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Administrators did not respond in a strong public way after the recent shooting in Alabama, where Professor Amy Bishop allegedly killed three faculty colleagues and wounded three others during a faculty meeting. Why? The faculty tenure system is to blame; or, more specifically, the fact that college administrators look the other way while maintaining a system that has been shown to incubate bad behavior.
Any act of violence on a college campus is reprehensible and inexcusable. The actions attributed to Professor Bishop are, thankfully, in the extreme. No one can condone what she is said to have done. But administrators of higher education need to take a serious look at a system that is widely recognized to institutionalize nastiness.
Basically, tenure is lifetime job security for professors. Supporters say it protects a professor’s right to speak, teach, and publish freely. I don’t dispute that.
Pursuit of tenure requires a junior, or ‘probationary’ faculty member to kiss butt for from four to six years. The butts that get kissed are typically those of the most senior faculty, who will later vote to award tenure—or, as Professor Bishop learned, tell the faculty member to pack up and find another job somewhere else (something faculty find very difficult to do once denied tenure anyplace, by the way).
During the butt-kiss years, the junior faculty member’s primary focus needs to be on research (individual attainment) rather than teaching and academic advising (student helpfulness). Although most tenure-track faculty remain student friendly, nobody ever gets tenure by putting students’ needs first: The mantra is “publish or perish.”
I have taught in higher education almost 20 years, and have worked as full-time or adjunct faculty at several universities. I was tenured in my last teaching position. At the universities where I’ve worked that had a tenure system, all of them had at least a few angry and embittered faculty whose resentment was a product of that system.
On the last day of my first class in graduate school, my tenured professor distributed student evaluations. When students were done writing them, he collected the papers and walked to the trashcan. Dropping them in to the can, he said with a smile: “I’ve got tenure, so your opinions don’t matter.” He turned and walked out of the room.
At my last university, I proposed a course focusing on ethics in public relations. The course proposal was repeatedly derailed by a senior tenured colleague in another department. His department owned “ethics” you see, and no class involving the E word would be taught at the university unless it was taught in his department.
I have witnessed tenured faculty stall simple but valuable initiatives for students by questioning tiny details, demanding more (often unobtainable) information, and sometimes requesting a year to “think about it.” Yes, a year.
Sometimes, disagreement among faculty results in tenured folks sending out “reply to all” e-mails excoriating junior faculty—e-mails so vicious they’d make Hannibal Lecter blush. Such communication would get anyone reprimanded or fired in most any workplace in America. Unless, of course, there’s a tenure system and they’re tenured.
I’m not the only person who’s made the observation that tenure brings about a lot of negative outcomes. Former Harvard professor (and later U.S. Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” He said this in recognition of the fact that faculty members, forged in the fire of the tenure system, are willing to do battle over things most people consider insignificant: lunch invitations, conference-table seating order, offices with windows. No issue is too small to prevent the drawing of battle lines.
In a 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, John Frazee characterized this attitude as “the art of intellectual combat.” Frazee, director of faculty relations at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said the university system and its tenure track create, “an institutional culture that, by focusing unrelentingly on the individual, only enhances the likelihood of conflict.”
“There’s very little incentive,” Frazee wrote, “to work on developing, let alone using, interpersonal or group-process skills.”
Not all tenured faculty have been irreversibly scarred by the Byzantine tenure process, of course. Most faculty (tenured or not) are long-suffering folks. They are kind and collegial. They really do care about students. They, like I, teach at the university level because we love to teach and we are more interested in helping students than in taking home a fat paycheck.
I don’t dispute the scholarly value of tenure but we must all question the damage that can happen to people as they pursue it, especially in light of an incident such as that involving Professor Bishop.
A system that, by its very nature, creates what Frazee identifies as “a likelihood of conflict” is not good for morale. It’s not good for workplace productivity. It’s not good for higher education. It’s not good for students.
When will our college and university administrators step forward and acknowledge that the tenure system has serious flaws and may indeed be diminishing the civility of campus life and endangering all of us who work and learn here? ∆
Dr. Doug Swanson is an associate professor of journalism at Cal Poly. Send comments via the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.