Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tenure as a social contract

Here's an aspect of the tenure debate the blog hasn't covered yet. All the talk on campus and off has focussed on how valuable a thing tenure is for faculty, how it protects their job security and their academic freedom. But we faculty also know that tenure doesn't come easy, that faculty have to pass a rigorous test, and that other faculty are forced to make difficult decisions on many tenure cases. The Chancellor, to be fair, herself alluded to this aspect of tenure when she noted in her last town hall meeting that tenure was an "earned status", though she characteristically did not mention the faculty's central role in awarding, or denying, tenure. But her actions are undermining that earned status.

Experienced faculty readers will know how difficult tenure decisions can be. SIUC does in fact have pretty rigorous standards for tenure, at least in my experience, and we routinely turn down colleagues--essentially, we fire our colleagues--who have made and could continue to make real contributions to our programs. You know how it works: most often the tough cases are when a colleague is a fine teacher and does their share of the department's service work but hasn't published enough. We cast such tough votes precisely because tenure is supposed to represent a lifelong commitment on the part of the institution; this major commitment justifies high standards and tough votes. We uphold our side of the tenure system. But the administration is now, in at least two ways, undermining this system; they are, in my view, breaking the social contract we in academia have lived by for generations. After the break, I'll attempt to explain why.

1. The administration's new policy treats individuals unfairly. By demanding greater flexibility to fire tenured faculty, the administration undermines the value of tenure. This in turn makes it hard to justify our decisions to deny tenure in close cases. 

I've already blogged enough about how I believe current SIUC policy (even on a rather charitable reading) undermines the status of tenure. I won't repeat those arguments here. I will add this angle. Faculty and administrators can sleep at night after making difficult tenure decisions largely, I suspect, because tenure is so valuable a thing. To award a status this valuable, one must be convinced that the candidate has well and truly earned it. It is the value of the status that justifies firing people who are otherwise valuable members of one's unit. 

Yes, in other walks of life people get fired all the time, not only after five years of service. But they also have access to a far more flexible job market, given the absence of tenure. And they don't get fired at the five year mark for failing to prove that they will be valuable contributors to SIUC's research, teaching, and service missions for the rest of their careers. When we got into academia, we all knew there was a difficult trade-off we would have to make: the job market was inflexible, and the tenure decision a most frightening prospect. But we got into academia thinking that tenure, once earned, was a most valuable thing, not only to us as individuals but to the academic enterprise in general, given its ability to promote and protect academic freedom. If you devalue tenure you upset the entire social contract upon which academic careers have been built.

2. The administration's new policy treats units unfairly. By seizing centralized control of hiring, and treating the concept of "faculty lines" as an obsolete relic, the administration punishes units for making negative tenure decisions and hence puts incredible pressure on them to vote yes on close cases. 

In my experience within CoLA, successive deans have been very clear that a negative tenure decision gives a department a very strong argument indeed for getting a new hire to refill the vacated line. No such argument is without exception, of course, nor can it be. For example, sometimes there will simply not be enough money; sometimes other units, through retirements or other departures, will have still more pressing needs. And yes, deans can and should take student demand into account, and can and should approve new lines even when not all old lines are filled. Lines will, over time, shift from unit to unit. But such shifts should be slow and clearly justified. I've already argued for this conservative principle in an earlier post on this blog. 

Imagine the situation now--if you aren't already living through it. From what I hear, the central administration has made it clear that there is no longer any such thing as faculty lines. Departments no longer have lines--nor even do colleges. So you are now sitting on a departmental or college tenure and promotion committee. You've got a tough case: a candidate with real strengths in teaching and service but without a strong research portfolio (or vice versa, I suppose, though in my experience it is almost always research that undermines candidacies for tenure around here). 

In the past, you had some good reason to believe that if you turned this candidate down, your unit--your department or college--would not be penalized. You'd get to make a new hire, or at least you'd get to go near the head of the line for new hires (a line which of course might be very long in tough times, and very slow moving during a "hiring freeze"). 

Under our brave new administration, you have no reason to believe anything of the sort. The pressure on you to approve close cases for tenure will be immense. If you don't approve this candidate, you may well never get a replacement; you'll never again have an expert in that given field, and specialities or even entire programs you've long offered could be lost. Either you continue to uphold a system you believe in, despite the administration's failure to uphold its side of the bargain, or you vote yes because you recognize that the system is broken. The result will almost certainly be more positive votes in close cases. While many of these cases will involve fine people who will contribute splendidly to the teaching mission of your unit for decades to come, at least some of the individuals involved will continue to have difficulty in contributing to our research mission. 

The overall impact will be to make SIUC a less vibrant research university. 

To put it rather crassly: you get what you pay for. American universities have produced great research because they were willing to abide by the tenure system, despite the lack of "flexibility" it entails. Our current administration believes that they know better, that, given more power, they will redistribute resources in a way that will make us more competitive. SIUC does need to turn around our enrollment decline. But gutting the tenure system does not seem a promising way to do so. Unless, perhaps, the administration can point to peer institutions who have outperformed us by gutting the tenure system themselves--and done so without turning themselves into universities unworthy of that name.


  1. Some of the above rings true but the "you could expect a new line" for granted doesn't jibe with my experience in 17 years at SIUC. No one should ever let such considerations color their view of a candidate's merit.

    If those judging T&P are so cynical to think "we can't lose this position," the tenure process surely is broken.

    Frankly, there are problems, as you imply, with the "golden handcuffs" of tenure locking faculty to the place of their first hire. I suspect that will change over time and it there will be the upside benefit of more labor mobility. As it stands, the more qualified, experienced and published you are the less likely to get hired. Talk about a rigid labor market based on youth and "potential" (rather than demonstrated talent)! This is one of those areas that I try to explain to people in other jobs and they just don't get it: they headhunt talented people all the time.

    I'm not "attacking tenure" just offering my own experience. Love to hear if others react to tenure decisions thinking of "the next hire" or job loss? I hope not.

  2. Dave - You state that faculty "uphold our side of the tenure system" and while this is often true, there are faculty that earn tenure and then become burdens to their units, colleges, and universities when they decide that teaching (and often teaching poorly) is their only professional responsibility. This is why I think that any contractual protection of tenure should be accompanied by language that upholds the faculty end of the bargain as well. What does the FA think of post-tenure review?

  3. Last time around, the administration wanted post-tenure review. My understanding is that the FA was willing to discuss the concept, but had a rather different understanding of what such a review could consist of than the administration did.

    Tenured faculty can of course already be reviewed (as we are for merit pay and for promotion to Full Professor) and can even be dismissed, where there is just cause. If you mean that faculty should be asked to prove every few years that they deserve tenure, then you've changed the meaning of tenure in a fundamental way--reducing it the status of a five year contract or the like. If that's what you're looking for, the FA is not for you.

    I suspect the FA's position here is more or less in keeping with that of the AAUP:

    Contractual protection for faculty wouldn't make tenured faculty any more difficult to fire than they have been traditionally. It would rather safeguard tenure as traditionally understood, in the face of pressures to lessen tenure's status. In my view, then, contractualizing tenure isn't some power grab by faculty that ought to be met by a corresponding administrative power grab. It's an essentially conservative move to protect a value we've long lived by and with--a concept the administration claims to support itself.

  4. I would certainly be opposed to tenure being revoked, but what about changing responsibilities? For example, it would seem reasonable to me that a non-productive faculty member be made to teach 4/4 instead of 2/2? Is this currently possible? Would the FA be opposed to this type of agreement?

    I also think that tenure at SIUC comes pretty easily compared to top-tier research universities (which we claim to be). Undoubtedly, there is considerable variability due to disciplinary norms, etc.

    By the way, in your post you say "then the FA is probably not for you.". I was not inquiring about this to consider joining the FA. As you know, the FA represents me whether I agree with them or not. I'm just trying to figure out what the sticking points are on this issue.

  5. To the best of my knowledge, nothing in the contract forbids chairs form assigning 12 hours of teaching per semester--so long as there is then no service or research load. There is obviously some variety between departments. My department routinely has a 3/2 load, for example, and we teach lots of four credit hour courses; so I and many of my peers taught 17 credit hours last year while those on standard 2/2 loads in other departments taught 12. Of course others have their own crosses to bear (multiple PhD committees, labs, etc). So there is plenty of variability across departments. The larger problem, I think, is suggesting variability within departments.

    One problem with assigning Dr. X 4/4 because she's failed to publish lies in merit and promotional rules that require her to publish to get merit pay and promotion. Once you've upped her load you've made it impossible for her to compete fairly for those things. Yes, you may have concluded that she'll never publish anything anyway, but permanently preventing her from publishing (by doubling her teaching burden) seems unfair to me.

    I don't know, frankly, if the FA has an official position on this, though I suspect (as you must) that most FA members would oppose differential loads within departments. But in many issues the FA has been willing to allow departments flexibility so long as departmental faculty are in charge of their own destiny. Hence if a department decided to have differential loads of the sort you suggest, and a process was in place that guaranteed faculty the primary authority over their own operating papers, the FA might not object.

    My own belief is that dead wood is rarer than people think, and that efforts to prune dead wood will prove far more costly in time and energy, and to faculty morale, than they are worth.

  6. It appears the anonymous 8:25 PM and 9:45PM is either an administrator or negotiating on this blog on behalf of an administrator. Any faculty member, who knows what tenure means, would not make such comments.
    SIUC is going downhill faster than what you may think. Many good people have left and many are looking forward to leaving.

  7. Anonymous 6:50 is typical of how comments on this blog are often misunderstood. I'm not an administrator and I'm not working on behalf of an administrator. In fact, I'm a tenured faculty member in a CoLA department. Disagreement with you (or the FA for that matter) doesn't make me an administrator! Thanks for the early morning laugh though.

  8. Anonymous (6:50 PM):

    The surge in anti-FA comments this week has me wondering about Administrators jumping in here this week too. I don't think Anonymous 8:25 PM is an administrator. The comments don't have the same ring as the new ones.

    Anonymous 8:25 PM et al.'s comments address something in Dave's post or in the comment chain. Anonymous 8:25 PM doesn't claim Dave's post "contains many errors" with no evidence of the errors. Anonymous 8:25 PM doesn't throw in a bunch of topics that are unrelated to the post.

    Anonymous 8:25 PM is not personally insulting to Dave. There have been some nasty comments here from both sides, but up until the last week, the personal insults have come mostly from the pro-FA side. That pattern is rapidly changing.

    Anonymous doesn't rely on exclamation points. Up until his/her third comment, anonymous 8:25 PM doesn't use exclamation points. Some of new posts use so many exclamation points that my high school English teachers would have conniptions if they saw them.

    Administrators, if you have decided to jump in this week, please make more of an effort to look like a thoughtful, reasonable people. If you don't, readers now have a way to identify you as an administrator, even if you comment as Anonymous.

  9. Could it also be that the number of anti-FA comments is directly related to the fact that the FA is calling for a strike vote. Those of us that are speaking out (with anti-FA comments) may be affected by a strike that we have no control over and do not want. It is easy for you to dismiss us by calling us administrators (or administration supporters), but we also have a lot riding on this.

  10. Anonymous (9:11 AM):

    It's not the number of comments that makes me believe they are from administrators, it's the style. Up until the last week, the anti-FA comments have, like yours, generally been on-topic and reasonable.

    This week, some of the new comments have been off-topic and name calling. I try to dismiss that kind of comment (pro- or con-) regardless of who it comes from. Because those comments often are emotion-laden, it can be hard to just let it go.

    It comforts me to think the people acting like jerks are in a far-off office like Anthony Hall, and the people who are reasonable but disagree with me are colleagues down the hall.

  11. Anonymous 9:11, How can you say you "have no control over" a possible strike? You have had (and continue to have) the ability to join the FA, NTT FA, ACeS, or GAU and vote accordingly. You can also organize others who feel the same way and have them do the same. Unions are one of the last truly democratic institutions.

    The only way you have no control over this is if youre an administrator ... hmmmm ...

  12. Anonymous 10:09 - Perhaps I should qualify that. I have to pay the FA $600 per year to have a voice in this matter. Since I'm not willing to do that (because (1) the parent organization profits from strife on campus and (2) I don't agree with FA tactics and viewpoints on many topics), I have no control over a possible strike. This does not make me an administrator. People reading and posting here need to realize that there is tremendous variability among the faculty regarding most matters discussed here. We need to maintain a respectful tone (as I appreciate paranoid has done with me on several posts on this blog) even if we disagree.

    I would also disagree that administrators have no control over the strike, wouldn't you? Your comment that they don't strikes me (no pun intended) as very strange.

  13. I think it is a mistake to believe that the apparent surge in comments opposing the FA is coming from administrators. Seems a little paranoid, perhaps:-)

    I agree that emotions are building (on both sides) and I think the rhetoric is simply a reflection of that. People who thought this was all sabre rattling and negotiating posturing had who been hoping that this would be sorted out before now are realizing that this is going to be a major crisis for the university. And they are chiming in, sometimes with fairly emotional comments. That's OK - up to a point.

    The vote on Wednesday (and the backlash against it, which ever way it goes) is going to lay bare a rift that already exists in the faculty. That open wound will hurt, so I expect the rhetoric here and elsewhere to intensify quite a bit. Its tin hat time folks, better get ready.

    P.S. For the record, I am a faculty member represented by the FA but not an FA member and I generally oppose the FA position. (Even while not agreeing with the administration on some issues.)

  14. I am a member of the FA, and I don't always agree with their positions, either. But that is not really the point in a representative democracy, is it?

    Moreover, it is conceivable that if this "silent majority" is really a majority and united in more than their silence, they could organize their own group (with no dues?) to challenge the authority of the FA to represent the T/TT Faculty at large in contract negotiations.

    In doing so, at least they will discover the work involved in both representing the faculty and negotiating with the Administration. Given that most local representatives and active members of the union do so with no remuneration and no real acknowledgement that their work for the union is service, this of course would be added to the already considerable expectations of being a faculty member. And, of course, they will finally have to prove beyond simply asserting it that they are a "majority."

    Or they can just write letters to the local media and participate on blogs hoping to sway those dues-paying members who can vote to authorize a strike. They can attempt to muddy the authority of the unions to negotiate for their bargaining units without providing real alternatives. In other words, they can lend their voices (intentionally or not) not to preserving the status quo but to the ever increasing centralized control of the Administration.

    If you are a non-union employee (particularly T/TT Faculty), your comments are welcome here and are more often than not responded to with respect and reason. But don't imagine that your care for your purse-strings or your cynicism about collective organizations (including the bureaucracies of unions and universities, alike) grant you any high moral ground.

  15. "I am a member of the FA, and I don't always agree with their positions, either. But that is not really the point in a representative democracy, is it?"

    Unlike the government, this "democratic" organization (FA) doesn't claim to rule with the consent of all the governed. In fact, it is a minority party, although it garnered a majority vote 13 years ago--when many people now here had no vote (and many voted "yes" have since retired or left). Nor does FA have coercive powers that extend to forcing association or dues paying (even "fair share" cannot force ANYONE to join the union, under a string of Supreme Court decisions and the fees are limited to local expenses).

    But, more generally, what a change in tone -- and I told people to expect such. It probably explains the long string of Anonymous comments (I wish more people could come up with Cato, Brutus, or other pseudonyms!). I can't keep all the Anonymouses (sic?) in my head. lol

    In general, this site has embodied _deliberative_ democracy but now the raw partisans are out in force. ; - )

  16. @8:25 PM,

    My department does have some faculty with higher teaching or service loads because they are no longer engaged in research. It is not a prefect solution. I'd like to see more efforts into helping people re-engage. This is something worth working with the admin on but is not a part of the current contract dispute.

  17. Jonathan Gray,

    Actually, as I understand it. You are simply wrong regarding your assertion that faculty not in agreement with the FA could organize an alternative to the FA.

    The Illinois Education Labor Relations Act, as it currently stands, grants the FA/IEA **exclusive** representation of SIU T/TT faculty. No other group(s) are legally allowed to represent anyone. The only way that can be accomplished under the current law is to decertify the FA then emplace an alternative. A possibility that has been, and remains, under serious discussion.

  18. Jon Bean, the FA works as democratically as it can within Illinois law. As you know, there are lots of different ways of doing democracy. Illinois law allows the faculty to elect to be represented by a union and then allows individuals to elect not to join that union, thereby surrendering their right to directly influence its actions. Not an ideal system from either the labor or management perspective, I suspect--but just the sort of muddled compromise one ends up with in democracies.

    As Anonymous 1:10 notes, decertification is indeed the only legal way to remove the FA from its status as exclusive representative of the faculty. I don't think there's a chance in hell that the faculty would vote to decertify the FA (despite the opposition of a vocal minority and the fact that many others have heretofore chosen not to join the union). But those who oppose the FA do of course have the legal right to push for a decertification vote, as some are doing as we speak.

    Another alternative, of course, is to join the FA and change it from within.

    I will agree wholeheartedly with Jon B's comment about tone. Over the next few weeks we should all expect heated rhetoric from both sides and even more heated comments here and elsewhere from their partisans. I continue to believe that it is possible to make strong arguments for one's own position, and to powerfully undermine what strikes one as weak arguments for the other side, without maligning the motives and integrity of one's opponents. That will continue to be my aim.

    It helps, curiously, to have others malign one's own integrity; if I am indignant about that (as I am), it gives me all the more reason to think long and hard about attacking the integrity of others.

    We will, after all, all have to work with one another again once the dust settles. It seems to me most likely that both the Cheng administration and the FA as currently constituted (I hesitate to call it the Hughes administration, given its considerably less hierarchical structure) will survive this crisis, though it is of course possible that either or even both could be irreparably harmed by a strike. But we will certainly have faculty and administrators, both, going forward, and have pro- and anti-union faculty, something we all ought to keep in mind.

  19. Looks like you've got some spam at 2:17 AM.

  20. Yeah. So far Google's spam filter has caught 0% of the four or five spam comments we've attracted, while misfiling at least twice as many genuine comments as spam. The flurry of spam last night leads me to fear that the flurry of real comments of late has made the site more attractive to spammers: we'll see. They do provide a bit of comic relief.

    Who will be the first to suggest that they are part of an administrative plot? Absolutely diabolical.


I will review and post comments as quickly as I can. Comments that are substantive and not vicious will be posted promptly, including critical ones. "Substantive" here means that your comment needs to be more than a simple expression of approval or disapproval. "Vicious" refers to personal attacks, vile rhetoric, and anything else I end up deeming too nasty to post.