Power to the Professors

I suspect that the working title of the book that became Naomi Schaefer Riley’s The Faculty Lounges was, at some point, Tenure: the Root of All Evil in Higher Ed. In Lounges, she makes the case that tenure contributes to just about every pathology of higher education. Tenure is implicated in everything from the triviality of research to poor undergraduate instruction to the imminent unionization of professors.

Riley’s book is thoroughly researched—clearly the work of a veteran journalist—and it makes some important contributions to the tenure debate.

Perhaps its most important contribution is that the author has connected many arguments against tenure (that it places an emphasis on research to the detriment of teaching, that the emphasis on coming up with something new yields more trivial research, that it protects the political status quo, etc.) to a single source. Riley says the trouble with tenure is that it gives too much power to professors who have it.

Tenure, the former Wall Street Journal editor contends, takes power away from the people paying for the university—students, parents, and taxpayers, who expect professors to be primarily engaged in teaching—and puts it in the hands of the tenured faculty.  Would-be reformers in the administration who might try to limit the effects of political bias or try to increase teaching loads find that the faculty thwarts them. According to Riley, “it’s not because they are spineless bureaucrats. It’s because they have no power.”

To explain how tenure gives the faculty power, she quotes the National Association of Scholars’ Stephen Balch:

Tenure has the effect of creating a semi-permanent faculty, which, much like any other civil service, can delay, unravel, or roll back the efforts of transient reformers. Even with the best of wills, a university president contemplating a challenge to ideological vested interests must reckon on what can realistically be accomplished in the time he has available, together with the considerable damage the predictable hubbub will inevitably inflict on his subsequent advancement.

In addition to showing that tenure affects the power structure of the university, Riley questions whether most professors need tenure to protect their academic freedom. The standard argument for tenure, made repeatedly by Cary Nelson of the American Association of University Professors (and just about everyone else in academia), is that it is the greatest guarantor of academic freedom. Riley disputes that by quoting professor Stanley Fish’s definition of academic freedom from his book Save the World on Your Own Time: “academic freedom is just a fancy name for being allowed to do your job, and it is only because that job has the peculiar feature of not having a pre-stipulated goal that those who do it must be granted a degree of latitude and flexibility not granted to the practitioners of other professions.”

Riley points out that many academics nowadays have pre-stipulated goals. Professors who teach vocational subjects such as parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies (25,490 degrees awarded in 2006, according to Riley) have obvious “pre-stipulated goals.” So do professors who do research for private corporations and professors who teach subjects such as gender studies with pre-stipulated political goals.

Given such direction, protections for “latitude and flexibility” are rendered unnecessary because, as Riley says, researchers in such areas “don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing [their subjects].” And when protecting academic freedom is removed from the cost/benefit analysis of tenure—for the mentioned fields, anyway—the scale sags heavily on the cost side.

At times, the book suffers a bit from lack of focus, which is perhaps why the word “tenure” does not appear in the title. Although the book is primarily concerned with the institution of tenure, there are two chapters whose connection with tenure is, well, tenuous.

Riley devotes one chapter to the poor working conditions of adjunct professors. The “lumpenproletariat” of the academy, as she calls them, has little job security, low wages, and few benefits.  Riley cites the power dynamic generated by tenure as the explanation for the rise in the use of adjuncts. “While tenured professors can and often do decline requests [to teach classes] by department chairs,” she says, “adjuncts are so desperate for work that they rarely refuse an assignment.” The privileges and expectations associated with tenure allow tenured professors to be very selective in the classes they teach.

So far as it goes, this is a plausible explanation for universities’ increased dependence on adjunct instructors. However, it doesn’t explain the poor working conditions. Indeed, the increased demand for adjuncts caused by tenure would lead one to predict that adjuncts would be more highly compensated, not less.  Tenure seems a poor scapegoat.

Similarly, Riley’s chapter on what she sees as the looming threat of faculty unionization has little to do with tenure (the premise is that tenure leads to adjuncts which lead to unionization). But the chapter is nevertheless valuable for showing that unionization will only make colleges less manageable.

Despite these detours, though, The Faculty Lounges is a valuable addition to the literature on higher education policy. Riley’s book is thoroughly researched, bringing in opinions from just about everyone with something important to say on the subject. Those on either side of the tenure debate would be wise to contemplate the lessons of the Lounges.