What’s Wrong with Tenure

Elizabeth Corey

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s latest book, The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, is deliberately bold and even provocative in a way that many readers will appreciate. The book as a whole presents a case for abolishing faculty tenure at universities, and proceeds by considering many of the arguments for and against it. Riley skewers the platitudes that are often advanced about the necessity of tenure for “academic freedom”—platitudes frequently offered by people who appear never to have given the idea a serious thought. She argues that professors who teach in fields with “pre-stipulated goals” (a phrase borrowed from Stanley Fish) such as “family and consumer sciences” do not even need academic freedom, which is intended to facilitate the free expression of potentially controversial ideas within the university. “More college teachers,” she writes, “resemble dermatologists and corporate managers and shoe salesmen than ever before.”

These sorts of claims will certainly anger those who teach in predominantly vocational fields, but they are of a piece with the general tone of the book. One senses (and admires) Riley’s willingness to make distinctions regarding the modern academy: certain fields are inherently more worthy of university study, while others, like the maligned family and consumer sciences, are not exactly “essential to civilization,” as she dryly notes.

The chapters unfold topically and highlight well-known and widespread problems within the modern academy: the emphasis on faculty research rather than teaching, the dramatic increase in adjunct labor at most universities, the decidedly mixed blessing of unionization, the marked liberal bias of university faculty, and the costs of paying and benefiting tenured professors who teach stunningly light course loads. It is no surprise that faculty are largely unwilling and unlikely to give up lifetime job security and the apparent leisure of the academic life, even if this would benefit universities and, more importantly, their students. But this is the heart of the problem. Tenured professors, claims Riley, are an enormous expense to universities, and they fail to do their fair share of teaching; their scholarship tends more and more toward arcane and meaningless specialisms, and they often form an obstructionist bloc to any changes proposed by university administrators.

Many of Riley’s arguments are convincing, and it is hard not to admire the gumption of an author unafraid to challenge the most cherished pieties of the academic world. Ultimately, however, I remain agnostic about her thesis. I am not convinced that faculty tenure is as detrimental to the university as she claims, although I do not think that abolishing it would altogether ruin university education. In my view, the far greater danger is the creeping vocationalism of the modern academy, which edges out everything that cannot prove itself immediately relevant to “modern life.” Just as cursive writing is now thought to be antique and quaint, but not useful to elementary school students who will use phones and keyboards, so are classics departments increasingly perceived as optional. Why not just teach more Spanish, since it is indisputably the language that will be most useful in twenty-first century America? Everything, it seems, must prove itself at the bar of contemporary relevance.

The differences between vocational and nonvocational education are highlighted throughout Faculty Lounges, although Riley is not explicit about the hierarchy of disciplines the distinction implies. She classifies vocational fields as those that require predominantly current and “up-to-date” knowledge of a particular practical subject. Thus enterprising students can select majors in “risk management and insurance” or “fashion design.”

Riley also identifies another kind of outcome-driven major, arising from the many politically correct fields that have proliferated over the past twenty years. “Ethnic studies,” “peace studies,” “gender studies,” and the like almost always aim not at the free and open exchange of diverse viewpoints but at indoctrination into a particular, usually leftist, ideology. As Riley notes, it is virtually impossible to emerge from a women’s studies course without having developed at least the beginnings of a feminist consciousness. She is right to criticize vocationalism and politically slanted fields as corruptions of the true character of university education, because neither aims primarily at the dispassionate examination of subject matter.

Less clear is Riley’s vision of the kind of education that stands as an alternative to these corruptions. In arguing that vocational and ideologically-driven studies are “outcome oriented”—simply conveying conclusions—she claims that professors working in these fields do not merit academic freedom. But the implication is that professors of other kinds of studies should have the protection of academic freedom. What are these other fields, and how and why do they differ from the ones she has criticized?

Riley never answers this question. Moreover, how would it be possible in practice to disentangle the “vocational/political” from the “academic” pursuits? Even within single departments there are courses heavy in “academic inquiry” while others have strongly vocational orientations. In political science, for instance, internships are clearly meant to prepare students for jobs, while classes in the thought of Marsilius of Padua are, if I may be so bold, less directly practical (though not on that account any less valuable). We might begin by thinking carefully about what kinds of utterance academic freedom ought to protect.

It may sound cynical, but perhaps the true reason academics do not really need their cherished “academic freedom” is that, with a few exceptions, nobody reads what they write. Like any other “line of work” the modern academic life now consists merely in “making” an academic “product” that is “sold” to presses who do not themselves expect to sell much of it anyway. This is the conclusion that follows from Riley’s relentless critique of academic publishing. She quotes Mark Bauerlein, who observes that “the economy of scholarly publishing is solely based on the producer—not the commodity or the consumer.” This modern emphasis on publication and research, she maintains, exists primarily so faculty can impress the committees that determine their tenure and promotion. Does it help students? Riley thinks not. At several points she notes that in one year over one hundred books were published on Shakespeare. Surely, Riley implies, the world doesn’t require such vast quantities of arcane scholarly production. True enough.

But also false. Of course some scholars pursue obscure, specialized, even contrived areas of research because they are compelled to do so, and for purposes of self-promotion. But others, in focusing on carefully bounded questions that may admittedly interest only a few, make contributions to scholarship that are important in their own right. I am sure Riley knows this well, but her emphasis on the triviality of academic publishing ignores this point. That much academic writing is arcane (and, of course, simply bad) does not impugn the whole as an illegitimate endeavor. Where else but in the academy is a scholar free to investigate something solely for its own sake, even topics that to the layman may seem “irrelevant” or “pointless”? Debates over the spiritual character of Plato’s Socrates, for instance, might seem entirely unnecessary to the vast majority of people, but to those who understand the implications they are of vital importance.

There is value to be had in this kind of effort—not for the money it may bring to the researcher, nor for the prestige it may bring to the university, but simply because it illuminates a portion of human experience that would otherwise remain dark. Such inquiries offer a temporary reprieve from the constant practical demands of the world and an opportunity to think about things that lie beneath the surface of everyday life. This is a vision of the university that needs rearticulation in our age. Unfortunately, those who write about liberal education, friends and enemies alike, have largely adopted the language of economics—products, customers, commodities—and this obscures that the essence of university education might be its altogether non-economic character.

I realize that practical considerations—like the costs of running a university and ever-increasing tuitions—are not irrelevant. These are problems that should be addressed on their own terms by those who understand the complex issues involved. But there is a real danger in forgetting or attempting to alter the essential activity of the university by overemphasizing “the current economic crisis.” The prevailing focus in much of today’s writing about higher education is that the university must become more efficient and relevant by streamlining its operations—getting rid of meaningless specialisms that nobody cares about and eliminating the enormous expense of tenured faculty.

Now Riley does not favor turning the university in a vocational direction, but her brief against tenure rests largely on its costs. And this again allows economics to determine outcomes. It is a pardonable sin, but a sin nevertheless. If crisis is afoot in the United States, this ought to be a reason for leaving the universities as they are, at least for the time being, instead of reforming them in the heat of the moment because “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” as Rahm Emanuel put it, albeit in another context.

Ultimately, I find Riley’s book both valuable and flawed. She has been criticized for writing about tenure because she is not a professional academic, but this is what gives the book its refreshing, if sometimes polemical tone. She clearly knows a great deal about the academy, having grown up in an academic household, and Faculty Lounges concerns issues that matter to university students and their parents, not to mention professors. However, in her assessment of academic publishing and of the significant problems inherent in the modern university system, Riley downplays the real goods that can inhere in scholarly endeavors. I have always believed that scholarship is almost a religious vocation, undertaken in retreat from the world of practical endeavor and economics alike. It is true that this characterization may now seem laughable, or at least improbable, to the legions of workaday academics armed with business cards and technological devices just like everyone else. But it is a vision that needs to be recalled, perhaps even put into practice, by at least a few of today’s tenured professors.

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