Who needs tenure any more?

Overheard at Miami:

“Tenure? I think it should go away. It’s an unfair system. Some people get a golden ticket to lifetime employment and some of us who are just as qualified have to work for low pay and no benefits and have no protections.” — Part-time faculty member X.

We salute Part-Timer X and understand where he’s coming from. It’s tough to stomach having trained for years to be a scholar only to find oneself in a nonpermanent and low-paid position. The precarious situation of adjunct faculty — as well as that of temporary full-time faculty — is one of AAUP’s core causes; it’s unjustifiable on many grounds.

But is tenure to blame for the obvious injustice of the situation?

Let’s get clear on what tenure is. Tenure protects free, uncensored scholarly research and inquiry. Miami’s policy manual clearly associates tenure with academic freedom. In order for inquiry to be free, it must be protected from censorship. When you are awarded tenure, your university has to show just cause in order to dismiss you. That way, you don’t wind up getting dismissed for doing controversial research or expressing unpopular opinions. Tenure is simply a way to enable and protect academic freedom. And while the tenure system is especially important at universities, where knowledge is (ideally) freely produced and disseminated, it’s actually the way more workplaces should work. Instead of aspiring to make all workers equally unprotected, Part-Timer X, couldn’t we aspire to a system in which there could be due process and academic freedom for you and for all faculty?

Here’s what tenure emphatically is not: it is not permission to do whatever the tenured professor pleases, and is not a free pass to incompetent, illegal, exploitative, or discriminatory behavior. While different institutions vary over what counts as cause for dismissal, incompetence in the classroom and illegal behavior would be cause at most universities.

In short, the due-process protections tenure provides should be the right of the majority of educators and researchers, not the “privilege” of a dwindling few.

By the way, if you’re a lecturer, a graduate student, a VAP or visiting instructor, or a part-time instructor at Miami — that is, if you’re among the people who teach roughly 60% of the credit hours at Miami*you don’t have due-process protections, and therefore academic freedom in your classroom is not protected.


*See Miami University Budget Symposium 2017 presentation, p. 26.

2 thoughts on “Who needs tenure any more?

  1. Sarah Siff Reply

    This ghost agrees that targeting tenure is foolish. Yes, the reduction in the number of intellectuals enjoying due-process rights is the real problem and winning protections for all would strengthen faculty collectively. It is also true, though, that the cartoonish difference in pay for equivalent work and qualifications is poisonous. The current system not only saves universities money but divides the faculty into ghosts who skulk around resentfully and bats who feel pressured to guard their own pay and privileges. I fear an ever-increasing underclass of ephemeral ghosts and long-term endangerment of the bat, an important figure in American life who guards our civil liberties and shapes our public discourse.

  2. Miami AAUP Reply

    Sarah, that is beautifully put! No disagreement here. The pay differential does create false hierarchies and divisions that are harmful to all ranks. There are other poisonous aspects to the division too: VAPs and adjuncts (and to a different degree, lecturers) tend to be excluded from the social and decision-making life of departments—they’re invisible, and they have no voice or vote. And they don’t always have access to the information they need to do their jobs well, making them feel even more vulnerable. A frequent lament we hear from non-tenure-line faculty is that they don’t know how the course they’re teaching — often a large service course — fits into the curriculum and its learning outcomes, but they’re nervous about asking because they fear looking incompetent. Even if they’re wrong to feel afraid about that, their fear is rooted in something real: they are always at risk of not being hired back.

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