Special Report

Tenurabilities

Where else outside academia is one guaranteed employment for life? And where else, given such a guarantee, are the consequences of shabby behavior so muted?

1.30.03

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In one of his essays on the behavior of the British underclass ("Do Sties Make Pigs?"), psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple describes a bizarre policy of public housing landlords in England. The practice is to distribute limited housing units according to need, with bad behavior taken to be a sign of need. The applicant with the viler rap sheet has the greater chance to secure housing at public expense; the decent, hardworking indigent goes to the bottom of the waiting list.

"Thus," writes Dalrymple, "a public housing tenancy is to psychopaths what tenure is to academics: no better invitation to irresponsibility could possibly be imagined."

Thus too does Dalrymple display in a passing analogy the public attitude about tenure in academia. Where else is one guaranteed employment for life? And where else, given such a guarantee, are the consequences of shabby behavior so muted? Whenever my work as a college teacher pops idly into polite conversation with a stranger, I am always asked, in wistful tones, "Do you have tenure?"

As I've got older, I seem to have acquired enough sense to be embarrassed by the question. The system of tenure, evolving over the past 80 years into its present calcified state, grew out of two perceived vulnerabilities in the academic life.

The first had to do with academic freedom. Three generations ago, when there were far fewer college professors (about 49,000 in 1920; more than 800,000 today), issues of academic freedom were tied much less to eccentric ideas than to personal animosities. In other words, an honest philosophy professor could be at risk of losing his job if he ran afoul of a slack student whose father happened to be one of the college trustees.

The second vulnerability was economic. In 1920, college professors tended to be sure-enough intellectuals of broadly humane learning and somewhat abstracted disposition. They became college teachers because they were drawn to the life of the mind -- but also because, in a narrow field of career opportunities, they weren't much good for anything else. If a college professor lost his job in those days, he was at plausible risk of going hungry.

So the tenure system came into being originally to give special security against peculiar risks. Today, however, the tenure system is entirely severed from its original rationale. Tort reform, for better or worse (mostly worse, but that's another topic), has made lawsuits much easier to file and more likely to succeed, so that protection is readily pursuable in the court system when a college is perceived to be violating academic freedom.

This point was brought home to me some years ago when the story was floating around campus that a candidate for tenure had included her lawyer's name and phone number with her application package; in case of a negative decision, she averred, the tenure committee should inform her lawyer first. As it happened, there developed no need to call the lawyer, leaving some of us to wonder what need she had for the tenure she was granted.

And for those denied tenure, the economic vulnerability of yesteryear is no longer an issue. An assistant professor of philosophy in 1920 would have been hard up for gainful employment if he had found himself out on the street. But in today's hugely diversified economy, any number of jobs unheard of 80 years ago can be filled by an erstwhile college teacher. An acquaintance of mine in the English department, fed up with academia before his tenure became an issue, went off to the "real world" and, last I heard from him, is now supporting a family of eight with a six-figure income as a technical writer for an electronics firm.

SO WHY IS THERE STILL a tenure system? Although "academic freedom" continues to be a stated rationale, the real reasons are less elevated and more convoluted.

Far from protecting eccentricity and dissent, tenure has devolved over the past generation into a spoils system indifferent or hostile to ideals of free inquiry and free speech. The main requirement has come to be something called "collegiality," a kind of loyalty -- not to truth or to a particular discipline or even to the institution, but to an ethos which the late University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman dubbed "conspicuous benevolence."

Conspicuous benevolence identifies (at a comfortable distance) with the oppressed; forces hiring practices that stress gender and ethnicity over talent; touts diversity (excluding the intellectual kind); demands vocal support or quiet acquiescence.

Tenure is the plum one receives for one's conspicuous benevolence, whether of the vocal or muted variety. Among outsiders like Dalrymple, the common-sense brief against academic tenure is that it renders a teacher safe from accountability. The reality is more sinister.

"It's an ingenious way to preserve a herd mentality," a friend once remarked to me over beer suds. "By the time you've done all you have to do to get tenure -- after five or six years in graduate school and six or seven years on probation doing what you must, saying what you should, not saying what you shouldn't -- by the time you finally get through all that and get tenure, you're gelded."

Yet my friend -- a tenured academician rather conservative by contemporary academic standards -- supports the system. "We need more protection now against our colleagues than we ever needed against trustees or administrators."

For another analogy -- perhaps better suited to the political junkies who visit this website -- imagine Ted Kennedy waddling from stage-left to a raised lectern at a news conference and denouncing the Bush administration for their amicus brief against racial preferences at the University of Michigan.

Ted Kennedy behind a lectern at age 70 -- that's the tenure system: a bloated, debauched, tired bundle of superannuated ideas slurred in a peculiar accent.

No analogy is perfect, though. The tenure system is quite a bit older than 70 and not about to fade away anytime soon.

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