Are Social Justice and Tenure Compatible?

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Ap Images, Alex Williamson for The Chronicle

By Corey Miles

With Cornel West’s recent request to be considered for tenure denied, the question academics should be asking themselves is not if they are tenurable, but if they even want to be. Last week West shared that he may leave Harvard because of the denial of his tenure-consideration request, and the academic (and nonacademic) world reacted with outrage, critique, and confusion (many assumed West already had tenure). Regardless of what you think of West’s politics and unsteady relationship with the academy, it’s clear that his body of work and legacy are worth tenure at any institution. The widespread assumption that West already had tenure was revealing: We intuitively believe obviously tenurable individuals would have tenure, a conviction that’s increasingly being challenged.

West’s case brings up recurring conversations on race, social justice, and tenure, and this discourse ranges from considerations of how to make tenure equitable to cases for the abolition of tenure. A 2016 report from the TIAA Institute, a nonprofit center on higher education and financial-security research, shows that from 1993 to 2013 underrepresented minorities in tenure-track, full-time positions grew by 30 percent, while underrepresented minorities in non-tenure-track, part-time positions increased by 230 percent. Similarly, an analysis by the American Association of University Professors on contingent faculty members found that, as of 2016, around 73 percent of all faculty positions were non-tenure-track. If tenure is about protecting academic freedom, its scarcity shows that the university is not a space designed to promote collective freedom. Instead, it is a self-interested system that provides individual benefits to those who help sustain it.

Within this discourse, West’s case is unique. He was once tenured at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Union Theological Seminary. He does not face the same level of precariousness as do many other academic workers of color: the non-tenure-track scholars, graduate students, scholars pushed out of the academy, food-service workers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, and other parts of the academic-industrial complex. Harvard offered West an endowed chair, but, as he explained to The Boston Globe, the tenure-consideration denial stung: “I wasn’t raised to put up with being disrespected or tolerate disrespect. I don’t try to negotiate respect.”

The material stakes are different in West’s case. What is being withheld from him is regard and respect — and the protection that goes along with it. Rather than offering “academic freedom,” tenure provides a buffer from various forms of abuse one might be subjected to in one’s academic career. West, then, is contending that his intellectual and social-justice legacy warrants the level of structural care that tenure provides.

It must be said that even tenured and tenure-track positions are not completely safe, due to the downward trend in enrollment and the financial impact of Covid-19. Colleges across the country have committed to eliminating tenured, tenure-track, and non-track positions alike, with Wright State University being one of the most recent instances of this trend. While higher ed grapples with how to remain economically stable, it has simultaneously embraced the rhetoric of social justice. One can hardly miss the increase in job ads requiring diversity statements, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and sustained efforts to hire racially diverse faculty members. One of the starkest examples is the University of Chicago’s English department, which decided to admit only those students to its Ph.D. program who are interested in working in Black studies.

It is all the more surprising, then, that a rich university like Harvard would balk at granting tenure to West, a leading figure in a multitude of activist spaces as well as the author of field-changing academic texts on race. Universities have rhetorically committed to social justice as an ideology and intellectual framework, but West’s case suggests they are not as committed to social justice in practice.

While social justice as an academic philosophy has been compatible with the tenure track, social justice as a method to challenge hierarchies of inequality has not. Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi whose academic and activist work on the carceral state pushes the bounds of academe, is being terminated for failing to sufficiently communicate with his department chair. Noel Wilkin, Mississippi’s provost, defended Felber’s chair’s decision to fire him, contending that the dismissal had nothing to do with his work on the carceral state and race, but rather stemmed from a lack of communication. Right. If Wilkin’s admission is correct, the message is that it is fine for Felber to write about the violence of surveillance and policing, but resistance to surveillance and policing by one’s department warrants termination. This is the university’s stance toward social justice more broadly: Studying it is lauded, but taking actions based on the clear lessons of such study? That’s a firable offense. In this context, the tenure track conveys to junior scholars that career security is earned only through a set of narrow values and beliefs.

West’s case should force us to question our appraisal of the tenure system. The public discourse around getting tenure-track jobs has already shifted from a focus on merit to one on luck. But what happens when we consider the untenured not just as unlucky but as oppressed? What does West’s desire for tenure, given his otherwise excellent situation and vast intellectual legacy, tell us about the subjugation of academics without it? West deserves tenure at any institution. If an academic icon does not feel adequate without tenure, then that label may hold too much material, psychological, and cultural weight to be offered to so few.

Corey Miles is an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Morgan State University.

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