It feels real!

Obviously, I’m a bit pessimistic about the future of higher education outside of the gated communities of elite private and elite privatized/public universities. But, why can’t we win? Why do I think we’ve lost? Won’t there be a pushback? My pessimism is rooted in the complete domination of the educational field by corporatist elites, the extension of this mentality to the vast majority of political leaders in both parties, and the acceptance of the corporate narrative by the vast majority of college-educated (and virtually everyone who doesn’t have an education).

I don’t hang out with academics much. I have a few academic friends, but most of my friends are regular people—lawyers, doctors, finance people, small business owners. Most of my friends share my passion for racing and riding bikes, and I race for a large, strong, Midwestern team with lots of older racers like myself. Many of my teammates are from Wisconsin and are Scott Walker supporters—one is a major donor. I try not to let politics intrude on my cycling friendships, but I have to say I am the last liberal on my team—and politics played a role in many people leaving the team. I meet a lot of people in the community through bike racing and training, and not just racers, regular folk who are outside and visiting So Ill. In the last two years I have had at least ten people, friends, teammates, acquaintances, and strangers gently or not so gently discuss the issue of tenure with me. My teammates all know that I’m a professor, so that may be natural. Others come to know what I do, and then raise the issue. This never happened 10 years go or even 5 years ago. Most people don’t know what tenure is, but they are absolutely certain that it is bad, and that I’m a bad and lazy person for having it or wanting it.

One of my Scott Walker supporting teammates (who is an extremely nice guy and has a college degree) asked me a few months ago if I have tenure. He’s known me for 14 years, so, obviously he doesn’t know much about tenure. He wanted to know what I do, and how long I work–which he identified with how many courses do I teach, and how many hours am I in the classroom? Well, six hours a week in the hole, right? Geez, I guess my lazy tenured ass needs to be in the classroom for at least 36 hours, so I should be teaching 12 and 12 instead of 2 and 2! I briefly tried to explain that even teaching requires much more effort than the simple classroom time—course prep, grading, meeting with students, staying current on materials, dealing with administrative bullshit….And, the more sophisticated the course, the more time it takes. I don’t do multiple guess tests unless I’m teaching large section courses, which I don’t often do. And, I mentioned that the main reason why I’m employed is research, not teaching. He did seem marginally impressed that I published two books last year, but I think he wanted to know if I was going to publish another one this year. And, it is pointless to begin to describe the myriad activities that take up most of my time (reviewing 6-8 articles a month, writing letters for promotion files, letters of recommendation, data coding, analyses, writing, faculty meetings, grad student defenses….). The average person doesn’t understand any of that.

My good friend Michael Humphries (a religious studies/english professor) and I had a much more negative interaction with a group of uneducated tourists. They really didn’t think much of teachers or professors, and thought they made a shit ton of money for doing nothing and spent summers on vacation. What those damned lazy liberals need is to be fired if anyone complains about something they don’t like. We finally lost it and told them that what they were saying was offensive and wrong. Do you really think people don’t try to do a good job? Do you think we’re that unprofessional? Seriously. In my 30 years in higher education I have only seen one case where a professor needed to be removed from the classroom. I have rarely had colleagues who were “dead wood” in research after tenure, and all of the “dead wood” did yeoman’s work in teaching and administration.  Even colleagues who did not make tenure because of research deficiencies  deserved employment (and again, the bar has been raised way too high since the good old days of the 1960s and 70s when a heartbeat and a PHD got you tenure).

It isn’t just Scott Walker, and the message that Raygun birthed in the 1960s has now come to dominate public discourse. College is about teaching. teaching is about satisfying the children and making sure they get jobs. If it doesn’t lead directly to a job, then it is useless and should be done away with. The barrier to making college lead to jobs is the recalcitrance of the tenured faculty, so if we get rid of tenure, we can reinvent college as a vocational school. Research? What’s that? Why do you need to do research? Humanities faculty sit around all summer reading books? How is that helpful for getting jobs for the proletariat? You study sociology? Why do we need people doing research on that? Indeed, why should anyone have to take that shit when it won’t get them a job. I’m telling you with absolute certainty that this is the dominant opinion in the United States, even among supposedly educated liberals. We’re fucked.

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