Turn away from tenure’s dark side

A significant minority of tenured faculty spend their lives undermining others when they could be working for progressive change, argues Douglas Dowland

August 8, 2019
Blonde Aquataine champion bull with rosettes and garland of flowers at a sale in Cumbria
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There was hardly anyone at X’s retirement party. People jabbed at the trays of cheese, kept filling each other’s glasses of wine. We stood in little clusters far away from the dais. A few of his former graduate students sat with him. Their lips were curled in smiles, but there was no light in their eyes.

I huddled with the department chair and his wife. “Something in him changed when he got tenure,” she told me, looking back to confirm that she hadn’t been overheard. I looked at the portrait on display, taken when he was hired 25 years ago. The chipper, almost geeky, don with the bold bow tie had vanished. The man sitting at the dais was sullen.

I thought of his career. There was tenure and then a book – back when he started, that was the normal order of events. Then he became ineffectual. His students languished. Years passed. Curricula were developed around him. In meetings, he was frequently the sole dissenter. He openly declared that none of his junior colleagues deserved tenure, especially those who taught the latest trends, which to him were “more politics than prose”.

By the time I arrived, his bitterness was a matter of public record. For years, he was rotated from position to position; given duties to keep him away from students; shoved off to irrelevant committees. I seldom saw him. The few conversations I had with him were eerie. He would emerge from a dimly lit corner to utter unrequested advice that ranged from “learn your place” to “leave while you can”. It occurred to me that he had left long ago.

No one seemed able to help him. Now they were glad to be rid of him. Eventually, the dean made a few awkward remarks: employing an acrostic, she used each letter of his name to extol a highlight of his career. There was a round of token applause, and we quickly went on our way. I shuddered as I walked to my car.

Along with dreams of going up a ladder never to reach the top or walking through a house where doors led only to other doors, the memory of X’s retirement party became particularly vivid as I myself went through the process of earning tenure. I couldn’t shake it: he was the antithesis of everything I wanted to become.

There are many reasons why the tenured, especially associate professors, can become unhappy and feel that they are just cogs in higher education’s anxiety machine. Job security can induce stasis; additional responsibilities, often tedious, can prove numbing. Most tenured scholars negotiate their unhappiness privately. Others retreat into a perspective of wry irony. Some do their work quickly and flee campus to happier pursuits. They find other ways to maintain their ego.

But there are no good reasons why a small but potent group use their tenure to bring unhappiness to others. For them, the accomplishment of tenure is fuel not for the ego but for the id. They begin to behave like children in candy shops. There is a strain of greediness in their self-interest, a measure of nastiness when they don’t get their way. Any affection is mixed with abuse. Departments spend time defusing their tantrums. They see tenure first and foremost as the exercise of personal power.

With tenure, X had everything an academic could ask for: a spouse with tenure at a nearby institution; a growing salary; a decent travel budget; a reasonable course assignment. Yet tenure provoked in him a career of gaining more by taking what is precious to others: their time, their energy, their idealism for their profession.

I doubt if anyone with tenure wants to become like X. Yet I would guess that every department has one or two who do. A university of a decent size could have a dozen to 50 of them, adding their weight to the hands of the clock, getting in its way, trying to slow its perpetual movement forward, for no other reason than that they can.

Tenure is a rare privilege. It frequently brings out the best in faculty: they are freer to experiment, to take risks, to push the envelope in ways that bring fresh air into campuses and change the direction of disciplines. For some, tenure is a form of limbo: they become famous in obscure fields and update their syllabi at a glacial pace. But theirs are minor sins and even contribute to higher education’s aura of eccentricity.

Then there are the few who use their status as an opportunity to make life worse for others. Their antics accumulate in the soil of an institution and make themselves, their departments and the very concept of tenure poisonous.

The ways in which tenured faculty can behave badly are innumerable. But here are three of them.

First, every institution has a culture in which certain abuses are tolerated. One of the major ways that tenured faculty behave badly is by creating new abuses. Take, for example, the newly appointed director of graduate study who came upon some additional summer funding for students. Having concluded from his own experience that “academia is no meritocracy”, he announced that he would accept the first 10 applications submitted on the due date. When the department office opened that morning, the secretary was astonished by the queue of 50 graduate students. Each application was given a number, and after the 10th was received, the rest of the applicants were sent away. We left feeling that we could have got the money had we been able to sleep in the building overnight. Later, as a final twist of the knife, we learned that even those who were first in line received nothing. Somehow, the summer funding ended up going to already well-supported students in the director’s subspeciality.

Second, a frequent side-effect of tenure is amnesia. This can take the form of nostalgia for the good old days of graduate school. But the tenured who behave badly not only forget the poverty and precarity of life before tenure, they are also unable to see their current privilege. They refuse to acknowledge how unequal academia has become and, by making false equivalences, often help to perpetuate such inequalities.

“The compensation situation is bad,” one tenured professor wrote in a mass email to his department, “and whether you make 30K or 300K, life isn’t getting any cheaper.” He was particularly rankled by his university’s introduction of gender equity as a component of pay increases, which to him revealed “an administration of closet Marxists”. The solution, as he saw it, was simple: not only should equity pay be eliminated, but the “salary protrusion” that came with promotion should be eliminated as well. Rises should be allocated only to “those with tenure who have served the longest, for they have sacrificed the most”. Instead of working to raise everyone’s salaries, he came up with a solution that favoured only himself and, according to public records from his university, his “meager” $288,000 (£237,000) salary.

The tenured have the right to protest. They also have an obligation to create change. When those who are powerful in the profession – those who have virtually guaranteed employment – present their plight as the same as that of the contingent workers who make up the bulk of the university, they are the equivalent of a billionaire president passing himself off as a common man.

Finally, some tenured academics behave badly through their constant, perpetual moaning. (This is not the same as complaint, which can be a just method of exposing abuses and insisting on reform.) There was the colleague who seemed to wait for me at the door, ready to tell me the latest scandal as soon as I set foot in the building. A minute talking with him would exhaust me; five minutes would drain the entire day of savour. When he found me on social media, I discovered that his posts were an endless sharing of higher education disasters with brief commentary along the lines of “this is terrible” or “nothing is ever going back to normal” or “we’re in an infinite crisis”. Occasionally, his grousing would take on masochistic tones: “we deserve unemployment” or “the public is right not to trust us”.

What angers me most about tenured moaners is not what they say but rather the superficiality of their concern. Their catalogue of problems obscures their lack of interest in solutions. The point of their whingeing is not to fix the problems they have highlighted – you’ll never hear them talk or see them post about the changes they’re helping to make. They expect others (usually those without tenure) to fix such problems and, perversely, would prefer them not to be fixed at all so they can continue moaning.

Bull chases men into water

Those who behave badly might not always do so in ways that become public or trigger dismissal from campus. But they nevertheless cast a shadow over the campus. We can work together to diminish their impact. Here are three ways we can do so:

  • Challenge normal abuses. Last autumn, I gave a talk on my campus about higher education’s normal abuses. The question-and-answer session turned into a rare moment when, acknowledging the banality of the abuses we inflict, the members of the audience were honest with each other. What struck me most was how many normal abuses there were in higher education. A common list emerged: senior faculty “borrowing” the syllabi of junior faculty; new chairs taking out grievances by scheduling people at inopportune times; women and minority faculty being assigned a greater burden of (often uncredited) advisory and service work. Everyone in the room – faculty, administrators, staff – knew of actions that were intolerable. Working together, listening to one another, we began to see the striations of these abuses, and we realised that we had to think both vertically and horizontally to eliminate them, looking at the silos as well as the hierarchies. Use your tenured position to speak about what goes unspoken or what gets cloaked under the mundane excuse of “that’s how things work here”.
  • Acknowledge the full magnitude. The best remedy for false equivalence is to acknowledge the privileges of tenure and the responsibilities that come with it. Above all, it requires considering the work of others to be as necessary as our own.
  • Make real noise. The tenured colleague who spends most of his time moaning simply wastes time that could be used to create change. For tenured faculty looking to spark reform on campus, there are ways, ranging from simple acts of generosity to strategies that have led to multi-year reforms, such as those showcased by the group Tenure for the Common Good. Tenured faculty are in the rare position of being able not only to propose change, but to see it through and assess its success. We can call attention to administrative abuses; we can negotiate higher salaries and demand better quality healthcare. Tenured faculty, in particular, can reach out to alumni and other audiences to rescind calamitous decisions. But doing so requires that we stop cloaking our power in cynicism and defeatism. We can fix crises. The axiom of the tenured should be: when you want to retreat, help instead.

Behaving badly makes life miserable not only for the tenured but for those around them. Administrators assume that our silence is approval. Politicians assume that our sulking is a sign of their rightness. Sensing our lack of interest, students complain. Our legitimacy wanes.

To name the ways that we behave badly is both to be honest with ourselves and to reach out to others in the darkness. The alternative is to become unwanted and, ultimately, unremembered. We need time to prepare for the risks that come with insisting on change. But that risk is what spurs our truest achievements and – when the day comes that we leave higher education – our legacies.

Douglas Dowland is associate professor of English at Ohio Northern University. His book Weak Nationalisms: Affect and Nonfiction in Postwar America has just been published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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Reader's comments (2)

After retiring as a university VP and CIO, I researched and consulted with over a hundred higher education institutions on four continents regarding information technology...administrative and pedagogical. One of the most prevalent complaints regarding an institution's ability to implement new technologies involved the roadblocks that tenured faculty caused. These involved everything from a researcher in the materials chips were comprised of trying to dictate how to manage the largest systems in the university to faculty who refused to change or adapt a more efficient or effective system for the benefit of the university as a whole for weak or nebulous reasons - personal reasons, not organizational ones. Tellingly, some of the comments and examples regarding the problems emanating from some tenured faculty came from OTHER tenured faculty...and senior level administrative officers. After observing both the good and the bad effects of tenure at a number of institutions, I remain extremely skeptical as to the overall value of tenure to an institution.
This was such a lovely read - from a writing perspective. Unsurprised to know the writer is a professor of English. :-)

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