Contingent Faculty

Tenure (film)

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When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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  1. Mike, One reason something approaching tenure is so rare in the private sector is the foundation of the organization paying for the job is voluntary contributions of resources in exchange for perceived value. That is somewhat different from the academic world that is supported by income from government apportionments and/or income largely derived from charitable donations and investment income.

    Even there, though, people have little appreciation for how odd it is to have a regular, predictable income month by month and year to year. I actually have to sell paintings to have any income at all and year to year my income has fallen as much as 80%! What an incredible luxury it would be to have an income that is the equivalent of the investment income on $500,000! Oh, I could to wonderful things, like budgeting. But what makes such a thing possible? Consistent sales.

    You don’t have to do that in the academy.

  2. You make an excellent point. Capitalists do take risks, but losing your investment, especially if you have much more in the bank, is a tiny risk compared to losing your job, especially if you were living precariously already.
    Funnily, these same capitalists are the ones who think bailing out banks is a great idea.

  3. If you have a retirement account- usually the fruit of the capacity to budget made possible by the luxury of consistent income- You ARE a capitalist.

  4. David Yerle,

    There are people in this world who are fervent supporters of justice and fairness – just as long as that justice and fairness doesn’t encroach on the injustices and unfairness they benefit from.

    It’s laughable that people believe the entrepreneur, is taking all the risks, and their employee is somehow magically not taking risks. If the business fails, the employee loses their job. It the business is a success the employer is under no obligation to share the upside with the employee. Even worse, even if the business is a success the employer can just ditch the employees responsible for that success – this happens all the time.

    Employee precariousness equals profits – none of this tripe of encouraging workers to work harder. Many workers work under Taylorist systems, where there is a complete disregard for the individual workers effort – the workers are all paid the same (like in fearful Communist Russia). Often these same companies will fire thousands of workers just to increase their share price (the stock market is very hot on worker bashing), with the full intention of replacing those workers with others. Banks are some of the worst for doing this – they constantly fire their workers so they can claim in their company reports they’re “cutting costs” – and then they recruit fresh eager fools to fill the place of those who have been often randomly sacrificed for share holder value – it works out as more expensive than not firing the original workers, but the stock market is impressed by the sadism.

    Even the employee who has the gumption and grit to work harder runs the risk of being punished for their effort. Managers will often fire underlings who pose a threat to their position. The salesman of the year may find themselves being fired on some spurious grounds – “just not fitting in – really just not right for our kind of company”.

    Vaclav Havel, was trumpeted by the right as a great dissident writer, who through his heroism helped bring down the evil of the Soviet Union. But, of course they never liked to comment on what he was writing – the substance of his writing was inconvenient. The public in the west had a very simplified idea of what Soviet communism was – the propaganda. They believed it was a system where the produce of the hard working was unfairly shared out among the lazy – no one could get fired, there was no incentive to work. But if you read Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless – you do not see some alien and different world from the west. Read what happens to the beer maker who wants to make better beer – this is precisely what would happen in our wonderful west where good is always rewarded, and bad always punished.

    Havel, is too close for comfort.

    Those who are against tenure, are not so because they believe getting rid of it will lead to a better service. They just want a system that can more easily be rid of troublesome brewers. They want Czechoslovakian Communist beer.

  5. If this is an example of what tenure produces, where you take an entire column to pose a non-question, then perhaps rely upon commentators to answer it, then maybe it’s time to reconsider your vocation. This is debate at the level of reminiscent of the pub quiz with disco:perhaps there’ll be karaoke later one?

    Perhaps if you could allow non-tenure or unemployed writers to address the issues, recognising the levels of unemployment in other professions and trades, you’d have more interesting and more cogent contributions.

  6. JMRC,
    Pray tell: do you have an algorithm to detect an imbalance of justice and fairness expected for self versus justice and fairness tolerated for others?

  7. In most civilised countries ( 🙂 ), a person in employment cannot be dismissed without cause. I consider this a Good Thing.

  8. Boreas,

    An algorithm? You mean like something you use on a computer.

    How about, The Golden Rule.

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    “Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.”
    The phrase “for cause” seems to be void of something. A closed list of causes must be defined somewhere such as causing a class riot, or causing a student’s pregnancy, or drunkenness. If it is argued that the phrase should be open to interpretation, then the phrase is meaningless. What does the phrase “for cause” mean?

  10. Dennis Sceviour,

    It depends on the university. Often there is some kind of charter under which a tenured faculty member can be removed. They are more or less put on trial. It can be dragged out for years. I’m sure in some places tenure is virtually meaningless and you can be booted for putting someone’s nose slightly out of joint. Or for saying something foolish to your students like capitalism isn’t democracy.

  11. Dennis Sceviour

    Thank you for the reply, but it is not clear and does not satisfy me. If you mean to imply that tenure is meaningless, and thus “for cause” is meaningless, then Mike’s statement is meaningless. The inclusion of requirements under a charter may be of some help, but the charter may say nothing more than “for cause”. The original question still stands to Mike – What does the phrase “for cause” mean?

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: jim p houston, January 23, 2013 at 5:16 pm
    I have always had difficulty in understanding what causes things.
    Your description of cause is to my point of view an old-world definition that does not hold up well in contemporary philosophy. There is piety in the wordings. A dismissal means that the tenured professor would disagree with the reason for dismissal, and JMRC is correct in saying that the matter might go before a dispute committee. Refusal is not a cause but an absence of causal action, so it would have to take a different form than cause since there is no cause. Specifically, I object to the usage of negligence as a cause. Often, politics and not academic reasoning define conviction for crime, so unless there is a political change in the academic sphere, this would not be the case. This may more often be the reason for a dismissal, in that an academic institution changes its policies after a tutor has already received tenure. If the situation were serious enough that the tenured tutor would have to be restrained due to murder or something, the legal system would have challenged the tutor before the dismissal committee would have an opportunity to make judgement on what caused the criminal conviction. In other words, there is no reason to consider criminality as a cause in a dismissal dispute.

    I agree that if a reason for dismissal has been given and the dispute is finalized, one might say that the cause for the dismissal was a reason, but that seems trivial. The phrase “for cause” suggests that cause itself is a reason which I cannot follow. “‘for cause’ has a definable meaning” is an empty platitude which assumes what it is trying to say. The definition does not address Mike’s second question “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?” I wish Mike had taken the time to re-phrase the question.

    Some additional moral skepticism may be necessary here. A causal question (in science) is to ask how an event can be prevented or produced. There is nothing judgmental. However, it is questionable whether one can jump from physical causes to moral causes with the same reasoning. They seem to be different and require a different logic. Perhaps there is nothing new in that observation as ethics is often considered to have its own vacuous language. The implication is not that a causal reason is wrong, but that it may be wrong to use moral causal reasoning. As a moralist, Mike LaBossiere tends to throw morality at everything and anything. Yet, it is surprising to find that he rarely asks what causes things.

  13. Dennis:

    You raise some important philosophical issues about what is cause, but I think that Mike is not using the word “cause” in a philosophical sense, but in a contractual sense.

    I’m not a lawyer and since I don’t reside in the U.S., I don’t know much about U.S. contract law, but in general, in contract law about dismissing people, the word “cause” means “justifiable reason in terms of the profession and its function” in contrast to whims, arbitrary motives, acts of nature, etc.

    I’m not sure if reducing labor costs could be considered a justifiable cause to dismiss someone in terms of U.S. law.

  14. Dennis Sceviour,

    It’s not the cause in “for cause” is important. It’s the lack of cause in “without cause”. A tenured academic cannot be dismissed without cause.

    Many staff in universities are on short term contracts – as little as a year or two. To get rid of them it’s often as simple as not renewing their contracts. The university does not need to provide a cause or a reason to the staff member why their contract is not being renewed – effectively it’s a dismissal “without cause”.

    All kinds of skulduggery goes on in universities. And there is always a cause for all dismissals – there is always a reason. The reason though may not be good – and could be something underhanded. The board would not be able to get away with “We’re terminating your contract, because we want to give your teaching position to the daughter of one of our cronies” (which is the kind of thing that does happen). And then the “politics” is often used by staff who are trying to build their careers by removing threats (people who are more talented than them). Again the board could not get away with a dismissal on the grounds of “Reggie thinks you’re much better than him, and he feels threatened – we like Reggie more than you, so you’re fired”. People often come under political attack, not because they’re bad at their jobs, but because they are too good. They find themselves facing the Mafia of the Mediocre. A researcher may do some world class research one year, get lots of attention – and then find their contract mysteriously not being renewed at the end of the year – while lesser researchers with projects going nowhere get to keep their jobs (very mysterious).

    So the cause itself is not important – it just has to be legitimate.

  15. swallerstein,
    Good point – a contractual definition for cause from the language of legalese may be what was intended. However, it does not help much in clarifying the complexities created when using causal reasoning. Reducing labor costs in the private sector is acceptable practice in many States. Tenure, if interpreted in the sense of seniority, should be a shield against that type of dismissal.

  16. “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

    Because a job is the ‘property’ of the business providing it, and individuals are not entitled to the property of others.

  17. Incorrect: the job is a mutual contract, not a property of either party. That’s why we have employment legislation, otherwise it would be property rights.

  18. Incorrect: a job is a form of mutual contract, not one of proprietorial rights. That’s why we have employment legislation, amongst other instruments to resolve disputes.

  19. @ronmoule

    Fair enough. Let me rephrase – An employee is not entitled to coerce his/her employer to enter into a contract.

  20. What you say relates to any contractual undertaking, so is relevant but not especially so to the question of tenure. In fact, in tenure the apparent agreement is that there be continuity. Employees without specific contracts, and only a ‘culture’ or an understanding, will find themselves cast aside.

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