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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Tenure Is Dead: Pandemic Edition

Georgia Tech faculty are doing what they can to assert their power, but there isn't much muscle left.

July 6, 2020
 
 

Previously in this space, I argued that tenure is dead.

I said this because a majority of instructional faculty work without the protections of tenure. For my entire career, I have been told that tenure is one of the core pillars of a functioning postsecondary academic institution. Faculty must be able to speak freely without fear of reprisal. They must be able to fulfill their role in shared governance knowing that opposing the administration will not lead to their termination.

To paraphrase a famous conservative, part of having tenure is supposed to be having the ability to stand athwart a terrible policy proposal and yell, “Stop!”

Are there any campuses where faculty still actually possess this power?

Certainly not Georgia Tech, which is in the midst of national headlines over a faculty revolt regarding a plan handed down by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, which oversees 26 postsecondary institutions in the state.

The USG body has sought to impose reopening plans systemwide, rather than giving autonomy to the individual schools. One of the policies the board has embraced is encouraging mask use, but making it optional.

Nearly 80 percent of Georgia Tech’s faculty signed a letter of protest expressing four core principles for campus operations in the fall.

1. Empower the President of Georgia Tech to act independently to safeguard the health and safety needs of the Georgia Tech community, informed by scientific evidence.

2. Make remote delivery the default mode of instruction for Fall 2020 in order to reduce disease transmission risk and to reduce disruption of educational delivery in the event of worsening epidemic conditions. We emphasize that no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working and/or learning on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent.

3. Make on-campus experiences available for the limited number of students who need access to campus residences and on-campus laboratories or other specialized facilities.

4. Make face masks required everywhere on campus, provide large-scale Covid-19 testing, and ensure timely contact tracing of new infections.

The faculty aren’t even demanding that they themselves have a say in fall operations, but are instead merely pleading for their own university administration being allowed to control the local conditions.

The regents of the USG board are appointed by the governor, one regent to represent each congressional district. They are in the fields of wealth management, real estate (lots of real estate), health care, banking, construction, manufacturing, and one dude who owns “one of the largest independent shredding companies in the Southeast.”

The one member with direct involvement in education is the headmaster at Heritage Preparatory School, a “classical Christian school” in Atlanta.

What is happening at Georgia Tech and the other institutions under the supervision of the USG board falls under the category of colleges and universities as “political playthings,” a theme I’ve covered here over the years. The irony is that in states like Georgia and my home state of South Carolina that I write about most often, the state oversight seems to increase even as they contribute increasingly diminishing portions of institutional budgets.

The only power faculty are left with is writing petitions, which isn’t nothing, but it isn’t all that much given the present stakes, is it?

In my view, we are looking at a crystallizing example of what has become of tenure over the years which I explain by drawing a distinction between tenure as principle and tenure as policy.

Tenure as principle is essentially the set of values we associate with tenure -- academic freedom, shared governance, etc.

Tenure as policy is doled out as a job perk should certain criteria be met, and rather than providing freedom, it primarily serves as an instrument of administrative control. By making it scarce, by requiring faculty to jump through hoops where administrators are the ultimate gatekeepers, faculty are conditioned into deference, grateful that they made it over the bar.

Tenure as policy is primarily a byproduct of the corporatized university, but in my view it is also the consequence of generations (literally) of tenured faculty failing to exercise their tenured muscles by resisting policies -- such as administration arbitrarily classifying some instructional jobs as ineligible for the supposedly necessary protections of tenure -- in a way that asserted their power and checked the growth of the corporatized university.

Given the strength and power of the forces aligned against faculty, I am sympathetic to the notion that it’s possible they couldn’t have done much to change the tide anyway, though it’d be awfully interesting to go back 30 or so years with the knowledge we have today and see if we could convince enough tenured folks to hold the line when there was still some hope.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a cohort less disposed toward collective action than college professors. The work is almost literally done sprinting side by side, not always in competition, but definitely not in cooperation. Those who sacrifice for the greater good are those least likely to earn the perk of tenure. The incentives just don’t align.

We also have the problem of faculty viewing themselves as knowledge workers rather than laborers, valued for their particular gifts of knowledge creation (in the case of research) or knowledge transmission (in the case of teaching).

But the reality for the vast majority of faculty is that their knowledge has no intrinsic economic value. Their research exists as part of a “gift economy,” where it is produced without an explicit agreement for future rewards.

And our teaching only has value in the sense that it is a mechanism for collecting the tuition revenue paid by students, which is at least the predominant part, and in some cases the majority, of institutional revenue.

We are looking at the endpoint of a system that is predicated on operations, rather than mission and values. A university exists to screen, admit and enroll students, collect their tuition and then hold class.

Teaching, learning … education, the things faculty are in theory meant to protect and promulgate, are incidental to these operations.

It is worth noting that places where prestige is not at play, or where room and board revenue is not so vital to the bottom line, such as community colleges or the Cal State system, are much more likely to have already made what I believe to be an inevitable shift to primarily online operations. Perhaps there is something to learn about here as we consider the future of higher education.

There are very few silver linings to this pandemic, but one of them may be faculty recognizing their status as laborers, no different from the academic staff and institutional operations personnel that make the work of the university possible. That Georgia Tech petition, and others like it around the country, are the kinds of things laborers do.

I do not relish the degree of vulnerability everyone is experiencing as we face these challenges, but for many who have spent their entire lives working without tenure, that sense of powerlessness is quite familiar.

Hopefully something good will come out of these new recognitions.

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Got something you want to say or share with me about this post? You can reach me directly at jus[email protected]. With permission, I will publish the most interesting and thought-provoking comments in a follow-up post.

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