Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Defending Tenure, Defending the University

In a letter in Sunday's New York Times Book Review Peggy Troupin made as nice a defense of both university education and the tenure process as you'll see in a limited space. I will quote in full:

I went to Harvard with Michael Shapiro (hello, Michael!) and would like to answer his letter to the editor (Sept. 20) in response to Drew Gilpin Faust’s Sept. 6 essay, in which much frustration was manifest. Since graduation I have worked in academia, university administration and the private sector. The university is essentially a medieval institution, a bazaar of intellectual goods hawked by hoary promulgators of many divergent truths. It mysteriously produces, after four years, educated people — university graduates. No one has ever figured out another way to do this. However, the university cannot survive without government funding (replacing the church support of medieval times), contingent upon compliance with an array of complex regulations and laws. This has given rise to an entrenched quasi-governmental bureaucracy of managers.

The tenure system — antiquated, ritualistic and of course unfair — by its very quirkiness protects the academic side from being engulfed by the administrative side, as does the independence of departments. Without these inefficiencies, universities would become little better than branches of government, and the variegated thread to our cultural past would be broken. As long as we don’t tamper too much with the core model, we can limp along and pass something of value on to our children, so they can complain bitterly, in their turn, about the cumbersome, inefficient, unfair and bizarre institution called “the university” (and become educated in the process).

Tenure protects the many so that it can protect the few who most need protecting. There are two kinds of political immersions that can get a professor into trouble. The most obvious of these is simply their politics-qua-politics and how that might have an effect on research, writing, and teaching. But there is also the protection that professors need to be able to speak up within their own world -- academic politics themselves. Especially at smaller institutions it is easy for faculty to have run-ins with administrators over issues of academic policy. And while the outside world oftentimes imagines the academic hierarchy as clear -- naturally a Dean outranks a professor, right? -- the reality is that the demarcation is never that clear, and tenure protects a professor who might be every bit as professionally accomplished, and in many (many, many, many) cases more so than someone who chose to become a dean or VP from being steamrolled based on the real but dubious hierarchy. Professors should not have to forsake teaching and writing to be influential, and tenure in part protects shared governance and standing up against those who no longer speak for what happens in the classroom and in the archives and labs, or who speak with the vision of an administrator.


Clare said...


I saw that letter on Sunday as well. It, along with your commentary, gives me a much better understanding of tenure from the perspective of the professor. Thanks for that.

dcat said...

It's always annoying to hear people from outside the academy bitch about tenure (or bitch about universities for that matter). I liked that the letter provided a solid defense without being defensive.