First of all, that is totally not how universities work. If a tenure line is open, there has to be a national search, and for a job like that at least fifty people would probably apply. Second, even though they’re all three physicists, they’re different kinds of physicists, so they probably wouldn’t be applying for the same job anyhow. Third, if all three of them have been at the school for ten years and none of them is tenure-track, they’re probably all adjuncts and all three of them put together wouldn’t be able to afford one of those apartments they live in, let alone all the toys they buy. But I digress, so I’ll get back to my actual point.
As we’re watching this episode together as a family, I say “Watch- just you watch. They will never actually explain what tenure is or why it’s important.” (side note: things like this are why my family sometimes does not enjoy watching television with me.)
And, sure enough. The motivation of Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj is- to get tenure so they can never be fired. That’s the only explanation given (though in a different episode, they end up also competing to see who gets the dead guy’s office, which is better than theirs.)
That is exactly how I expected the episode to play out, because that is how most people not in education view tenure: as an archaic system by which a teacher/professor reaches a point where they can never be fired no matter what they do, and no matter how lazy or ineffective they are. Most Americans view a system like that (or at least view their understanding of it) as inherently unfair, inefficient, and bad for students and for education in general, which is why, if you asked them, most Americans would say it is a terrible thing and we should get rid of it. Why, I don’t have a job where I can never be fired no matter what I do, they would respond, so why should those arrogant, entitled professors have such a thing? And so, when tenure (or education unions) come up as a topic on TV at all –and I’ve seen this on, for example, The Simpsons and South Park –it is presented as an obvious and horrible evil.
That perception is totally and completely wrong. And, like in The Big Bang Theory, it does not in any way address what tenure is actually for.
First, let’s talk about how that perception is inaccurate. Tenure does not mean you can never be fired, no matter what. Tenure means you cannot be fired without cause. Very good cause. Administrators must be able to prove that the individual in question has done something (or neglected to do something they are supposed to do) that is a fireable offense, and the individual must have recourse to challenge that decision in an objective hearing where evidence is presented. Therefore, you can’t be fired easily –it must be for a legitimate reason, and must include an official process, and the whole thing is complicated and, yes, in most cases difficult. By design. Which is where the important part of this discussion begins.
Tenure exists to protect academic freedom, which is the cornerstone of the university.
In 1915, AAUP (the American Association of University Professors) was established. Its primary purpose: to protect academic freedom and the related concept of shared governance, as well as tenure, the latter not being a goal in and of itself but rather a tool to protect the other two, whereas shared governance is also a way to protect academic freedom. AAUP wrote the guidelines which all American universities agree to abide by where the process of tenure and the concepts of academic freedom and shared governance are concerned. In turn, those guidelines are also agreed upon and followed by government agencies who accredit universities and legal systems (i.e. the courts, who make decisions based on AAUP-established guidelines when those guidelines are violated by universities.)
What is academic freedom? It is the freedom of the professor to decide how and what to teach (within the confines of their job description), and their freedom to express themselves freely on the subjects in their area of expertise. That includes, not just in their classroom, but in their research and writing and in their participation in shared governance (which will be discussed below). Students also have academic freedom when it comes to expressing themselves, though it can be a complicated issue.
In other words, academic freedom means that you can’t be summarily fired because an administrator or politician doesn’t like what you say within the context of your field. This guarantees a free and open exchange of ideas. Without this protection, you would not actually have education. The professor in the classroom is the expert, and must be allowed to practice that expertise whether it is popular or politically acceptable or not. Tenure is the process of protecting that, in two stages. First, attaining tenure is itself a process. You serve a “probationary period” (six years is the norm) during which you are evaluated in your expertise and professionalism by your departmental peers. The tenure review at the end of this process can kind of be compared to a trial (and it sure does feel like one!) You can’t get through it unless you have convinced several knowledgeable people that you know what you are doing and what you are talking about. Second, once you have tenure, you have protection –not to do whatever you feel like –but to exercise academic freedom. If someone wants to fire you, it has to be because they can prove you are not doing your job or have done something wrong, not because they don’t like what you have to say.
Before we move on, let’s take a moment to talk about shared governance, since I have mentioned it several times. Essentially, shared governance is the process by which administration and faculty work together to make the university run. Each has a role, and each must respect the other’s role and cooperate. AAUP describes this cooperation as “weighted responsibility.” Each side of the equation –administration and faculty –carries greater weight within their own sphere of expertise. This does not mean the other side is not involved at all, but that they carry less weight. Hence, administration has the greater weight in decisions about the day-to-day business of running the university –parking decisions, for example. And then the faculty has greater weight when it comes to decisions about education –creating classes and curricula, particularly. In each type of decision, both sides should be in the loop. But if administration, say, started unilaterally telling faculty they were going to teach a new set of courses or have a new academic program, that would be inappropriate. Such initiatives must originate with faculty, and be guided by them. And the process for doing so is often deliberative (translated: slow), by necessity. It is, perhaps, less efficient. But so is democracy, to use just one example.
How is that (shared governance) connected to academic freedom? Well, it protects the collective academic freedom of the university faculty, just as tenure protects an individual professor’s academic freedom, and based on the same principle. The university faculty are the experts in their given fields. That’s what those advanced degrees mean. They must be free to decide what and how to teach, and not have it dictated to them; if it were dictated to them, things like politics and short-term economic gain would become the focus, instead of intellectual endeavor. And before long, you would not have a university, you would have a trade school… and there is, and should be, a difference.
Let’s get back to tenure. What would happen to academic freedom if tenure did not exist? Well, for an increasingly large number of university faculty, it does not. Those folks are sometimes called “contingent faculty.” They are comprised of two types of folks: term-appointed full-time instructors, and adjunct faculty. The former group are full-time and have benefits; on the average they make probably about 75% of what a bottom-rung, starting-out tenure-track professor would make (tenure-track means they are going through that six-year-or-so probationary period with the possibility of tenure at the end of it.) Term-appointed people usually do get benefits (like insurance) as well, but they have to be re-appointed every year (hence no job security, and no raises), and in some schools there is a limit to how many years they can serve (usually three, in the Tennessee public system.)
The second type, adjuncts, are part-time. They get paid a certain (low) amount per class they teach. Fun Fact: In Tennessee, there is no minimum wage for adjuncts, but there is a maximum wage (and it’s not much)…. and it has not been raised since the 1990s. Adjuncts have no benefits, and no office space (so they usually have to meet with students in some public space). The traditional view of adjuncts from decades past was that an adjunct was someone –maybe a working lawyer or a retired public school teacher –who taught a class in the evening for a little extra cash or for fun. Instead, in the last couple of decades –and especially since the economic downturn in 2008 –an increasing number of classes are being taught by contingent faculty nationwide (usually adjuncts). As the number of tenure-track positions have decreased (to be filled by adjuncts, who effectively become like temp workers in the business world –cheap and considered disposable), there are fewer job opportunities for new Ph.D’s. And yet the large universities keep graduating just as many Ph.D’s as ever, in part because the universities that have Ph.D programs use their in-training graduate students as cheap labor to teach their lower-division classes (they’re even cheaper than adjuncts!) So… there are still a large number of new Ph.D’s, but far fewer jobs, so more and more of them are being forced to get by as adjuncts in the hope that someday a spot will open up somewhere for them. In order to make any kind of living at all, they often have to work several adjunct gigs at once, stretching themselves thin and still barely making the equivalent of minimum wage, if that much (and without benefits). Fun Fact: as this has been happening, top-level administrators’ salaries have mushroomed, as have the number of assistants they have. Other fun fact: tuition keeps going up.
The result for students: they are paying higher tuition, yet an increasing percentage of their professors are overworked, underpaid, harried people who must rush from one campus to another through the week (or in the course of the day) to have enough work, and who have no paid time for office hours or office space in which to help students if they did.
But what does this whole tangent have to do with academic freedom?
You see, those contingent faculty do not have the protection of tenure, so they have to be extremely careful what they do or say in class. Most university administrators (though not all) are supportive of classroom academic freedom, though, so there is that. But beyond that concern- they have to be very careful about speaking out on any issue, especially issues that concern their job or profession as a whole. Because it is entirely possible that an adjunct or term-appointed faculty member could join their voices to some issue being raised by faculty on campus… and at the end of the semester just find out that they are not being renewed for another semester. There is no need to give a reason, explanation, or justification for that. Further, contingent faculty are usually not allowed to serve in shared governance capacities (faculty senates, for instance), because they are not “permanent faculty.” And most probably wouldn’t want to do so if they could, because it would be potentially dangerous for them… and they are hanging on by a thread as it is.
So yes, lack of tenure is bad for contingent faculty individually, and limits their expressions of academic freedom.
But their lack of tenure is also bad for tenured faculty. Because, as year by year across the country the percentage of tenured faculty goes down and the percentage of contingent faculty goes up… the overall strength, voice, and influence of faculty declines. As that happens, it becomes ever easier for the “weighted balance” of shared governance to become unbalanced. Which means, of course, that academic freedom overall becomes endangered, and it becomes easier for those non-academic concerns I mentioned above to dictate what gets done and how, to the detriment of the university system, the faculty, and most importantly the students.
Now, because that’s how I roll, I am going to paste an extended quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1837 speech “The American Scholar.” Then, as I do in class, I am going to translate some of his beautiful prose into easily digestible contemporary American language.
My elaboration on this text:
A scholar must be free. To be free, you must be brave, for freedom means you will let nothing hold you back from your search for truth… and in a life like that, there is no room for fear. You have to face, not only your own fears, but the fears of the world. You cannot simply hide from the major issues of the day in hopes they will go away… they will not go away if you do so, because as a scholar it is your responsibility to grapple with them and solve them, or else no one will. You have to turn and face them, figure out what caused them, figure out their scope, and in so doing you figure out how to defeat them. Any issues that plague you, that plague the world around you, do so only because you let them. You absolutely have to engage with them. It’s your job.
And that is why academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure are important. They are tools that allow us, as scholars, to grapple with the problems of the world without being held back by fear. I hope that, for those of you who are not academics, this discussion has given you a new perspective. For those of you who are academics- join your local AAUP chapter! If your university does not have one, start one!
Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj should have looked at the chance to get tenure and thought “Oh boy! This will give me the security I need to be even bolder and more innovative, and the world will be better for it!”
All right, maybe most of us don’t think that. But it’s true, all the same.