If you haven’t already done so, take a look at Dan Berrett’s Inside Higher Ed interview with Naomi Shaeffer Riley, author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the Education You Paid For. Ms. Riley, a Wall Street Journal editor and the daughter of two academics, writes with the flair of a skilled provocateur, and in her new book she takes aim at an easy target, the institution of tenure – sacrosanct to those who have it, but which to non-academic hoi polloi conjures up images of lazy, grass-mowing professors.
What I find most interesting – and dismaying – are the dozens of reader comments following the interview. Evidently the world of higher education hates Ms. Riley and everything she stands for. One reader finds her views "threaten the fabric of our nation..", while another says "I question her integrity," going on to suggest that she is yet another one of those "political hacks who misrepresent and cherry pick to score cheap points."
And on and on:
-"What utter balderdash"
-"Why has Inside Higher Ed made this incoherent drivel its leading article?"
- "...she wants to get rid of those that don't agree with her politically."
-" …laughable mistakes and wild, unsupported generalizations"
- "Wow, someone from Wall street has the temerity to question the business practices in the academy."
-"[Her] blather is simply disgraceful!"
- "What's next, Paris Hilton's book on how to be an ethical researcher?"
Of course, this being academia, there are a few weak countercurrents:
-"In my experience Ms. Riley is much, much less wrong than almost all the academics posting here claim."
-"The truth was out there and it was found. Get used to it."
Despite the vitriolic reader comments, Ms. Riley strikes me as having thought quite deeply about tenure and the meaning of academic freedom. She may not be a pedigreed scholar, a fact that offends many of her critics, but she’s smart and thoughtful and knowledgeable. Do I agree with her recommendations and conclusions? No I don’t, in many instances. But some of them ring true and all of them are thought-provoking.
For example, she asserts that tenure reduces job mobility by locking its recipients into one place of employment. If tenure were replaced by e.g., five year contracts, would senior faculty members have more opportunity to change jobs? That’s an interesting conjecture, arguable perhaps, but certainly worthy of discussion.
And what about the oft-heard complaints that tenure provides a haven for the lazy, the incompetent, the unproductive, the disruptive, the anti-social, and the unstable? Such concerns are a serious worry to the public, but are usually brushed aside by us insiders. “Sure,” we say, “ but every barrel has a few rotten apples. Look at every big corporation and you’ll find such people. Big deal.” Is that really an adequate response to such a widely held viewpoint? Based on my own observations, I think we’re probably talking about ten percent of tenured professors.
Or how about Stanley Fish’s opinion that academic freedom, the main justification for tenure, should not extend beyond the classroom? Academic freedom, he believes, doesn’t mean professors can mouth off without consequence on any topic they happen to feel strongly about. So what about that idea? I recently read a blog by an assistant professor of education who took great offense at her chancellor’s efforts to stabilize the school’s finances. Never mind that the young professor had zero administrative experience, had no conception of the complexities of the chancellor’s job, not to mention the schools’ finances, and was unwilling even to acknowledge that her chancellor’s decades of experience counted for anything. Do tenure and academic freedom obviate the need for humility, and if so doesn’t this fact undermine the very foundation of a liberal education? (See How I Almost Became an Academic Superstar.)
One problem with tenure is that any criticism of the practice provokes black-white responses. Those who have it seemingly cannot brook any mention of its shortcomings, and those without it are seemingly hard-pressed to acknowledge any benefits.
Cary Nelson, AAUP’s current president, is one of those who can’t see any shortcomings. Actually, that’s not quite true. The one big problem with tenure, Professor Nelson evidently believes, is that universities should be more generous in granting it, even to contingent instructors. Never mind that the main reason schools hire contingent instructors in the first place is that they can’t afford to hire tenured professors. Turning a blind eye to critics, refusing to acknowledge or ameliorate problems, to consider alternatives, or to understand other viewpoints is not going to save tenure. On the contrary that’s the surest way to wreck it.
Academics are supposed to be good at on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand reasoning. So let’s get serious about fixing the shortcomings of tenure. Surely there must be ways to stop protecting the incompetent, to clamp down on unwarranted classroom politicization, to moderate the costs, to put teeth into faculty self-policing, to deal responsibly with unproductive older professors. Surely there must be ways to protect academic freedom while also providing reasonable job security for professors. Unless the professoriate stops shrugging off these kinds of concerns, soon there won’t be enough of us left to worry about. I suppose that’s one way to solve the problem.