The Journal of Higher Education 75.2 (2004) 228-233
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The Questions of Tenure by Richard P. Chait (ed). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 334pp. $35.00.
One of the more vitriolic arguments those of us involved in colleges and universities have had with one another is over the idea of tenure. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s proponents and opponents of tenure lobbed verbal hand grenades at each other as they tried to fashion one or another argument. One side argued: "Little of what they [Chait and his colleagues] offer is open-minded or analytically incisive, let alone civilized. Instead, we have been presented with a series of tendentious propositions packaged with all the slickness of a political campaign" (Finkin, 1997, p. III23). Peter McGrath (1997, para. 4) expressed an opposing opinion, "Substantial modifications are in order . . . the demise of tenure would not be the death knell of the American academy."
Three relatively surprising points about the arguments were that they were often a-historical, data-free, and passionate. Those who work in academic organizations pride themselves on how logic, reason, and dispassionate proof are the coins of the realm. Accordingly, one might expect to find a debate over an academic issue such as tenure to be constructed in such a vein. However, the opposite came to be true. Individuals argued over tenure primarily from their own standpoint on their own campus. Rather than the cool stripped down narrative one was accustomed to reading in peer-reviewed journals, the prose often came across as if it were prepared for an academic version of the Jerry Springer show. "Highly paid [consultants] are ferried from one institution to another to condemn or bless the schemes that emerge from boards and administration buildings," wrote James Perley (1997, p. III-5). "If I write with some anger," he went on to say, "it is because these trends are dividing an academic community that has valued collegiality." And from the other side we heard: "Tenure rewards the lazy and incompetent" (Carlin, 1999, para. 13).
Although I subscribe in general to the idea of the social construction of reality, I was never quite certain about the worlds the debaters were constructing in the tenure wars. Individuals spoke as if the academic sky was falling and tenure was the main culprit. Others spoke as if the academic past was a Golden Age largely because tenure was widespread. When one curtails or develops policy, of course, one's own social context and philosophy are important, but an understanding of the policy's origins and the broad effects of the policy would seem to be critical linchpins for determining possible next steps. This was frequently not the case with the tenure debates. Tenure, to many of the debaters, was a good or an evil and the only recourse was to eliminate it or maintain it as it currently exists. [End Page 228]
In part, the arguments became passionate because the participants were not involved in abstractions. "Real-world" problems and closely held beliefs were at risk. James Perley's comment above pointed out that he was angry because he saw the attacks on tenure as attacks on collegiality, something he presumably had on his campus. From an administrative standpoint, colleges and universities were at financial risk. Medical schools in particular faced fiscal dilemmas because of the crisis in health care. Tenured professors at medical schools received hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary; suddenly, money that paid doctors' salaries and was assumed to be "hard" money became "soft" as the health care crisis worsened. How a medical school was to balance its budget and still pay tenured faculty their previous salaries became a conundrum that in large part has yet to be solved.
In the larger society in the 1980s and 1990s flexibility became the name of the game. The implications of globalization were that workers no longer had job security as companies "downsized" in search of greater accumulations of capital and increased efficiencies. In such an environment, tenure seemed an anachronism. Why...