Another Analogy for Tenure.

16 12 2010

Tenured Radical compares tenure to scene from Through the Looking Glass. While I would have thought the Caucus Race from the original book would have been a more obvious analogy, I’ve been thinking of an entirely different one based on my favorite movie of all time:

My point here is not that if you fail to answer the questions you get cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril (although unlike Tenured Radical, I’ve never known anyone who’s been denied tenure that ended up with a job at anywhere near the same pay grade, let alone prestige). The point is that the questions get harder as you go along.* So you’re not a Python weenie like me? The newly tenured Laurie Essig at Brainstorm offers a good explanation of my argument in plain English:

The increasing scarcity of tenure means that the standards for getting it are getting more and more difficult to meet. At Middlebury, it is not unusual for older faculty to have received tenure without a single book, while those of us undergoing review now often have two books at the point of tenure.

I’ve seen the same thing myself even long before I got tenure or promotion to Full Professor. Just yesterday I heard from a friend in a different discipline at a different school that his promotion to Full Professor got rejected solely because he hasn’t been the PI for enough grants (and he’s not in the hard sciences!). It’s like first you have to hit the lottery and then run a triathlon after that just to stay in place.

What I wonder though is whether Essig’s explanation of why standards are harder than they used to be is entirely correct. An increase in supply certainly makes it possible for administrations to make earning tenure harder if they want to, but I don’t think they’d do it just to torture people. My guess is that their motivation is money. Deny an Associate Professor promotion and you save the cost of their raise. Deny an Assistant Professor tenure and you can hire a new one for less or, even more likely these days, cut the line and replace them at fire sale prices.

I realize that people like me have it much better than all the contingent faculty of the world, but we are still all in this together to a great degree. Every rank from contingent to Full Professor does essentially the same thing in he classroom. [I know that ranked faculty should in theory be able to teach better, but come on! There’s a lot of awfully good contingent faculty out there these days and when’s the last time you met an administrator who could even tell the difference?] Therefore, we all suffer when there is a huge excess labor supply, because even Full Professors can be replaced by someone (or perhaps several someones) for much less money. They can treat us all badly with full knowledge there are plenty of readily available replacements if we whine too loudly.

So what can we do to solve this problem? I say limit access to graduate school to cut down the supply of excess labor. Organize everyone. And most importantly (at least for this topic), make sure your department and your university has clear and reasonable standards for tenure and promotion because being cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril isn’t really all that funny.

* Except for Sir Galahad, but cut me some slack here, OK? This analogy is a work in progress.


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