There is more than one way for higher education to be misaligned.

23 10 2010

I saved this piece by Jason Schmitt a couple of days ago, so that I could go back to it later and read it more closely. Unfortunately, I still have no idea what the dude is talking about:

For the last several years I was a staunch opponent of tenure. “Tenure is for slackers” was my thought. I wanted to make a real difference. Engage my classes. Teach lots of people. Create leaders to help guide my Rust Belt economy for the future. I knew someone of my personality couldn’t do that if I was attending mundane departmental meetings, teaching two upper level classes to the most privileged in society — or accepting a tenure track position in Nevada. I also knew that I wanted to be on the front lines. Protection wasn’t important in my first iteration as an academic because in the back of my mind Detroit tool and die makers don’t have tenure and they have a much rougher go at life behind their honing machine than I do. The only vital trait I knew I needed was being an outstanding professor.

Regardless of my scattered, over-burdened life, my philosophy held true. I have more work than I can handle due to my teaching abilities. I have been getting dirty in the front line ditches for several years now, but it is not enough to make the difference I desperately seek. And I think a piece of shrapnel may have made its way to my core because I can’t help but think this system in which I play — of higher education — is misaligned.

So is he saying that higher education is misaligned because it doesn’t reward good teaching? Then why does he apparently have more work than he knows what to do with? Indeed, he writes later that he’s gotten two offers for tenure-track positions that he’s turned down.

Tenure is not an excuse to sit on your butt for the next thirty years. That’s why they invented post-tenure review. Tenure is job protection for positions that are economically tenuous and potentially politically controversial. It doesn’t just benefit the professors who hold it. It benefits universities by incentivizing job applicants to undergo rigorous training and it benefits students by assuring that their professors can offer them the full benefit of their knowledge.

Cary Nelson covered the opposite position well in a recent Chronicle piece:

Professors without tenure are nothing more than at-will employees. They can be fired tomorrow or whenever their contracts expire. One complaint from a student, parent, or politician is all it may take. What if a professor offends a parent or preacher by teaching evolution? What if a professor expresses sympathy for unpopular religious beliefs? What if a professor admits that he or she supports gay rights? What if a professor asks students whether the war in Iraq was in the national interest? Worst of all, what if a professor asks students whether the college really needs that fancy new administration building? Administrators who prefer to avoid controversy just won’t send that professor a new contract.

I don’t care how good a teacher Jason Schmitt thinks he is. He will still be replaced in a heartbeat if any of the universities where he works believe that they can save money and/or trouble by hiring someone else to teach his classes instead. Money over everything. That’s higher education today, and tenure is just about the only protection that some of us have from that mentality. More importantly, people with tenure are just about the only people who can safely express an opposing viewpoint to that mentality.

I’m not going to argue here that there aren’t any tenured professors anywhere who have retired in place and don’t care about their local communities. However, there is more than one way for higher education to be misaligned,


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24 10 2010
Susan

I’d add that it is those on the tenure track, or with tenure, who make policy in most places. So if you care about education in general, and not just what happens in your classroom, a tenure track job is good.

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