Ltte: Questioning the reality around tenure

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider Professor in Ethics

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On Wednesday, April 17 from 12:30 -1:30 p.m. in the Toepfer Room of Adelbert Hall, “Members of the CWRU Emeriti Academy who have been engaged in the Think Big strategic planning process will lead a discussion on The Future of Tenure: Rationale and Reality.”

So reads the official announcement of an open discussion that should appeal to everyone at Case Western Reserve University interested in the educational mission of the school.

I have been following debates about tenure, including the forthcoming high quality critique by Jason Brennan and Philip Magness that is sure to make waves this summer in “Cracks in the Ivory Tower.” But I am concerned that the arguments used for eliminating tenure in favor of rolling contracts aren’t sufficient and are running cover for agendas that are not in the best interest of high quality higher education institutions.

I am also concerned about the reputational effects on schools such as ours were we to do away with tenure, beginning with losing current faculty and becoming undesirable for prospective faculty. That said, I have been employed on a rolling contract overseas. I have first hand knowledge of a good system of rolling contracts, one nonetheless that did not offer the protections tenure affords and which are in the best interest of higher education.

Tenure is in decline nationally. The general reason is that administrations want to keep employment pools flexible to hedge their bets against future trends in student enrollment and expected future shocks to the financial viability of higher education. The main reason for the decline of tenure is a version of “economic necessity.” This is what is behind the expression “reality” in the forum title.

But “reality” is often code for institutional arrangements where vested interests secure power. It often has nothing metaphysical (what we call “realist” in philosophy) about it. “Reality” is a conventional way of stopping critique by hiding social arrangements under a sign that says “off limits.” It’s worth picking up the sign, stepping over the chain and walking through the doorway.

Let us suppose that the financial path of higher education isn’t sustainable and isn’t fair to students who endure massive debt. The question is how to deliver excellent education for less. Would it be worth discussing this question in the context of the salary gap between faculty and upper administration, where senior administrators make many times what a faculty member makes? At CWRU, some senior administrators make 10 to 12 times the salary of a junior professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and 16 to 20 times the salary of a lecturer.

Would it also be worth discussing “reality” with attention to the increase in administration sizes nationally over the last thirty years? Who watches the administrators in terms of the academic mission of the university which the faculty are meant to govern? Do we “really” need such a growing administrative size? The question of “reality” cuts hard against administrative “bloat.”

Finally, should discussing “reality” involve the increased focus on student amenities over the past forty or so years of U.S. higher education? Why do we aim to produce such a social space, rather than an academic one, and is it a good use of funds for a good social space? Without so much invested in making university a luxurious setting, we might be more involved socially in our city. After all, in most European universities, the work of universities is academic. Sports clubs are part of the city. People live in the city, and social life is integrated out there, not inside the Ivory Gates. Thinking Big here involves asking some tough and exciting questions.

I can vouch for being a faculty member who used tenure, immediately, to do work that I would not have felt safe doing when I was untenured. The last two books I published were experimental books that I would not have felt secure publishing if I were subject to a rolling contract. They are also my most innovative books and writing them released my ability to find the two current book contracts on which I am working. In short, I directly credit the transition to being tenured, which began in 2010, with the release of my energies to create four books in that time.

At another institution in the U.S., I witnessed first hand a corrupt department that abused the threat of non-renewal to corral faculty into behavior that was not in the interest of the students. I left that department by finding a job elsewhere and reported them to the American Association of University Professors. But the experience left me keenly aware of the manipulations possible of faculty integrity through promotion and retention reviews predicated off of a faculty’s contingent status.

I have also had numerous conversations with faculty here and elsewhere to the effect that they are not free to teach with integrity given their contract status and the role of teaching evaluations and administrative review done out of committee. This last point involves the question of teaching evaluations, where there is very good evidence that teaching evaluations do not do the job they are supposed to do, are methodologically flawed to the core and drive learning toward lower standards.

But that problem only gets the grip it does because tenure is off the table for contingent faculty. You can’t have a bad year in which you took some risks.

As these remarks show, there is a lot to debate when discussing tenure. I urge everyone concerned with the mission of this school to attend the forum. I also ask that we keep our eyes on our mission to provide the best education possible for an entire life in society. My own view is that the protection afforded by tenure is simple and practical. Eliminating it is not the place to look to secure financial flexibility, because the mission of truth seeking is made weaker. Some scholars of tenure disagree with this conclusion, but I find their reasoning unconvincing.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider Professor in Ethics