Saturday, January 28, 2017

Why I am against the tenure system in academia.

I am going out on a limb here as a tenured academic and argue that “tenure” as we know it should be abolished. There is a misperception that tenure means a job for life when in practical terms it actually just means a post-probationary full time job in a very stable and secure organization. Tenured faculty can still be fired for any number of offenses from misconduct, bringing "disrepute" to the university (yes this is in my contract), financial emergencies (frequently open to interpretation), and if you actually read the contract, not doing the job. These are EXACTLY the same reasons anyone outside the ivory towers in a permanent salaried job can be fired. Most people do not consider that universities tend to be more stable than private companies over the long run giving the false impression that it is tenure and not the stability of the institution that results in job security. The fact is that a full time banker, accountant or construction worker is effectively no less tenured  than a university professor after they pass probation.

One of the  most significant differences between tenured academic positions and the real world is the extended probationary period where young faculty are at the mercy of tenured faculty. In how many other jobs does five to six year probation end with a private vote of your full time colleagues on whether you stay or go? A new hire lives with a sword over their head trying not to offend or in any way cross the senior faculty who can fire them for effectively no real reason at the end of the trial period. Junior faculty cannot say no to any favor asked and must be constantly biting their tongues holding back from expressing controversial positions in order to navigate the internal often factionalized politics of the department. In many places, young faculty are expected to publish, get grants, work much harder and be more productive than those with tenure. Junior faculty depend upon a strong chair and hopefully a wise department that will defend and not abuse them. This pre-tenure probationary period is one the most stressful and uncertain times in any academics career, and it usually lasts five to six years with an uncertain outcome at the end.

Any unfair protection from tenure comes from the good ol’boy self-governing university system with senior tenured people colluding to back off to a more humane and reasonable workload after earning tenure. Many back off too enthusiastically practically stopping work thus hurting the university and undermining the original purpose of tenure which was to protect academic freedom. This aptly named deadwood is a drain on departments and is often cited as one of the strongest arguments against tenure. In reality, it is a problem with complicit management that lacks the will to go against tradition and enforce contractual obligations. Before anyone says it’s the union’s fault, I will argue that any manager who uses the union as an excuse is weak and lazy. No union contract ever requires you keep on someone who is able and refuses to work. Competent managers will document the offense and enforce the contract, not hide behind it.

We need to abolish traditional tenure by replacing it with stronger rules protecting academic freedom at all levels. The free expression and evaluation of ideas in academia sometimes requires the ability to publicly both criticize and undermine our pay masters at the university and at the state level. This often includes ideas that many members of the public will find untenable from their moral and religious points of view. Hence, there should be an explicit policy that faculty cannot be sanctioned or fired for bringing political or media pressure on a university for any statements or expression allowed under the 1st amendment. What I mean here is that any expression not outlawed at the federal level is fair game. That represents a huge expansion of free speech rights over what most people working in private companies are allowed.

Faculty also must be protected from sanctions or firing for any threatened or incomplete litigation from students. Only after a court rules should any punitive action be allowed by the university. Policies need to be in place ensuring that the university has the faculty’s backs. Some might argue that this would limit a university’s ability to respond to harassment, but these incidents should not be quietly covered up in the first place.

I propose that we replace the current tenure track with policy that all academics, from the day they are hired, be given safe haven as described above for free-expression and academic freedom. This is effectively granting the protection of "tenure" to new hires as well. The probationary period needs to have very clear written unambiguous  objective criteria of what must be done in that period (number of papers, grant amount, minimum teaching scores for example) to remove subjective personal biases. Passing probation should be a simple, independently verifiable box ticking exercise not up for a vote by department members but rather doable by someone outside the department. Only this way can a new hire freely contribute ideas to the department and university. After probation, we should be required to actually do the job we are paid to do throughout our careers. Publicly presenting peer reviewed scholarly work of the specified kind at the specified rate, teaching the required hours, and midrange student feedback scores should be all that is necessary and sufficient for continued employment. As in any other profession, not hitting these criteria should have paycheck ramifications with the possibility of termination in extreme cases. Finally,we really need to either start calling every permanent job tenured or drop the word entirely given the negative connotations it has acquired by its abuse in academia.

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