Friday, March 28, 2008

A Cease-Fire Proposal in the Tenure Wars

Gabriela Montell at the Chronicle's On Hiring blog was kind enough to link to my tenure post in her recent summation of the latest battle in the tenure wars. She asks, "Can tenure be saved or is it time to chuck the system?" Maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe what we need is a synthesis of the various positions out there that can lead to a cease-fire. That's what I'm shooting for in this post. (Aim high, I say!)

Building on a favorite metaphor of mine, and picking up where my last call for making tenure more flexible left off, here's my big idea: give institutions, departments, and individuals the opportunity to opt out of the tenure system. Of course there's a catch: institutions that opt out must accept unionization of their faculty; departments that opt out must make only full-time hires; and individuals who opt out must agree to the terms of a scholarly performance-ranking system created and maintained by their professional association.

Here's the bare bones of an explanation and justification. On the institutional level, the only way to avoid universalization of the contingency nightmare we've been slouching our way towards for a generation is to recognize that there's no way anyone without tenure can be in any sense of the word "managerial"--which is to say that even by the flawed logic of the Yeshiva decision, the employees of such a college or university would have every right to organize. Only institutions whose administrations make legally-binding pledges to not oppose any organizing drives should be allowed to take this step. [Update: And employees at such institutions should all be represented by the same union, even if they are in right-to-work states.] On the departmental level, everyone needs the same teaching and service load so they're competing on a level playing field. In fact, professional associations should identify [Update: the union members of such departments must join would negotiate] a required teaching/service load for tenure-less departments, so everyone in the country employed at such places is on a level playing field when it comes to research. On the individual level, highly productive reseachers at departments with tenure may want to enter the competition [Update: and join the nation-wide union]. In exchange for the loss of job security, they're basically announcing they're ready to be recruited by the departments and institutions that have opted out of the tenure system. Probably those who had chosen the research-service or research-teaching tenure or post-tenure options in my proposed expansion of the tenure system would be the ones most likely to take the next step. As for ranking the scholarly productivity of individuals without tenure, I'll leave it to the professional associations to come up with a quantifiable set of criteria and develop a formula that has broad consensus. I'm thinking a point-based system like the Rolex Rankings in women's golf may be the way to go. But we would probably need to develop a series of conferences for the tenure-less, along the lines of what I half-jokingly proposed in my first-ever "Around the Web"ed piece here, so we can truly compare performance.

I guess what I'm thinking here is that tenure is a joke at many R1 places: full-time, tenure-track faculty may as well be contingent labor for all the odds they have of actually getting tenure at such institutions. While I was in grad school, the unspoken rule was that "junior faculty should be seen and not heard" and they were explicitly referred to as "temporary faculty," by the tenured and administrative alike. The main function tenure plays at such places is as an incentive for the outside hires they've made at the senior level to actually stay at the institution for a time and as an incentive for their junior faculty to attempt the impossible. In my system, the institution would need to come up with other incentives to keep their top faculty and everyone, not just the junior faculty, would be under pressure to maintain or improve their individual rankings [Update: , while the union they all joined would protect their basic rights and negotiate terms and conditions].

There's more to be said, but not by me. What say ye, Blogoramaville?

[Update 4/1/08: Check out Professor Zero's and Lumpenprofessoriat's proposals.]


LumpenProf said...

Even though I sympathize with much of this post, I'm still uneasy with the idea of making tenure into one option among many. My fear is that this would be the thin end of the wedge that might undermine tenure everywhere. I would prefer working toward unionizing already tenured faculties, difficult though that may be. One thing collective bargaining could reasonably achieve is rationalizing the standards and process for achieving tenure. This seems to me to be the focus of most of our discontents with the current system.

I noted that Marc Bousquet responded in the Chronicle thread writing: "Nearly half of all tenure-track faculty are unionized. I think it’s fair to say that the unionism of the unionized half does a lot to protect the tenure rights of the non-unionized half." I would hate to jeopardize those tenured faculty who already have unions by making tenure into only an option for faculties still waiting unionize.

The Constructivist said...

Well, it's only at privates that unionization is impossible under Yeshiva--that's why we only have unions at publics. So actually my proposal is a wedge for unions to get into the Ivies and other institutions with the will and the resources to give up on the tenure system.

I think you have too high hopes for unionization making a difference with tenure procedures. Look at UUP's collective bargaining agreement--pretty much all it does is refer you to the SUNY Trustees' statement on tenure and lay out a grievance procedure (well, that's the last CBA--maybe the new one is different).

The real difference unions make with respect to tenure at my institution is that active unionists (like me) are often sought out by people who suspect they're going to get screwed over by their departments, but all I can do is help them explore their options, either with me alone or with our NYSUT field agent.

You'll note, too, that my proposal makes it a very expensive notion to give up on tenure for departments and institutions--again, limiting the damage to those places most likely to oppose unionization of grad students, much less faculty!

Anonymous said...

I had written a coherent comment but the server blinked and I lost it.

I see your intention here and it is worthy but my main reservation is, the plan is very baroque. Complicated. What I notice is that when administrations start implementing plans that can be diverted to their financial advantage, they do it that way, and say "but we gave you what you wanted!" Also, when committees start putting multi-tiered plans for evaluation into practice, they forget or misunderstand the guidelines.

I also endorse Lumpenprof's comment 100% - although I do understand your intentions with this proposal!
I've got one coming up which is: eliminate the tenure track by extending tenure at hiring! Radical, I know, and what would you do with bad hires? Having hired a lot, though, I can honestly say that my only "bad hires" have been people who got or were already so battered and bruised by imperious tenured faculty that they couldn't function to their full potential.

The Constructivist said...

I'm actually updating this post a bit in light of you two's comments. Be right back!

LumpenProf said...

"One Big Union" w00t! Professors of the world unite!