The Trouble With Tenure

A short while ago, I saw some Twitter ire (such as it is) directed at tenure by biologists. I understand where it comes from: right now, the biology job market is really tight, and there are structural barriers making far more difficult that in years past for junior scientists to get funding. Additionally, most biologists, though not all, really don’t run into trouble based on their research to the point where they need tenure protection. In the sciences, tenure largely serves as a financial inducement: after working very hard as a graduate student, post-doc, and junior faculty member for relatively shitty pay given your expertise, you are rewarded with nearly-guaranteed lifetime income (assuming you’re tenure track). It’s a great deal if you can get it. At the same time, those without tenure are left wondering what legitimate purpose it could possibly have. Why not just have five or ten year contract positions instead?

Well, tenure really does matter. Over at Retraction Watch, there’s a good post about increasing academic intimidation, which seems to be rising hand-in-hand with the commodification of the university: politically incorrect faculty are not good for the bottom line (or so administrators believe). But there are two U.S. cases that highlight the importance of tenure that I’ve covered on the blog. Let’s talk about what happens even when you have tenure (foreshadowing: nothing good).

Imagine you’re an education professor who, based on his research, determines that much of the variation in test scores is “insensitive to instruction”–that is, teaching how to take exams can matter as much or more than knowledge of the content the exam is supposed to test. Now imagine that your department received a $1 million grant from Pearson, who manufactured the very tests on which you conducted your research, to establish “the Pearson Center for Applied Psychometric Research.” You can probably guess what happened next (boldface mine):

In January 2013—six months after his testimony [criticizing Texas’ tests] and less than a week after a story featuring Stroup aired on the Austin ABC affiliate—he received the results of his post-tenure review. It was bad news. The committee gave Stroup an unsatisfactory rating. Under state law, a public university in Texas can remove a tenured professor if he or she gets two successive unsatisfactory annual reviews. A Post-Tenure Review Report dated Jan. 10, 2013, dinged Stroup for “scholarly activity and productivity.” In sum, the committee found he was publishing too little and presenting at conferences too seldom. Of his infrequent conference presentations, the committee members wrote, “Further, and equally concerning, is the paucity of presentations at research conferences. Dr. Stroup lists no presentations (competitively reviewed) at research conferences over the past six years (none since 2005).”

That was a curious conclusion, because Stroup had been presenting. When a professor undergoes post-tenure review, he or she completes annual reports using a form published by the Office of the Executive Vice President. Stroup’s annual report lists four conference presentations, including two plenary addresses.

Regarding the overall charge of lack of productivity, the review committee failed to note Stroup’s work with cloud computing, which led him to a group approach to education technology called “cloud-in-a-bottle” that is being implemented now at Lamar Middle School in Austin. In addition, his work with Texas Instruments on the math intervention program had led the company to create its Navigator system. All of this was in his annual report.

Stroup protested, citing these omissions, misstatements and errors. On Jan. 16, Committee Chair Dr. Randy Bomer submitted the post-tenure review report to the dean of the College of Education after changing Stroup’s rating from “unsatisfactory” to “does not meet expectations.” Bomer did not, however, correct any of the errors in the committee’s report.

This does not mean Stroup’s job is safe, however. The department has put Stroup on an aggressive publishing schedule, and forced him to move offices three times.

In a cover letter to the dean, Bomer explained the change from “unsatisfactory” to “does not meet expectations” as the result of a misunderstanding about the rating definitions. No mention was made of the first draft’s supposed mistakes. In fact, Bomer wrote that the review committee did not even consider the omissions Stroup pointed out because “these things were not on his [curriculum] vita,” even though they were on the forms provided by the university….

Maybe Stroup’s “emperor has no clothes” rebellion against UT’s generous benefactor has nothing to do with his post-tenure review. For its part, Pearson Education said through a spokesperson that the company had no contact with UT about Stroup.

Maybe Stroup and his cloud computing and networked calculators don’t fit neatly into an academic world, so his colleagues think he’s slacking off. Maybe there’s another explanation for why the UT College of Education is seemingly trying to get rid of a tenured professor.

But if Pearson were trying to strike back against a researcher who told legislators that they were paying $100 million a year for tests that mostly measure test-taking ability, it would look an awful lot like what is happening to Walter Stroup.

Tenure means, unlike many, he can’t be fired without cause: as obvious and petty as the University of Texas is being, at least Stroup can make the rent or mortgage (for now).

Now let’s go to the State of Wisconsin, run by Nazghul and Governor Scott Walker, where Professor William Cronon who publicly opposed Walker also was treated, erm, poorly (boldface mine):

Earlier this week, Cronon published an Op ed piece in The New York Times that contained a scathing attack on Walker and the Wisconsin GOP, alleging that their anti-union proposal represents a radical break from Wisconsin history. Cronon also posted a blog entry that alleged that a little-known conservative outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which tries to engineer right-wing policies in state legislatures, is behind the Wisconsin anti-union push.

Shortly thereafter, Cronon says, the University of Wisconsin’s attorneys received a request from the Wisconsin GOP, under the state open records law, for copies of a huge amount of Cronon’s emails sent from his state account at the university. That request is posted right here. Tellingly, the Wisconsin GOP asked for Cronon-authored emails that contain a range of union-related keywords, such as “AFSCME,” “collective bargaining,” “recall,” etc….

Cronon theorizes, based on the keyword requests, that Wisconsin Republicans are trying to catch him in violation of state university rules by using a state email account to engage in “lobbying and electioneering to try to unseat these Repubican legislators.” In other words, he says, Wisconsin Republicans want to damage him professionally in response to his criticism of them.

“That’s what they’re hoping to find,” Cronon says. “They’re trying to intimidate me. What they’re saying is that if an academic raises these kinds of questions, we’re going to make his life really uncomfortable. Intimidating people from asking legitimate questions is a McCarthyite tactic.”

Again, if Cronon were an at-will employee, he would have been fired.

If your research is making a difference, there’s a reasonable chance you’re pissing off someone powerful. And that’s why faculty tenure is a good thing.

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One Response to The Trouble With Tenure

  1. Robert L Bell says:

    Tenure is dead.

    Everything you say here is absolutely true. I personally believe in tenure, deep in my heart of hearts, and I will defend against all comers the thesis “The University is its Faculty: administration, physical plant, even students are accessories to this institution for the cultivation of the life of the mind.”

    But, like you say, the youngsters don’t see the value of tenure. Since forever they have been griping about deadwood, the crusty old profs who contribute nothing (of value to the young punks) and leave only when they are carried out on their desks. The youngsters will not go to the mat for tenure. The administrators will not go to the mat for tenure. The adjuncts will not go to the mat for tenure. Even some/many/most of the tenured professors will not go to the mat for tenure, as no one believes that he will need its protections until the hour is late.

    So I have pretty much given up on tenure, as I can not win the battle on my own. But as I stand on the bridge of the SS Community, settling down beneath the waves, I hurl my last curse: no one is going to benefit. Least of all the administrators who affect to believe that ambitious young men will continue to slave 100 hours a week for minimum wage in the hope of one day slaving 60 hours a week for the wages of a McDonald’s franchisee.

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