Tenure and Its Very-Contents

I firmly agree with almost every point in this Jacobin article, except what it says about tenure, where it is deliberately disingenuous.

“Schools and states are attacking the idea that faculty, who work in a setting where the free flow of ideas is vital, should be protected from controversy in their teaching and research.”

And what dang controversy is that, exactly? If tenured professors had actually spent the last thirty years using their unique and unprecedented job-for-life protections to rock society’s boat, I might summon up some sympathy. But let’s be honest about this.

The vast majority of profs who get tenure then sit on their asses quietly collecting paychecks until they die. They don’t engage in controversy because, tenure or not, they know it would hurt their Q4 bonuses. Tenure does not, in point of fact, insulate them from the consequences of dissent.

Neither does tenure somehow magically turn time-serving, hoop-jumping, perfectly contented products of a corrupted system into revolutionary firebrands. It makes them even more lazy, complacent and smug. And so some of them start fucking their students, while others find different ways to exploit the precariat dependent on them for advancement, demanding unpaid labour and absurd, demeaning personal favours from a position of total power, safe in the knowledge that the system will protect them.

Meanwhile, tenure turns academic job security into a zero-sum game, vastly amplifying the precarity of sessional and adjunct instructors. This precarity is then leveraged in utterly heinous ways, resulting in the cultivation of whole generations of grad students who lack the first shred of professional ethics or intellectual courage. These empty shells are then goaded into deploying institutional disciplinary power to eliminate each other so that the university administration can continue to claim clean hands.

Tenure is not the worst or the only bad thing about the academy, but it is very, very bad. Its defenders (as with the writer of this Jacobin piece) are almost universally tenured professors, or those who assume they one day will be. The defenses they construct are therefore far from disinterested. Most often they display a dearth of critical thinking and a disengagement from evidence that should disqualify them in principle from ever holding tenure.

Tenure does not, has never, and will never deliver the only thing (brave, controversial profs) that it claims to exist for. It is a racket for generating and sustaining a grossly asymmetric power relation between a line-toeing over-class and those minions who are deemed sufficiently orthodox to serve them. It is something more suited to priesthood than the work of education.

A university is a corporation. A university is not your friend. All those who work within the ivory walls without the aegis of tenure are prostrate and helpless before the power of these market-driven worker factories, their ability to make next month’s rent dependent on the whim of an elite cadre of unaccountable, self-interested box-tickers.

Tenure is not a solution to that, it is a cause of it. Abolish all tenure now.