Monday, 4 January 2010

debating tenure

In one of Friends episodes, Ross is getting tenure and is very excited about it. (You can tell that the series was drawing to the end.)
“You know what the best part about this is? I can never be fired.”
Here is another thing Ross gets wrong, although he simply repeats a popular myth. But what exactly is tenure? The latest (October/November 2009) issue of Academic Matters is dedicated to this strange creature, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

In words of Michiel Horn,
Tenure is not without drawbacks. But these are the price that has to be paid to protect the innovative, the unconventional, and the unpopular, those whose fields of academic specialization have fallen into disfavour and, most of all, those who do work, sometimes very important work, that takes a long time to complete and leads to no commercially useful results.
On the contrary, Michael Bliss argues that
The claim that tenure is a necessary precondition of academic freedom is inherently and monstrously unjust to non-tenured academics. These are the scholars, often more adventurous and outspoken than the old and established, who most need academic freedom. To them the institution of tenure is as though society offered a guaranteed annual income to everyone but the poor. Words like “hypocrisy” and “dishonesty” come to mind.
The essay of Mark Kingwell is probably the best-written one:
All in all, tenure remains sacrosanct because nobody with any standing has a stake in criticizing it. There is another major factor in tenure’s culture of belief and that is simple psychology, exacerbated by the rampant professional envy of the academic world. The main reason people want tenure is because other people have it. Many academics do not admit this, maybe not even to themselves, because standard arguments about academic freedom are available to them, arguments that make tenure’s critics look crass.
But now try offering a few deeper objections. Who needs academic freedom in a constitutional democracy, where freedom of expression is already guaranteed? Or, more slyly, what possible objection could there be to speaking frankly about topics in which most people have utterly no interest?
In his view, instead of protecting academic freedom, tenure actually stifles it:
Unfortunately, but to nobody’s surprise, the institution of tenure tends to make academic departments conservative. Since tenure decisions are made by senior faculty, all of them tenured themselves, there is a natural tendency to reproduce the status quo. Academics deny this, but their acts betray them.
Sandra Acker investigates whether the tenure is still a gender issue.
The various forms of appraisal and evaluation may incorporate unacknowledged gendered norms. Most of the assessors (senior faculty) are men, and the reward system is biased toward research and publications rather than teaching and service. In one study, the “successful academic” was described in interviews as “someone whose first priority was research, who worked long hours, who defined themselves in terms of their work, who had experienced no break in career, and who had an uninterrupted forward movement in their career profile.”
Pat Finn advocates the abolition of tenure in favour of granting academics the same job security as ejoyed by other professionals.
Academic freedom is special, prized, and to be defended at all costs. Tenure is not.
She acknowledges, however, that her opinion is unlikely to be embraced by academia anytime soon:
So tenure will likely remain unchanged. And academics will continue to defend it when challenged by critics who believe in the myth of “a job for life”.

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