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.

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

  1. I’m at a CC — and something that DD misses in his analysis, but you hit square on — is the ability of faculty to fight political battles without tenure.

    I’m tenured (kind of — as much as possible) at a CC. Thus, I don’t have to worry about being renewed and I can be fired for cause. Thus, I can stand up against senior faculty members and members of the administration without being worried about my job. I can object to both institutional bad actions and bad actions that impact the adjuncts in my area… and I’ve done both.

    I know plenty of “teach and go home” folks, who do 0 service and are off campus as often as possible. I also know I’m the only faculty in my area with an active research adgenda. I also do service. I couldn’t/wouldn’t do that if I were worried about my job.

  2. “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.”

    Between 12.5 and 15 percent. That is a lot. Those people’s colleagues can ignore them – after all, the whole problem with dead wood professors is that they don’t do anything – but the students can’t. And presumably there are another 5 or 6 who aren’t quite dead wood but have proven to be disappointments. I support tenure, but I think you should acknowledge that an organization with 15% to 30% of its professional staff being un- or underproductive is an organization with a serious drag on its ability to perform.

  3. I’ve chimed enough on those blogs that I should take some time over break to do more on my own about this topic!

    Thanks (but no thanks) for reminding me of the quasi-admin role of faculty in the 10-year accreditation cycle. The latest crop of rules in our region have a large group of faculty working very hard on outcomes assessment to prepare our 5-year (mid cycle) report. Would that be possible in DD’s world?

    He has never been clear about his ideal system. If implemented as rolling contracts, he would have to give a quasi-tenured professor 5-year notice of non-renewal. That is a lot of security, but imagine how useful a low-productivity person would be for the 5 years after being given notice! The alternative, working right up to the last 6 months or so of your contract without knowing if it would be renewed, has its own nightmares. Would they be busily hunting for new jobs, with no interest in the future of the college? Would you have to staff an accreditation committee entirely with the 20% who will be on contract through the entire 5-year process?

    BTW, my CC probably has produced far sounder re-accreditation plans than some universities. We take teaching seriously, and half of our faculty are as qualified as anyone to teach courses at the upper undergrad or grad level. More importantly, most have the skill sets needed to teach, even if they lack the skill sets needed to maintain million-dollar research programs. My alumni frequently tell me of their difficulties dealing with the large subset of their university faculty that can do research but cannot teach.

  4. Steve, I think these are all very good points, especially the one on the likely negligible difference between long-term contracts and tenure. Can you imagine a Dean deciding that there are too many full-time math professors and too few full-time English professors and so telling the chair of the Math Department to give his weakest two faculty “5 years notice”? You’d have three bitter faculty doing as little as possible for 5 years (assuming they can’t find jobs elsewhere) before you can use that money to hire some English profs…

  5. A few notes:

    1) In fact, DD’s position is even less defensible than you make it out to be, Steve. He was arguing that tenure should be eliminated because doing so will be good for academic freedom. And, no, that doesn’t make any more sense that it appears to at first glance.

    2) The faculty at most universities in the U.S. aren’t unionized, so your experience is a bit unusual. Though I think it’s a fair guess that DD doesn’t like unions, I’m not sure one can assume he’s thinking about them when he writes about tenure. A faculty union at my campus is about as likely as Ralph Nader getting elected president….and I doubt whether my university’s administrators give the possibility a moment’s thought.

    3) Here at the University of Oklahoma, there’s a third kind of faculty in between part-timers and the tenure-track: ranked renewable term faculty. These faculty members hold the same ranks as tenure-track and tenured faculty (Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor) and are expected to do research and service as well as teach. They are also explicitly considered part of the regular faculty and have all the rights of faculty members. But they are hired for three-five year terms of service. And they usually have to teach much heavier course loads. Believe me, they believe that there is a real difference between tenure and renewable contracts! And their growing numbers are not at all good for my university.

  6. Steve —

    Thanks for noticing that many of the objections that might or might not hold at an R1 are simply moot at a cc.

    I have to take issue with your assumption that I’m somehow anti-union. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly taken the view that it’s reasonable to have tenure or a union, but not both, and I’d much rather deal with a union. That’s why I have no issue with adjunct unions.

    As to sustainability, I think the trend line of the last forty years is fairly clear. It’s fine to disagree, but I’d like to hear a reason.

    The point about economics misses the short-term/long-term split. In the very short term, my proposal is probably a fiscal wash. But over the long term, it’s a winner, and I’d argue that part of the reason colleges have slowly gone so heavily adjunct has been the accumulated consequences of decades of short-term solutions. I’m looking for a sustainable structural solution, not a quick fix. We both know what those look like.

    I don’t know if my proposed solution is right, but I think it’s obvious beyond argument that the status quo is dying. That’s what got me so worked up about Berube’s position — he seems to think that all we need to get back to the glory days is to try harder. Uh, no.

    Whatever you think of the proposal, though, please don’t slide from ‘I disagree’ to ‘you’re sinister.’ I’m not writing personal conflict onto a structural solution, nor am I trying to get everybody fired, nor am I trying to bust a union. I just don’t buy that the current system makes sense.

  7. I work at a CC and I am a tenured professional staff member.
    I have seen dozens of administrators quit or be fired at my institution. I was glad to see most of them go. Usually the only unionized staff whose jobs are terminated are women (nurses, advisors, fin aid, disabilities). Very few faculty are terminated, but the political climate is threatening. And our college president is a woman too!

  8. Wow, leave town for the weekend and don’t pay much attention to my blog and lots of comments appear. Go figure!

    A couple of observations:

    * Bloix, I submit that at virtually any professional organization– a Dilbert-like office, a law firm, a medical practice, a military base, a restaurant, a government office, a university department, whatever– 15% or more of the staff will be “dead wood.” Think about where you work– I’ll bet you could come up with similar numbers.

    Of course, part of the problem is the definition of “unproductive” or “dead wood.” One of the problems of merit bonuses of some sort in the work place is that everyone thinks they are “above average” and deserve. Conversely, who thinks that they themselves are among the unproductive?

    * DD, at EMU, tenure and the union are essentially one in the same. It isn’t an “either/or” issue, at least the way that it works here, and I think that this arrangement is similar at most 4 year colleges/universities with unions.

    As for the numbers of faculty staying about the same: all I can tell you that appears to me to be the case at EMU. But I think there are two important qualifiers to that. First, I think the sort of work faculty do has changed a lot. In my department, faculty rarely are able to teach introductory classes and often have some sort of administrative burden. Second, I don’t think anyone– DD or me or anyone else– really knows exactly about these numbers because of shifting definitions of faculty, tenure, etc. Sure, numbers have shifted around with changes in what people study (not a lot of classics professors anymore, and there might not be a lot of literature professors in a few years) and in the number of students/sizes of institutions. But I’m not sure what that means. Maybe I’m just naive and/or an optimist.

    * DD, as others have asked here, I am still at a loss as to how this 5 year (or however long) contract system would work. I simply do not see the difference. Can you give me an example of the difference between a faculty-type who is on a renewable for 30-40 years and a faculty who is tenured for 30-40 years? As best I can figure, this would either basically be the same or it would be a way to give faculty less money/benefits.

  9. My union has a four year contract (I think… it might be five, I’d have to couble check the language), but the class loads are two year contracts. The problems are obvious. People can come and go w/in the space of one negotiated contract. Every two years, a full-time lecturer is offered another two year possition. It’s rare that people aren’t offered the next two years (as most have specific niches they fill), but the difference in the Union contract and the appointment contract is something that should be worked out more clearly in negotiations, and it’s as much our fault as it is administration’s.

    Obviously, we’re not tenured. We don’t have the service aspect and we normally teach lower level classes. As far as councilling is concerned, when students need help, most poeple give what that can (& I’m certainly familiar w/ certain facult omembers who shrug that off as quickly as they can), but it’s not what we’re paid for.. or trained for. Attempting to organize the entire university in that manner would be absurd.

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