First They Came for Adjuncts, Now They'll Come for Tenure

Full new vitae came for adjuncts full bleed

Image: Harry Campbell For The Chronicle

By Ed Burmila

I have an uncomfortable question for you: If, by their own accord or by caving to outside political pressures, university administrators take the current crisis as an opportunity to eliminate tenure once and for all, who’s going to stop them?

Put another way: Are there enough academic workers with a stake in the tenure system left to defend it? Sure, the tenured and tenure-track faculty who currently make up less than 30 percent of the college teaching force would be pissed, but could they count on the great nontenured masses of university workers — contingent faculty, grad students, staff members, etc. — to come to their defense? Why would they? Seriously, I’m asking: Why would they? If you’re a tenured or tenure-track faculty member, what concrete reasons have you given your university colleagues to fight with (and for) you to defend what you have and they don’t?

If tenure is going to have a future, tenured professors need to do something that academia rarely encourages them to do: see themselves not as separate or elite, but first and foremost as labor. As go the adjuncts and the nonacademic staff today, so go the tenured faculty tomorrow. You know the quote, “First they came for. … ” This is a crisis from which no one will be exempted in time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is bringing due a long list of problems many academic institutions have been perpetually putting off for an always-delayed future that is suddenly here. As in any crisis, there is the risk that opportunists who have been seeking to weaken the bargaining power and working conditions of academic labor will exploit this chaotic moment to push for changes that might not succeed in “normal” times — an academic “shock doctrine,” as Anna Kornbluh presciently describes. Whether using the crisis as a smokescreen to cut programs, departments, and majors (like at Illinois Wesleyan, for example), to consolidate or close entire campuses (as the University of Alaska system proposed — a proposal that, thankfully, was just dropped), or simply to eliminate tenured faculty (as at the University of Akron), governing boards are seizing the opportunity to make radical changes. Forces inside and outside higher ed see the current social, economic, and political problems roiling the country as an excellent opportunity to swing hard with whatever ax they’ve been grinding all these years.

One chilling lesson — among many — from the 2008 financial crisis was that the worst impacts on state budgets weren’t felt until two to three years into the ensuing recession, in the period from 2010-12. If that pattern repeats itself — and with Congress showing no inclination to backstop state and local governments, it very likely will — then the dismal reality is that higher education is in for a world of hurt: The worst of the economic storm is yet to come. State legislatures will seek more cuts in public systems, including higher ed. Private universities will face their own internally imposed cost-cutting as enrollment pressures increase.

Because they are the most convenient target, labor costs have proven to be among the first things on the chopping block. The Chronicle has a partial list of the many thousands of jobs that have already been lost to furloughs, layoffs, and outright cuts at colleges across the United States. Even the most relentless optimist knows that list will grow.

What that means most immediately for academic labor is that the reactionary forces that have long wanted to abolish tenure (or “reform” it into irrelevance) are likely to get bolder over the next few years. Although it would do little in the short term to help universities in a cash crunch, eliminating tenure would realize a longstanding goal of some factions on the political right. The current crisis is descending on higher education at a moment when the decades-long trend of casualization has resulted in nearly 75 percent of all faculty positions being filled by contingent labor — part-time, adjunct, or graduate-student instructors — and an already poor academic job market in most fields is set to be effectively nonexistent in the near future. In terms of raw numbers and as a proportion of the labor force, academia has never had more people with less of a stake in tenure than it does right now.

There are, of course, reasons based in principle to defend tenure. Academic freedom and long-term job security are both worth fighting for. Yet whole generations of Ph.D.-holding workers are realizing that the odds of personally benefiting from the tenure system are effectively nil. The post-2009 “normal” for the job market, wherein an unsustainably small number of newly minted Ph.D.s are hired on the tenure track each year, has created a backlog of applicants fighting over low-paid contingent positions with the hopes that next year, maybe next year, will be the year that they are finally offered the possibility of tenure somewhere … anywhere.

This is a problem tenured faculty, as a whole, have helped create through many years of indifference to the working conditions of non-tenure-track academics. Bringing in contingent labor to teach the courses one does not want to teach has a real appeal to tenured faculty, and securing better working conditions for nonpermanent faculty is not a hill many people with tenure wish to die on. But that may finally be changing. Now more than ever, tenured faculty are beginning to realize that their working conditions are linked to those of contingent faculty. It is in the interest of tenured faculty to fight for their non-tenure-track colleagues. But the key question, as The Chronicle’Emma Pettit asks, is: Will it be too little too late? When contingent labor protested for years about poor working conditions, it did not find many allies willing to fight alongside it. Now the roles are reversed: Tenured faculty will soon need the rest of the profession to help fight attempts to erode tenure.

The reality is setting in that the fates of all classes of academic labor — from the endowed Erik Prince Chair of Peace and Security Studies to the harried first-year graduate student — are linked. Tenured faculty may have believed that tenure insulated them from the vagaries of economic crises and budget cutting, but the current situation demonstrates otherwise. If your department or your university disappears, your tenure doesn’t mean shit.

A possible solution is to integrate the issues of all parts of the academic work force into a single campaign of pressure to not only protect tenure but to improve the lot of contingent faculty — better pay, better benefits, no last-second contract-renewal decisions — as well as graduate students, whose right to unionize could be tied to the interests of tenured faculty. Supporting these concepts in the abstract, perhaps bolstered with some well-written arguments, will not be enough; to succeed, as Sara Matthiesen writes, academic workers will need to make the leap from analysis to action. How can faculty members utilize what power and privileges they have to protect nonacademic staff members, another group with whom tenured faculty have traditionally felt little solidarity and who, so far, are bearing the brunt of pandemic-related job cuts? How might they support — with words and actions — contingent academic workers who desperately need more and more widespread organizing (which is easier said than done)? If there is a time to build the biggest possible coalition to push for investment in higher education and fight the deterioration of working conditions on campus, this is it.

As corny as it sounds, the old labor slogan about “an injury to one” being “an injury to all” is very much true for academic workers. Now is the time to start understanding that all labor that keeps universities running has value — and every university laborer has a shared interest in making sure they and their co-workers are protected and treated with dignity. Doing so means working diligently to unlearn our traditional academic obsessions with status hierarchies, with creating different categories of workers valued differently and with rigidly segregated privileges. The subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which tenured faculty have been encouraged to see themselves as a separate, elite class of “thinkers rather than … workers” — these are barriers to building the kind of solidarity needed to protect workers during this crisis, and they need to be torn down with haste.

The choice has always been between sinking separately — as rigid “classes” of the labor force — or fighting for our collective interests together. If tenure is to be saved, those who now enjoy it must recognize that turning a blind eye to the problems of the professionally less fortunate is not merely ignorant but actively harmful to their own cause — because when they come for tenure (and they will), what will faculty members do if they, too, are met with nothing but blind eyes?

Ed Burmila holds a Ph.D. in political science and has worked as a tenure-track and visiting professor. He is now a writer and podcaster based in North Carolina.

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