The Safe and Secure Professoriate

Here is what Andrew Hacker, co-author of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It , says about tenure in a recent interview in Atlantic Monthly:

Here’s what happens. Academics typically don’t get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from age 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. They have to do things in the accepted way that their elders and superiors require. They can’t be controversial and all the rest. So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. We’ve seen this again and again. And even people who get tenure really don’t change. They keep on following the disciplinary mode they’ve been trained to follow.
What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have it. That’s a tremendous number. What that means is these people never leave. There’s hardly any turnover in the senior ranks—not just at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford but at small colleges in Kentucky, everywhere. You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. In many ways, they become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking.

The first paragraph is a nice capsule summary of the pattern, setting the tenure moment in light of the 15 years that preceded it. We sometimes regard the awarding of tenure as a broad intellectual judgment about the intellectual quality of the candidate’s work. Is it well-researched? Is the evidence handled carefully? Are the conclusions warranted?
These questions come into play, to be sure, but other questions do as well. Is the work “recognized”? Is it topical, up-to-date, relevant, cutting-edge, “positioned” within current debates, engaged with leading figures in the field . . .? These are professional judgments, more a measure of a candidate’s professionalization than of his or her integrity, rigor, and intelligence. They place the institution of the field ahead of the epistemology of the work. But tenured colleagues often set those criteria ahead of intellectual values, perhaps because they’re easier to apply (asking whether a thesis has “currency” is easier than reading a whole book and assessing the demonstration of the thesis).
This explains the truth of Hacker’s contention about tenure being a “line-toeing” process. Most of the time, those 15 years do not mark the opening of an innovating line of inquiry. They mark an acculturation of a young mind to academic trend.
Hacker’s second paragraph raises a problem that has affected disciplines with a tight job market for a long time, but has not often been remarked. Lots of disciplines underwent tremendous growth during the 60s and 70s when Boomers swelled college enrollments and the number of campuses around the country grew accordingly. Colleges hired young scholars and teachers right out of graduate school or even before they had finished their PhDs. The hiring then slowed down, drastically so in some fields. But most of those circa-1970 hires obtained tenure and settled in to a lengthy career among the safe and secure professoriate. Few tenured openings were to be found in the 1980s and 90s in English, History, foreign languages, philosophy, and many other fields except in a few exotic and trendy subspecialties that enjoyed a brief cachet (such as post-colonial literature in the early-90s). There was no place else to go.
This means, as Hacker says, that a majority of department members are tenured and have been in place for 25 years. Professors have occupied offices alongside one another in the same hallway, attended hundreds of meetings together, formed and dissolved department factions and cliques, remembered slights for years, jockeyed and competed for perks, took turns serving as chairman, and slipped into “infantile” conflicts over tiny injustices.
That freezing of professors into one place, with all its consequent behaviors, is one of the outcomes of the tenure system. When tenure promises people a paycheck for several decades to come, the whole employment picture solidifies. In fields that thrive on intellectual freshness, it’s a disaster.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

One thought on “The Safe and Secure Professoriate”

  1. Speaking as a tenured professor (who’s still publishing): This is not the case in my department, and I suspect it’s an exaggeration. As far as I’m concerned, the basic problem with tenure is that it makes it hard to rejigger staffing when demand changes or in hard economic times, and there’s no really good argument in favor of it, other than it’s damn nice to have an iron rice bowl.

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