Amy Bishop's murder of three colleagues, and attempt to murder three others, looks to be even less about tenure than I originally claimed ... but it's still university tenure that people want to talk about. It's become clear that Bishop would eventually have been fired under almost any conceivable system of review, and that Bishop would almost undoubtedly have responded violently to some other setback sooner or later. (University Diaries has been the blogger who's owned this story, and deserves kudos for it.) But plenty of people, inside and outside academia, clearly have passionate opinions on the topic, and won't pass up an excuse to discuss it at length. As one contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education puts it:
That Professor Amy Bishop is not a tragic heroine of the tenure process doesn't mean that she's not a good opportunity to discuss it.
But the inevitable discussion of academia is full of contradictions. I've read over the last week that the institution is all but dead, and that it is fundamentally unkillable, that it's a ridiculous luxury and a horrifying inhumane gauntlet, that it demands too much productivity ("quantity over quality") and that it demands too little productivity. Tenure means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, almost all of whom feel strongly about it. The key here is that almost no discussion of tenure is just about tenure; it's always bound up with a number of other issues. So it's worth it to walk through those issues and disentangle them from the tenure issue. Here's a partial list of the major questions.
1) The systematic importance placed on research rather than teaching. Many people's disgruntlement with professors stems from this, in one way or another, often from encounters as an undergraduate. Why don't they fire such-and-such a professor, who seems (at least to the questioner) like such a lousy teacher? "They can't fire him, he has tenure," is an easy answer that seems like a complete explanation, but isn't. Generally, the school wouldn't fire that teacher if he didn't have tenure. The school simply values different things than the student does.
Academics are still rewarded most for the things that the general public sees least. Even though there have been real efforts (as well as cosmetic efforts) over the last decades to increase the value put on teaching, the expectations for faculty research have gotten higher and higher during the same period. Teaching remains harder to evaluate than research, and less valued on the employment market. It's much easier to sort the A+ researchers from the A researchers than it is to separate the superb teachers from the merely very good, and the academic world operates from the assumption that effective teaching is easier to find than cutting-edge research. Whether that's right or wrong (and it would be an unhappy world where good teachers were harder to find than ground-breaking researchers), it's the way universities operate.
Some disgruntlement about this issue take the form of complaints about "specialization" and about the lack of great generalists. That complaint is as older than the PhD itself; an active research plan largely necessitates specialization.
2) The shrinking faculty. Although you wouldn't know it to hear the complaints about tenure, the tenure-line faculty in American universities has been shrinking drastically over the past years. Many departments are half or a third the size they were a generation ago. (This applies less to very rich and famous universities, although they have seen some shrinkage around the edges, too.) I teach in a department which had five tenured faculty in my specialized field, less than a decade before I was hired. Now there is only me.
A lot of the teaching load that tenured faculty used to do has been off-loaded to cheaper instructors, some of them graduate students but most of them part of a now-huge body of allegedly "part-time" adjunct faculty (almost all with PhDs, and most teaching "part-time" at multiple universities).Since these non-tenure-track teachers only teach, and aren't expected to produce research, they are valued extremely poorly by the universities that hire them, and have to cobble to together a living on wages of a few thousand dollars a course. This shift of labor to scandalously ill-paid teachers has taken place at the same time the price of tuition has risen faster than inflation.
Naturally, the adjunct faculty are alienated from the tenured and from the tenure-track, with their middle-class salaries and benefits. But at the same time the shrinking number of tenure-track jobs leads to intense competition and often harrowing multi-year job searches by PhDs trying to break in. Getting a PhD from Harvard hasn't been a guarantee of a job for a long time. A lot of the resentment you hear from younger (and youngish) academics about the grueling tenure process can be understood when you remember that those academics went through a fairly vicious market sorting before they began the tenure process at all, and that being turned down at one place when jobs are scarce has become potentially career-ending in ways that it was not in, say, 1970
3) The generation gap. The vastly increased market pressure on entry-level professors has led to a drastic increase in the qualifications of newer faculty, especially in research (which remains the most easily measurable achievement) but also in areas like teaching and departmental service. And that has naturally increased the standards for tenure, too.
I teach in a department where the research expectations for tenure are now the same as the expectations were for promotion to full professors twenty-five years ago. And I know of a department which recently required applicants for an entry-level job to be at least as well published before even applying than full professors had once been in that department. They got the same enormous pile of applications that every hiring committee gets, because there are plenty of job applicants out there with those credentials. These are not exceptional stories. These are typical stories.
Where this gets ugly is when the people judging qualifications for tenure are the older faculty hired under the older market conditions, which weren't even remotely so demanding. Neither is the situation helped when some departments went fifteen or twenty years without hiring anybody (filling up the roster during the 60s and 70s, and not hiring again until the 90s or later). So in most average universities, you have 60-something professors judging the tenure case of 30-something professors, but the 30-somethings have vastly better resumes. You'd better believe this leads to resentments at certain places, and that's before you start factoring in cultural differences between the generations (as, for example, when a group of almost exclusively white men judge a younger faculty filled with women and minorities).
Female Science Professor approaches the generational question, in regards to qualifications, with a combination of realism and admirable even-handedness.
Questions of gender bias, especially, are problematic and stubbornly persistent. They get uglier when you realize that in many places (although clearly not Alabama/Huntsville) the woman who didn't "make the grade" was being graded in part by men who never had to make that kind of grade themselves.
4) The "collegiality question." One of the persistent questions inside universities has been the degree to which it's okay to judge colleagues for tenure based on the kind of academic citizens they are. Is it okay to turn down the confrontational and seemingly crazy colleague? Certainly, people would like to be free to turn down Amy Bishop. But what about people who are simply unpopular, or whose politics annoy the others, or who simply don't fit into the club? Academia is filled with stories of female scholars, and especially of female scientists, whose colleagues viewed them as "too aggressive" or "argumentative." A good deal of that comes from women behaving like, well, academics: it's hard to be demure and deferential and still land a big government grant, or to write a book that seriously overturns old ways of thinking. To my mind, the collegiality question has to be folded into the existing standards; if someone's interpersonal difficulties are actually interfering with the way they do their work, that's something very different from merely rubbing colleagues the wrong way.
Tenured Radical has a terrific and balanced discussion of this problem here.
5) Length of training. One of the classic complaints about tenure is the burnt-out old professor who won't retire, and who remains deadwood. Even when we get past the age stereotypes (and I know plenty of vigorous and engaged septuagenarians), the problems go past tenure. On the one hand, mandatory retirement ages have now (justly) become illegal, and eliminating tenure won't change that. It would also be very hard, in fields that require years of specialized training before one can began making even a middle-class salary, to do without job security.
6) Faculty, administration, and trustees. Tenure, of course, empowers university faculty to become maddeningly stubborn at times, and to resist the management innovations of university presidents, trustees, and state legislatures. This can of course be enormously frustrating, and I understand why the administrators and stakeholders long to wipe out tenure and make the faculty more tractable.
But not every faculty that resists its superiors is wrong (just as not every faculty that does so is right). And faculty are right to guard their prerogative to decide what the standards in their field are. That feels elitist and clubbish, but on the other hand, what better alternative could there be? When professional American historians decide what counts as solid history and what doesn't, that might feel arrogant, but would you let people who aren't specialists in history decide that? Should the trustees get to decide what counts as valid history, or science, or anthropology? The state legislature? The donors?
There's a reason that the Texas School Board can dictate what's in K-12 textbooks, but the Texas State Legislature can't do a thing about what's taught at U.T. There's a reason you don't hear about state universities being forced to teach "intelligent design." Maybe the geology department should be more polite when they say that the Earth is a lot more than 6,000 years old, but it isn't the university president's decision how old the Earth is, or the trustees'. Universities are difficult to manage because they're full of specialized experts who can sometimes get thin-skinned about their authority over their own subject matter. But the problem is, that authority is based on knowing things, within the limited sphere of their expertise, that other people don't know. And in the end, who are you going to believe?