I spent some time this week thinking about tenure, which we discussed in detail in class this week. Since my focus is on teaching and clinical work, as opposed to research, I don’t know if I will ever be in the position to go up for tenure. However, I decided to do some research about the pros and cons of tenure, just to get a better sense of why it is so important, supposing that everyone in higher education is supposed to have the right to academic freedom.
What I came across was a really interesting and poignant speech, “The Great Shame of Our Profession,” delivered by Kevin Birmingham upon winning the Truman Capote award for one of his books. Birmingham, the first adjunct instructor to receive the award, used this platform to discuss the difficult relationship between tenured and non-tenured faculty. He talked about how adjuncting is a precarious lifestyle, one that makes planning long-term risky and difficult, and yet many universities depend on adjuncts to do the majority of their teaching. This is no coincidence: students have most of their contact with adjuncts so that tenured faculty can devote more time to their research. Graduate students and postdocs carefully tailor their projects and experiences in an effort to secure one of those precious tenure-track jobs, and if they don’t obtain it, they sometimes feel that their years of training were wasted.
This speech was very powerful and it struck me after reading it that the author is describing sacrifices at multiple levels. It’s disappointing and a bit ironic that others have to sacrifice academic (and other) freedoms in order to support the tenure-track system, and even more so that graduate students seemingly have to choose between true academic freedom (like pursuing an outside interest or investigating a controversial question) and the kind of path that is most likely to lead to a tenure-track seat. No wonder my image of a tenure-track professor is that of a tired old man who wants to do the least amount of work possible — anyone would be exhausted after that uphill battle. Moreover, who would want to take the risk and spend the energy to try to change the system once you’re at the top?
So many people suffer at the hands of the tenure-track system, and yet it seems like blasphemy to think about getting rid of it. Is tenure necessary to operationalize academic freedom? Or would higher education be better off without it?