Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 19, 2010

Behind the attack on tenure

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 5:35 pm

As has happened in past economic crises, the ruling class is using this one as an opportunity to drive down the cost of labor. In a highly revealing article on the Mott Apple Juice strike, the NY Times reported:

Tim Budd, a 24-year employee who belongs to the union’s bargaining team, said he was shocked by one thing the plant manager said during negotiations.

He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down,” Mr. Budd recalled. “He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour. It made me sick to have someone sit across the table and say I’m not worth the money I make.”

While there are no obvious similarities between college professors and such blue collar folks at first blush, there are growing signs that the people who run the United States do put them in the same category, at least on the basis of a gathering storm against tenure, an “entitlement” that the rich bastards would like to get rid of, along with Social Security and all the rest.

As is increasingly the case, the propaganda against tenure is coming from nominally liberal sources in tune with the Obama agenda. On August 11th, Christopher Beam, a snot-nosed Columbia University graduate from the class of 2006, told Slate readers:

As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely—tenure means they can’t be forced to retire—simply costs a lot.

Megan McArdle, an insufferable libertarian at Atlantic Monthly who tends to support Obama on most questions, is more concerned about how tenure is responsible for mediocrity:

Since I don’t know of many cases where this has happened, I find it hard to believe that tenure is crucial to preserving the spirit of free inquiry at our nation’s colleges. I’m sure it’s protected more than one scholar from getting fired after making stupid remarks to a class.

Well, all I can say is that the lack of tenure for journalists is no guarantee against stupid remarks, based on Ms. McArdle’s hack work.

Stepping up a bit from the gutter, we find some prestigious academics making the same case. Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, has written a book titled Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities that urges an end to tenure. In an April 26, 2009 op-ed piece in the NY Times, Taylor opined:

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising.

I have a somewhat different take on the matter, having seen my old friend John Hartman, a sociology professor at Columbia University, not have his contract renewed just at the point where a renewal would have been tantamount to entering the charmed circle of tenuredom. This is quite common at Columbia and other ivies, which prefer this form of exploitation rather than using contingent labor. John McLaren, an economics professor at Columbia who received the same treatment as John Hartman, wrote a blistering commentary titled “Worst Mistake I Ever Made” that details the con game that goes on:

Imagine my surprise, then, to be informed that the tenured faculty had just voted, in effect, to expel me from the department. (I felt a bit the way Tommy in Goodfellas must feel, when he shows up to the ceremony to promote him to ‘made man,’ only to realize that it is the last party he will ever attend.) The chairman explained the reasons for this outcome succinctly, in words that will stick with me: “The department decided that after last year’s hiring it is difficult to make the case to tenure one more person in international.” In other words, despite this same chairman’s emphatic reassurances a few months earlier that I could not be turned down for promotion based on a field constraint, here he was calmly explaining that I had just been turned down for promotion based on a field constraint. And I was out of a job.

It was not that much of a coincidence, I should add. When John Hartman went through the same ordeal, he described the sociology department as being run by academic Mafiosi.

While there is nothing in Mark C. Taylor’s background to dispel the notion that he is just a more elevated hack than Beam or McArdle, it was with a keen sense of disappointment to learn that Andrew Hacker had jumped on the “down with tenure” bandwagon.

In today’s NY Times, there’s a review of his Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It co-written with Claudia Dreifus, an adjunct professor.

In one of the first articles I ever wrote on the Internet, long before the days of blogging, I reviewed Andrew Hacker’s Money, about which I said:

For those at the bottom of the ladder, the boom years have brought nothing but economic suffering as Hacker’s statistics indicate. Black male college graduates get only $739 for every $1,000 going to their white counterparts by the time they are between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four. The only explanation for this is racism. Nothing angers Hacker more than the notion that blacks are a privileged group. Addressing the resentment toward affirmative action programs, Hacker notes that it is the public sector that has done much more to remedy past injustices than the private sector, especially the military, postal service, health, education and social services. Continuing efforts to balance federal, state and municipal budgets are not only detrimental to those who benefit from the programs, but to those who administer them as well.

Meanwhile, Claudia Dreifus’s credentials are even more impressive, at least in the opinion of Jesse Lemisch who described her as having an “honorable history in the left and feminism” in a New Politics article on their book, which the NY Times described in the following terms:

The authors’ deepest scorn is reserved for the claim that good teaching depends on research, and their most extreme proposal is that universities drastically reduce the amount of research they support, by “spinning off” medical schools and research centers, discontinuing paid sabbaticals and abolishing the current system of promotion and tenure, a system that tends to reward research productivity more than effective teaching.

Despite the neoliberal drift of most NY Times book reviews, even this reviewer was leery of their position on tenure, adding parenthetically:

(The authors raise interesting questions about tenure and its alternatives. Like many critics of tenure, though, they have a keen eye for abuses of power but are remarkably sanguine about the capacity of the First Amendment to shield scholars from pressure exerted by those with the power to fire them.)

Lemisch, a sometimes irascible fellow but generally with good cause, wrote:

To my dismay, the book turns out to be propaganda for a neoliberal program of cuts in higher education, part of the international retreat from earlier social gains in pensions, vacations, education, health care, and part of the attacks on social services and on public employees. Although I was never an Obama fan, I guess I feel a little like those who were, but who now see their illusions smashed by another blast of right-wing centrism — in Hacker and Dreifus’s case, dressed up as liberalism.

What is entirely missing from the calculations of Beam, McArdle, Taylor and Hacker/Dreifus is any recognition that tenure has pretty much disappeared anyhow. I reviewed three books—The Last Professors, How the University Works and Reclaiming the Ivory Tower—that told a sad story about the inexorable replacement of tenured posts by adjunct labor.

Marc Bousquet, the author of How the University Works is quite clear about how the same process that is undermining the Motts strikers is also undermining college students. In such a brave new world, the distinctions between the factory and the university are rapidly disappearing. We learn that Metropolitan College in Louisville, a place filled to the brim with adjunct professors, worked out a deal with local corporations to supply cheap labor from the student body:

Rather than relieving economic pressure, Metropolitan College appears to have increased the economic distress of the majority of participants. According to the company’s own fact sheet, those student workers who give up five nights’ sleep are typically paid for just fifteen to twenty hours a week. Since the wage ranges from just $8.50 at the start to no more than $9.50 for the majority of the most experienced, this can mean net pay below $100 in a week, and averaging out to a little over $120. The rate of pay bears emphasizing: because the students must report five nights a week and are commonly let go after just three hours each night, their take-home pay for sleep deprivation and physically hazardous toil will commonly be less than $25 per shift.

If you are interested in the question of tenure, I recommend Michael Cameron’s concise but highly informative Faculty Tenure in Academe: The Evolution, Benefits and Implications of an Important Tradition that is based largely on Walter Metzger’s research. Metzger and Richard Hofstadter wrote what amounts to a classic text on academic freedom, although it suffers a bit from conventional liberal thinking. For example, Metzger thinks that it is simplistic to blame big business domination of the boards of trustees for infringements on academic freedom, something I find hard to accept based on my experience with Columbia University, the New School and Bard College, three institutions I know inside and out.

What caught my eye in particular was Cameron’s putting the rise of tenure in an economic context:

The most significant changes to the tenure system occurred in the post-World War II era, as soldiers returning from the war were able to take advantage of the newly mandated GI Bill and descend upon America’s colleges and universities (Metzger, 1973). This phenomenon led to the quick expansion of colleges and universities and, in return, a severe shortage of professors. To overcome this problem, colleges and universities began to offer formal tenure as a “side benefit,” and the number of tenure issuances increased significantly.

In other words, tenure arrived just the same way that everything else “good” about the American system arrived after 1945, as a bonus of victory over the Nazis and Japanese, the ruin of Europe, the elevation of the US economy to first place in the world in terms described by Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce as “the American Century”.

Now that all that is unraveling, tenure will be thrown to the wolves just as every other entitlement won during the depression and consolidated throughout the 50s and 60s. The only thing that will stop this attack is the resistance of the college professorate/proletariat, tenured and adjuncts alike. Professors of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!


  1. Lou writes:

    The only thing that will stop this attack is the resistance of the college professorate/proletariat, tenured and adjuncts alike. Professors of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

    Alas, that seems to presuppose a degree of solidarity among professors that doesn’t seem to exist. Up to now in many, if not most, universities, tenured faculty have seem quite content with the hiring of adjuncts, especially when those adjuncts were used to do the sorts of work, like teaching freshmen sections, that senior professors don’t like to do themselves. And Lou, in his post, cited cases at Columbia, where tenured faculty were quite happy to throw junior faculty members to the wolves when it was their turn to come up for tenure. Right now, it seems that one of the greatest obstacles to the development of an effective resistance among university faculties, are the tenured professors, who see themselves as benefiting from the status quo.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — August 19, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  2. Perhaps I should have been more specific. I suppose that tenured professors would have all the problems that Jim describes, but full-time professors who have not made tenure have quite a bit in common with the adjuncts in terms of job security. Let’s say that a typical university has 60 percent adjuncts. The other 40 percent might be evenly divided between the tenured and the non-tenured (like my wife). They are close enough to the problem to be moved to struggle.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 19, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

  3. I’ve just sent this splendid essay to three discussion lists at my university (SUNY Buffalo): those of my department (English), my union (UB UUP), and of the UB Progressive Alliance. I have highlighted Lou’s final sentence to try to goad some discussion.

    I am not optimistic. Untenured faculty know just how capricious tenure decisions can be. Until last year, when a small group of us began raising a stink, our provost and president (both of them phallo-Americans) denied tenure to women at a rate 230% that of the rate to men. Our Faculty Senate is dead. Solidarity is almost unheard of.

    But many of my colleagues are busily involved in churning out feminist, anti-racist, post-colonial, and otherwise cutting-edge scholarship. As Ozymandias said, “Look on me, ye mighty, and despair.”

    Comment by Jim Holstun — August 19, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

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  5. Thanks for writing this up.

    Interestingly, I think it possible that capital *will* allow some continued tenure in the academy: as a perq for the managerial class, as a perq for star researchers with proven ability to bring in public or private grant money. But (and I’ve written this elsewhere) tenure in higher education for the vast majority of classroom teachers fell off a cliff in recent years, and folks like Hacker create a sideshow and a diversion when they argue tenure’s a problem.

    Comment by Townsend Harris — August 19, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

  6. Most of the ‘good’ things in the American system came as a response to Communism and the threat of expopriation.

    Even in the short run, attacks on tenure are stupid. A comfortable meritocracy is fairly essential to the maintenance of ruling class power. If anything, this shows the desperation of irreversibly declining US imperial power.

    Comment by purple — August 19, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

  7. There are analogies to the situation with K-12 teachers as well.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 20, 2010 @ 5:41 am

  8. Another type of cheap labor used by universities is the graduate student. When I was at the University of Texas at Austin about 46% of the classes were taught by graduate students. A study done by the university found that graduate student salaries were about $2000 below the cost of living. There was some effort to unionize these employees but it never went far.

    Comment by Edward — August 20, 2010 @ 10:37 am

  9. 24 years on the job and on the bargaining team for his union, and the guy is only now shocked that management sees him as a commodity? Talk about being slow on the uptake– this is the kind of head-in-the-sand union leadership that has brought us to this low point.

    Comment by Bob Allen — August 20, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  10. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of non-profit/public colleges and universities as we know them?

    I’ve been hearing complaints for years about how freshly-minted Ph.D’s were having a hard time getting tenure-track positions. This problem is especially acute in humanities and social sciences. Most, the lucky ones, are settling for part-time, or adjunct, position.

    Coupled with the decline of the American university there’s been noticeable rise in corporate education: online classes, for profit colleges and universities (University of Phoenix), and specialized two-year training programs. Instructors are paid less, no tenure to speak of, and all can be hired on a part-time basis.

    Comment by niraj — August 20, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  11. Increasingly, online classes are becoming an administrative weapon in this fight as well. At UMASS (where I am finishing my dissertation), online classes were introduced as a way to increase student enthusiasm and participation. The idea was that if students could take classes in their pajamas, they would be more engaged and perform better. The university funnelled tons of money into infrastructure, and into training programs for faculty and graduate students to develop online classes.

    The problems now are three-fold. Firstly, no one takes “classroom” classes anymore, so graduate students who have not been trained in taking the online classes are left in the cold as far as funding is concerned. Secondly, the university has been somewhat ambiguous about the intellectual property of online course material developed thus far. If I create a class and teach it online, there is no guarantee that the university won’t simply take that material and give it to someone else to teach. Finally, as noted above, if it is cheaper to hire an adjunct or a graduate student to teach the class, there is no reason for the university to support tenure, particularly when online classes are outrageously profitable (they charge more per credit hour, and there are no “classroom size limits”).

    Comment by whenelvisdied — August 20, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  12. @ 9 Bob Allen:

    It gets worse. Management spews this venomous contempt at the bargaining table when it’s confident of its own job security. Management spews this contempt when it believes it can throw punches and not get hit in return. The solution has always been the kind of disruptive militancy – the kind of wildcatting – that can briefly interrupt quiet, consistent productivity.

    The ownership class very quickly replaces managers who lose its confidence, especially managers who appear vulnerable to failing to deliver productivity on deadline. It’s all personal.

    Comment by Townsend Harris — August 20, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  13. The economic thinking of management is short-term (surprise?). Granted:

    (1) Getting rid of tenure means creating a mechanism to get rid of the least productive professors, by whatever metrics one uses and
    (2) Money will be saved during the appointment period of the Administrators (albeit debatable, if dismissed professors sue according to disparate treatment).

    But in the long-run? (say, one generation)

    The quality of the labor supply will plummet as people early in their careers DECLINE low professional wages in often remote locations without the possibility of permanency. To attract them, wages will have to rise and no one has studied whether the future compensating differential will outstrip the savings (net of legal costs). Although unstudied, one suspects that that differential will be huge as professors tend to be risk averse. Eliminating tenure is a financial gamble with a huge downside.

    Comment by Joseph Henry Vogel — August 22, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  14. To Bob Allen-I think that if wildcatting means the interruption of “quiet, consistent productivity” by confrontation with those who are most complicit in the rapidly deteriorating system of exploitation—administrators, tenured faculty themselves, and adjuncts and contingents who won’t stand up for themselves, I’m all for it. Also, I invite you to see my own comment particularly on the Hacker/Dreifus book-www.cringingliberalelite.com/p/fading-faculties.html.

    Comment by Alan Trevithick — August 22, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  15. Higher education is the next bubble.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — August 23, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

  16. Attacks on tenure are attacks on middle-class professionals. It’s no surprise then that Louis is up in arms about it.

    Comment by The Idiot — August 25, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  17. Oh sure, we should not worry about what happens to a petite-bourgeois like Ward Churchill or Joseph Massad.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 25, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  18. I’m more worried about what happens to myself and my family when unemployment runs out. Then again, I’m not a middle class professional with something to fall back on.

    Comment by The Idiot — August 25, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

  19. Well, Lenin had a rather different attitude toward what happens to university employees:

    “Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.”

    What is to be Done

    Comment by louisproyect — August 25, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

  20. Lenin was a middle class professional. I’m sure that’s a big part of why you find so much value in him. It’s also why according to him the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is actually not a dictatorship of the working class at all but rather a multi-class coalition with people like him in the lead:

    “The dictatorship of the proletariat is a specific form of class alliance between the proletariat, the vanguard of the working people, and the numerous non-proletarian strata of the working people.”

    Contrast that to Marx who repeated over and over that the emancipation of the working class was the task of the working class alone, that any “alliances” with other classes should be informal and last only as long as the fight against a common enemy, that the working class had to be vigilant against petty-bourgeois elements attempting to enter/lead the workers movement, and that it was through liberating itself in the process of taking power that the working class abolished classes in general.

    Also not sure what you’re trying to prove posting Lenin approvingly referring to German Social-Democracy, which went on to prove itself a thoroughly pro-capitalist force by sending workers off to die in an imperialist war. Is that what you want to build? Your allegiance to investor-socialist Peter Camejo would suggest so.

    Comment by The Idiot — August 25, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

  21. Also should note that Lenin considered WITBD outdated after the war, something which his disciples forget or ignore.

    Comment by The Idiot — August 25, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

  22. Lenin was a middle class professional. I’m sure that’s a big part of why you find so much value in him.

    Now I understand why you call yourself The Idiot.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 25, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

  23. “Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Russian: Владимир Ильич Ульянов) on 22 April [O.S. 10 April] 1870, to Maria Alexandrovna Blank, a schoolmistress, and Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, a physics instructor, at Simbirsk, a Volga River town in the Russian Empire of the nineteenth century…

    “In 1869, Ilya Ulyanov became the Inspector of Public Schools, and later the Director of Elementary Schools, for the Simbirsk Gubernia Oblast (province), a successful career in the Imperial Russian public education system…. being of the intelligentsia, the Ulyanovs educated their children against the ills of their time (violations of human rights, servile psychology, etc.), and instilled readiness to struggle for higher ideals, a free society, and equal rights.”

    I may be an idiot, but people who follow the Holy Teachings of Lenin after nearly 100 years of proven failure are either crazy or sinister. Even more so when they quote those that Vladamir himself said were outdated almost a century ago to prove their points.

    Comment by The Idiot — August 26, 2010 @ 9:28 am

  24. Another academic strategy that’s been around for many years in order to make tenure an impossible goal for many: 2 (sometimes 3) years and out. Hire a new professor with the understanding that her/his contract expires in a few years. This solves not only the “problem” of tenure but also guarantees that the temporary hire will not be around long enough to receive much if any of a pay increase. In addition, unlike adjunct faculty, these temporary full-timers are required to serve on committees, advise students, attend meetings and participate in department management, in other words take on all the duties of a full-timer that are not required of adjuncts. Publishing along with lecturing at conferences are also encouraged (activities that promote the school’s name), not that a strong record will serve the faculty member’s long term interests.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — August 29, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

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