by AndrewMc | 6/17/2009 06:25:00 PM
I've been chewing on this one for a few weeks, not quite knowing where to begin. I could say "begin at the beginning," which is easy, in theory. If only I knew where the beginning was.

Is it the overall bad economy? Does it relate to trends in higher education that began back in the 1970s? Is it, somehow, Bill Clinton's fault? I'm not sure. What I do know is that over the past few months the Board of Regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System has begun to dismantle one of the foundational principles of higher education. And in turn various officials around the state have supported the decisions.

On March 13, 2008, the Board of Regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System voted to abolish tenure for all new faculty hired after July 1, 2009. Despite numerous resolutions condemning the vote from Faculty Senates across the state, despite appeals to the president of the KCTCS system [who was the one who pushed for the policy change], and despite many letters to the governor, it seems that this decision will stand.

In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a great show of unity among institutions of higher education in any state on most any issue in the past few decades.

From editorials in major newspapers [pdf] in the state, to faculty resolutions, to resolutions from professional organizations, to online petitions, to negative publicity in the Chronicle of Higher Education (here and here) and Inside Higher Ed, this is not a quiet story.

But it is a complex one.

In my opinion, the decision by KCTCS reflects a long-term decline in both the valuation of faculty by Boards and administration-types, as well as a short-term change in how Boards are composed.

A few decades ago Boards of Regents positions were filled by a wide range of people in various positions--lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, community leaders, etc. While I haven't seen a survey to indicate the make up of Boards today (AHA? Have you done one?) my informal searches have turned up Boards comprised--by and large--of business owners. While they may have some kind of business savvy with regard to whatever business they run, they don't seem to know much about how to run a university. When was the last time the Board of Regents at your college voted down a proposal by your university president? How often does it happen? If they pay much attention at all to the workings of the school they're supposed to oversee, they tend to view the school as a business that caters to a "customer base"--the student. And the point of a business is to squeeze as much money from a customer (here in the form of tuition) while expending as little of that revenue as possible (here, on salaries).

They also tend to see faculty as little more than "hired help" to be managed in the same way as one might handle a fast-food employee--keep salaries to a bare minimum, scale back or eliminate as many benefits as possible, and eliminate "problem" employees who prevent the business from functioning efficiently. That is to say--
faculty are an obstacle to be overcome in the running of an efficient business.

Tenure falls into the category of "anti-efficiency," in the minds of some. It is a luxury at best, an impediment at worst. It prevents them from firing the Ward Churchills of the world, it prevents them from implementing serious cost-saving measures.

The place of faculty in a university, at least as far as many Regents are concerned, can probably best be understood by taking the words of Yevette Haskins, regent at Western Kentucky University. At an April meeting in which salary issues were being discussed, Regent Haskins responded to concerns over low faculty morale and potential resignations by commenting that there are plenty of other faculty looking for jobs. Her attitude indicates her belief that faculty are easily replaceable--nobody rose to disagree. While there are many faculty out there looking for jobs, one can't help but wonder at the regard with which she holds the skills of the faculty in her university. Another regent commented that any faculty who didn't like working at that university ought to leave, while at the same time justifying huge salary increases for some administrators by saying that it was important to retain quality people. It was easy to see where faculty ranked in terms of value to the university. I suspect this attitude reigns at many schools.

As far as the general public is concerned, this question is a non-starter. People who hold a "job for life" in the midst of this miserable economy have a hard time explaining why this system is important. Most people think tenure is some weird, outdated system. Some arguments against are predictable, others are fairly interesting.

The overall result: a decline in tenure-track jobs at the same time that overall faculty positions have increased. This is not a new trend. Universities, when run like businesses, will naturally look to minimize labaor costs, valuing the bottom line over something as nebulous as "quality education." This is especially true when the bottom line can be easily measured, while quality education is measured through flawed US News & World Report rankings [here and here] and misleading teacher evaluation tools.

Adjuncts will (and have already) tell us that faculty being treated as merely hired help is nothing new, either. Adjuncts have suffered this for years, and for them this whole issue may carry some "and when they came for me" shadenfreude. Yet tenure is valuable, as essayists and even courts have affirmed.

So, what is to be done? I don't know. Faculty have less of a voice in university governance than ever before, and the process is accelerating. In many states faculty are either unable or unwilling to unionize. This makes it hard to resist these changes. Senate resolutions are nice, but they don't mean much.

It will probably require faculty to make a greater effort to speak up, loudly, on their campuses. Faculty either have a voice, or they do not. Faculty either care to have that voice heard, or they do not. Faculty either want to have an effective voice on their campuses, or it is not particularly important to them. Faculty must decide. All faculty should be concerned with this and should ask some difficult questions of our universities. Faculty have to make clear to their communities--and themselves--why tenure is an important component of higher education.

Right now we are in an uphill battle. From Regents to university administrators to the general public, the system of tenure is under assault. We must decide if it is worth fighting for.

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Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/17/2009 6:41 PM:

It is absolutely worth fighting for. And the way to fight for it is to ignore the administrative intermediaries and go straight to the source of the problem: the public opposition to tenure and the antipathy most ordinary people have for academics.

In doing so, we need to acknowledge some unsavory truths about our own (academic) profession: that academics really do see ourselves as better than ordinary people; that we consequently are driving our specialties in esoteric and politically non-mainstream directions; that we have lost touch with the interests of ordinary people; and that those things are wrong.

We need to clean our own house and reorient academia toward studies people are actually interested in. And then, we need to wage an all-out PR campaign to show ordinary people the "new face" of academia. Because right now, ordinary people are right when they balk at paying our salaries, because we don't work for them, and we should.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/17/2009 7:43 PM:

Because right now, ordinary people are right when they balk at paying our salaries, because we don't work for them, and we should.

Speak for yourself, young man.


Blogger AndrewMc on 6/17/2009 8:43 PM:

I don't think I get what you mean when you say "we should [work for them]."

Can you elaborate?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/18/2009 12:32 AM:

We as a profession believe that we know better than the people what constitutes "good" history, in terms of subjects, approaches, and arguments. I don't believe that we do.

What we have on ordinary people, and also on amateur historians, is a wide knowledge base (acquired through intensive reading in graduate school and after), research skills, and skill in evaluating evidence. Those things qualify us to write better-written and better-argued history books than most ordinary people or amateur historians can; they don't qualify us to determine what kinds of history are most useful. Most people want to read narrative histories, biographies, certain types of social histories that place them in a historical milieu, political and military histories, histories that tell interesting or titillating stories, and all types of history that are well-written. I completely fail to see why the profession can't accomplish all of its objectives within these parameters -- yet instead most professional history is written outside of them. It's because historians tend to put their right to write badly about esoteric subjects ahead of the social imperative not to.

The problem is the same with other academic fields, though it differs somewhat in intensity. I'd say many other humanities fields (English and the interdisciplinary fields come to mind) are probably worse, while many of the sciences are better.

I'm really not making a different argument from what I wrote here; I'm just phrasing it more belligerently.


Blogger AndrewMc on 6/18/2009 6:47 AM:

Well, I couldn't agree more with regard to what historians write. Most of us write obscure stuff that the public couldn't care less about, and then we mock those historians who do write books that have commercial or popular success.

But this, I think, may be a different situation. What we teach is--for the vast majority of us--different from what we write. So for example I know what constitutes "good" history much better than my students do with regard to the things they need to learn in a class.

That having been said, I also need to offer classes that are relevant, interesting, and teach them something. I think in this context you are arguing that in order to make ourselves relevant, and help the public understand tenure, we need to write what we teach.

In fact I think we need to write a whole lot less and teach a whole lot more. And we need to help the public understand why tenure is important. I have to be able to teach the radical stuff I do without worrying about interference.

But I fear that we're most of the way down the slope of "nothing more than employees" already.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/18/2009 12:17 PM:

The problem is, I don't think people's reason for not wanting us to have tenure has anything to do with radical teaching. I really think only the radical right fringe listends to David Horowitz's arguments about tenured radicals, though I have only a gut instinct to back that up. Let me know if you disagree.

What I think is that most people want to deny us tenure because they don't see our usefulness in society, and since they don't think we're particularly useful, they think we ought to tough it out without job security just like other people in non-useful professions (Britney Spears, etc.).

We can't exactly go to mainstream Americans and say "We want to teach radical stuff, give us tenure." But if we can prove our usefulness by writing things people want to read, we can go to them and say "If you want to keep reading good books by us, make our working lives more pleasant by giving us tenure." I actually think that's the strongest argument.


Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" on 6/18/2009 5:16 PM:

I have been something WORSE than a garden variety adjunct. I have been an adjunct in a college credit class at a high school-- which means I am an UNPAID money machine for the university.

Therefore, in addition to all the hoops I had to jump through as a high school teacher, I also had to conform to their requirements as well. AND I had to get a sub twice a year and go and listen to some superannuated talking head blahblahblah at me all day because the university was unsure of the quality of its adjuncts-- mind, to be an adjunct instructor in their program was an unpaid position, and I was the only person in my district with a MA in my field of study rather than education, which was one of their requirements?

I guess I should have been grateful to be able to bring them 300 bucks per student in pure profit. For free. (I did it for the kids....)


Anonymous human on 6/22/2009 12:55 PM:

I am late to the party, but wow, ahistoricality, don't just pull rank. If you disagree with Jeremy at least engage with his argument, huh?

I think Jeremy has a very good point, but there's another dimension I think is very important. Right now the history we write AND teach has little or no relation to the history that is taught in high school -- which is where most people learn what history "is." That has to be fixed.

We should definitely write history that people other than historians want to read. If we talk only to each other, we are failing at a duty to use our skills to increase human knowledge. But if we stop treating high school history teachers and their classes as being completely unrelated to history in higher education, then we as a profession could exert a lot more influence on what people want to read.

What if every high school student got a briefing on poststructuralism? Suddenly a lot of stuff that's impossible for most laypeople to understand would instead be within their reach. Wouldn't that be awesome?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/22/2009 10:34 PM:

Human, it's been almost a week, and I still can't read and comment on this article in a civil fashion. I find his characterization of faculty work and accomplishments both false and offensive for the majority of working academic historians.


Anonymous human on 6/23/2009 9:07 AM:

ahistoricality: I get that you're offended, and I'm not trying to minimize that; but I don't understand why you're offended, and I don't think trying to shut Jeremy up is a good thing to do, even if he is wrong.

I observed a spirited discussion at AHA about the ways in which historians are discouraged from writing for popular audiences. Obviously given the number of people who expressed concern about that, not everyone agrees that it's somehow a bad thing to write work that a lot of people read. But it's still a problem if historians are afraid of being punished for doing so by having their career advancement harmed.

I didn't read Jeremy as saying that no historians at all are communicating with the public, only that it should be way more common that it is, and that it should be valued by the profession as a whole more than it is.

Yeah, I guess I still don't get what is offensive about that.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/23/2009 6:53 PM:

This comment has been removed by the author.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/23/2009 11:05 PM:

I'm sorry, human, but I truly don't want to be part of this discussion. That doesn't preclude anyone else from having a discussion, even one about me.


Blogger AndrewMc on 6/24/2009 6:48 AM:

"Right now the history we write AND teach has little or no relation to the history that is taught in high school -- which is where most people learn what history "is." That has to be fixed."

Is this because of how historians write, how high school teachers teach, or how standardized tests drive curriculum. I suspect that it's one of the latter two rather than the former.