Because I have a blog, I too get to chime in on Bérubé v. Dean Dad

There’s a bit of an intellectual food fight going on about every academic’s favorite workplace debate, the value (or lack thereof) of tenure.  The short version is that Dean Dad at Confessions of a Community College Dean is against it, while Michael Bérubé at his blog (now called American Airspace, I guess?) is for it.  Also in a very basic sense, Dean Dad and Bérubé are simply playing out the logical roles based on their place and status within the academy:  that is, DD is an administrator and wants to get rid of tenure because of the “economic reality” that tenure is not sustainable, and Bérubé is a professor and wants to protect tenure for all kinds of reasons, both noble and self-serving.  Since I too am a professor (not to mentioned a tenured one) and not a dean, I freely admit that I think  Bérubé is right and DD is wrong.  Basically.

Anyway, a few observations on their dispute and tenure before I get to grading and wrapping stuff up so we can get out of town for Thanksgiving:

  • There is a difference between a community college and a bachelor degree granting college or university, not to mention a university that grants graduate degrees.  Not to take anything away from community colleges, but it takes greater skill sets and qualifications in your faculty to teach those advanced courses.  At places like EMU, we graduate the kinds of students who DD turns around and hires to teach at his community college.  So I think this is one of the reasons why DD’s take on this seems to be it’d be no big deal to just hire people on contract– and at a community college, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal.  But you show me a university that grants graduate degrees that does not tenure its faculty and I’ll show you a graduate school that is difficult to take seriously.
  • Tenure and its definitions vary widely.  Here at EMU, we hire people with the presumption that we’ll tenure them, and in my dozen years in the department, we’ve never not tenured someone.  At that quaint liberal arts college in Ann Arbor, tenure is quite a bit more contentious and uncertain.  Here at EMU, tenure and promotion is largely a union issue; at many (most?) other universities, it is frequently a mysterious, “behind closed doors” sort of affair.  Also, while the numbers have moved around a bit, my guess is we have about as many faculty now at EMU as we did when the faculty organized, plus or minus 30 or so.
  • There’s a big difference between a “part-timer” (someone who is hired to teach on a semester to semester basis) and a “professor” on the tenure track, at least at a university.  Our part-timers (and we have some great ones, btw) do zero service, advising, or any of the other work beyond teaching, and they have little investment in the long-term value of the institution.  And why should they?  We pay them a wage that is probably just north of what they could be making at Starbucks.  In contrast, tenure-track faculty do lots of service and advising beyond teaching, and, because they’re tenured, they inherently have a long-term stake in the institution.
  • Which reminds me:  given the amount of stuff faculty do that is beyond teaching and the amount of stuff we do that is described generally as “administrative creep,” it seems to me that DD ought to be careful what he wishes for.  I mean, good luck getting your part-timers to participate in the bureaucracy of  program review and accreditation!
  • I think the amount of “dead wood” among the ranks of the tenured is highly exaggerated.  Sure, in my department of 40 or so tenured faculty, I can think of five or six who are kind of in that category.  But most of those folks aren’t so much “dead wood” as they are “looking forward to retirement.”  Most of my colleagues, even the ones who have been tenured for 30 or more years, are still quite active.  They might not do much scholarship anymore, but they still teach a lot and do lots of service.  And it ain’t the “dead wood” faculty who are causing troubles for administrators and everyone else.
  • DD keeps suggesting that the solution to the tenure problem is long term (say five years) and renewable contracts.  I think he is either being naive or this is a red herring because, in practice, there is no real difference between a “long term contract” and “tenure.”  I mean, does he have any idea how hard it is to not renew a contract and/or fire someone in any like of work?  Especially from what is essentially a “government job?”We have lecturers at EMU who work on year to year contracts, and as far as I can tell, the only way we can “release” these folks is if they do something horribly wrong or if there is some horrible financial crisis.  In a sense then, these folks might as well be “tenured.”  And along these lines, tenured faculty can (and have been) fired for doing horrible things and as a result of horrible financial crisis within an institution.  So….
  • … I don’t think that DD’s objections to the tenure system has anything to do with economics at all.  The “Great Recession” has already forced cost-cutting measures at many universities, including pay cuts and increased teaching loads.  No, at the risk of reading “too much into this,” I think DD is really objecting to:
  • Unions, specifically the AAUP, and
  • Particular tenured faculty who are pain in his ass.

I have some sympathy with both of DD’s problems– some, not a lot.  EMU has a faculty union (the AAUP), and while I often feel like the union does some dumb stuff and can be rather shrill, I would much rather be in a union than not.  And it is very true that some tenured faculty can be assholes, and tenure has the unfortunate side effect of reinforcing and even rewarding that behavior.  But hey, all you have to do is read Dilbert to realize that dealing with workers who are a pain in the ass are just another part of the world.

Sorta like dealing with pointy-haired bosses/deans.

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