For most college professors, the beginning of the fall semester is just now beginning to beckon. Most of us have turned in book lists; most of us are working up syllabi (either from scratch or refining what’s there); some of us are already fielding questions from eager students, and many of us are starting to hear about the ambitious agenda the department will supposedly address in the coming academic year (although what’s achieved is usually not what’s anticipated or promised).
For a small group of assistant professors, however, the summer has been a time of preparation for an entirely different exercise: that of preparing one’s candidacy for promotion to associate professor with tenure. For some senior faculty, it’s time to review files and write letters for candidates for promotion at other institutions. That can be a trying experience, as I can testify. In my case, it’s also a time when I prepare to hear about grievances stemming out of unsuccessful candidacies from the previous year, because I’m just starting on my third term as a member of ASU’s university-wide Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
My experience with the tenure process goes all the way back to my time as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where, as one of the History Department’s more visible graduate students (and head of an undergraduate history organization), I participated in the process, gathering information on various candidates and interviewing students. That was, to say the least, quite a sobering responsibility, introducing me to many issues of professional development and behavior. As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, different political issues drew my attention during my year as a student representative (while Wisconsin may have had a more progressive reputation than Virginia in the immediate post-Vietnam era, that was not the case when it came to student input into this critical process, although in other ways, formally and informally, various faculty sought my input and acclimated me to the profession in other areas). At Wofford I saw a rather curious process that stressed competence in the classroom, collegiality with peers, and a commitment to bleed gold and black, making the tenure process resemble rushing a fraternity. When I came to ASU, fresh from earning my PhD, my first monograph (and second book) was already in the publication process, which meant that I escaped the hazing that most junior faculty members have to endure (“How’s the manuscript coming? Can’t wait to see it. Has it been accepted for publication? Can’t get promoted without it …”). Oh, there was an effort in a few cases to try to play games with my tenure candidacy, because some people were uncomfortable that I was already positioned for promotion, which meant that they could not play games with me any more. But I won promotion and tenure in my third year, which is about as fast as one could go up at ASU at the time.
There are several arguments advanced on behalf of tenure. One is that it offers job security. That it does, although I’m not sure that’s a good thing. There are a lot of people who once they gain tenure with the rank of associate professor seem to take a very long time to become full professors, and some never do. I’ve heard an argument that tenure is granted in exchange for cost certainty at a below free market level for faculty salaries, but I don’t believe that, either, and in today’s world, with more part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, that answer’s even less compelling. The way to get a significant raise in my world is to attract outside interest, and only a limited number of us are marketable in that sort of environment (which, by the way, privileges scholarship and publication over teaching).
But the one justification for tenure that is not often scrutinized is the link between tenure and academic freedom. The argument is that tenure protects an individual who then has the academic freedom to pursue certain lines of inquiry in research and the classroom without fear of reprisal. At least that’s the idea. Some people abuse the notion of academic freedom by claiming it allows them to do whatever they want to do, which is simply not true. Those irresponsible uses of the term, in turn, endanger the use of the concept for legitimate purposes by arming critics. Moreover, linking academic freedom to tenure suggests that non-tenured and tenure-track faculty do not enjoy academic freedom. That would be wrong in principle, although I’m aware of cases where discussion of a candidacy has centered on at least quasi-political issues involving whether folks want someone who thinks differently than they do to receive tenure.
And it is that point which opens up one of the real reasons for tenure. Yes, tenure can protect a faculty member from reprisals from a hostile administration or pressure from state government to conform to some approach or belief or to refrain from offering criticism in public (otherwise known as the life of the mind versus the life of the mindless). The case is sometimes somewhat different in private institutions, not all of which embrace the same principle of tolerance or diversity (no, I’m not naming names). But what faculty members don’t want to tell you is that tenure also protects faculty from each other. The notion of pitting faculty versus administration (and perhaps government) obscures the infighting that takes place among individual faculty members in the same unit. Sometimes tenured faculty don’t like the idea of the young upstart with a better record and more promise showing them up; sometimes conformity and subordination (sometimes mischaracterized as collegiality) is what’s at stake. Sometimes someone just doesn’t like someone: sometimes they just don’t want to be shown up. When it’s come to promotion, I’ve never had problems with administrators, but I have encountered half-hearted resistance from senior faculty, including department chairs, who in no case could give me a reason for their ambivalence that had to do with my professional performance (and dared not offer any other reason to my face).
The truth is that I had no concerns about my candidacy for tenure once it passed through the department’s P&T committee. What I had decided to do (and the advice I give others) was to present a record with which any reasonable person could not quibble … although several people did try to quibble, and my tenure vote was only 16-1, which I took as an inside joke about the money question in the late 19th century (the sole dissenter has never chosen to be identified, and I think would now be embarrassed to be known; we now direct people to express openly why they have reservations and objections, so as to put an end to such behavior). In contrast, my promotion to full professor five years later simply flew through committee, master’s thesis-turned-book and all. Yet it was that process which offered me far more personal relief and satisfaction than gaining tenure, because, once you’re a full professor, your colleagues can’t really mess with you any more. When I learned I had been tenured and promoted, I shrugged my shoulders (that was to be expected); when I was promoted to full professor, I suddenly (and quite literally) felt that a weight (one I had not sensed but vaguely, if at all) had been lifted from those very same shoulders.
Academic freedom remains to me a very important principle. I’m not as sure about tenure. On one hand, I’d have no problem competing based upon performance, and I think that in principle that’s a good idea. On the other hand, I don’t know who would be assessing the performance: the very colleagues whose potential capriciousness is one of the reasons I find tenure useful? Moreover, strip tenure away, and in this era of cost-cutting and packaging education almost as a form of social promotion, ignoring the function of universities as sources of research, inquiry, and (for lack of a better term) knowledge and understanding production, and the result will be that no one will want to teach. Thus I have to say that, absent a better system, it should remain. But please don’t tell me that it’s all about academic freedom, because it’s not.