“It’s gonna be forever or it’s gonna go down in flames”: Tenure and (In)justice – By Kelly J. Baker

Kelly J. Baker on the role of justice in tenure

I don’t have tenure nor a tenure-track job. I was a graduate student, an adjunct, and then a full-time lecturer. My employment in academia was only ever in those positions we call contingent: the contractual, non-tenure track jobs that are either part-time or full-time. Almost two years ago, I quit my lecturer gig to become a freelance writer. I’m off the path that graduate school groomed me for, the tenure-track job. I used to believe that somehow my story was the exception, that most other religious studies PhDs moved onto tenure-track jobs while I fell off the beaten path. Now I realize that I’m not alone and that the opposite is true: contingency is now the exploitative norm in higher education rather than the exception.

In 2011, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) estimated that 70% of academic laborers were non-tenure track (NTT) faculty while the Coalition of the Academic Workforce (CAW) places the estimate closer to 75%.v Tenure, once a definitive component of employment in higher education, is on the decline while contingent positions have increased dramatically over the last forty years. PrecariCorps, a non-profit foundation aiding adjuncts, estimates that since 1975 part-time NTT faculty increased 286% and full-time NTT faculty increased 259%. Full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty increased by a mere 23% over the same time period. In 2003, twelve years ago, the AAUP noted ominously that at most institutions, “the number of tenure-track positions now available is insufficient to meet institutional teaching and research needs.” The majority of faculty lack the protections of tenure, and they are often an exploited majority.

Writing for PBS Newshour, Joseph Fruscione cataloged the conditions that contingent faculty face: lack of living wages, lack of office space and access to much-needed technology or libraries, short contracts, no say in faculty governance, and no path to promotion. Contingent work is devoid of both job security and academic freedom. Sarah Kendzior writes, “Our exploited professors are teaching our future exploited workers.” Her sentence punched me in the gut when I first read it and still does. Exploited professors. Future exploited workers. I’m haunted by this painful truth about academia. The decline of tenured jobs and the increasing over-reliance on contingent labor is the story of higher education in twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Many still fail to realize this. I’m not sure how.

When I was asked to write about tenure, justice, and workplace equity for this series on tenure in academia, I was unsure what I could say as someone off track, who had never had the privilege of tenure’s protection of my teaching or research. I’ve only known what it is like to have the absence of security and academic freedom. Yet, this pairing of tenure and justice simultaneously fascinates and troubles me. There’s a post-it attached to my computer monitor right now that expresses my unease: how can tenure be about justice if it only for exists for the few? I’m curious how tenure, envisioned as a protection for teachers, became a privilege for a fraction of faculty rather than a right extended to all. Some are eager to blame corporatists, who seek to run institutions of higher learning as if they are businesses, for the shift to non-tenure track faculty. Others lament “administrative bloat,” a supposedly increasing administrator class with higher and higher salaries. Little, however, is said about the relationship between tenure, increasing contingent employment in Higher Ed, and equitable employment. What I wonder is whether justice and tenure can exist side-by-side in discussions of academic labor. At best, they rest next to one another uneasily. At worst, tenure is now reliant upon the stratified academic workplace to exist.

Justice, after all, implies fairness, equity, righteousness, even-handedness, and even impartiality. What, then, is the role of justice in job markets, candidate interviews, hiring, and promotion? After all, the academic workplace now relies upon contingent labor for institutions to run. Can we speak of justice? Jesse Stommel writes, “every aspect of higher education is either suspect or somehow implicated: hiring practices, administrative bloat, disciplinarity, traditional academic publishing, double-blind peer review, the notion of a terminal degree, and the tenure system itself” in the “widespread exploitation of contingent laborers.” None of this amounts to fair play. Instead, the cards seemed stacked.

At best, justice and tenure rest next to one another uneasily in discussions of academic labor

Some might want to stop me right here to explain that academia is a meritocracy, in which hard work, quality scholarship, and intellect are rewarded with stable employment. Academia, you assure me, is built on merit. The deserving get tenure and all the security it (supposedly) promises. Justice is implied. While visions of meritocracy might help you sleep at night, the dire job market in the humanities, in which tenure track jobs are increasingly rare, should keep you up. The well-trod path (was it ever?) to tenure winnowed to a narrow crevice. There are too many job seekers, too few secure gigs, and too many classes to be taught. “[A]n awful lot of deserving candidates,” Kendzior grimly notes, “have defaulted to the adjunct track.” In op-ed after op-ed, adjuncts emerge as the fast food workers of the academic world. Teaching college, Rachel Riederer deftly argues, is no longer a middle-class profession that it once was.

Yet, how can we not talk of justice either? Scholars in contingent positions have the same or similar credentials as their colleagues on track. They do quality research, write articles and books, organize conferences, present papers, and win awards, while teaching more classes and more students for less money, less benefits, and less job security. The entry into the tenure track becomes a fortunate gift rather than the spoils of merit and hard work. The conditions of academic labor make those cherished visions of meritocracy into a cruel fantasy. Is this justice? Assuredly not.

The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot. The reasons for (more) secure and insecure employment are explained away by a myriad of factors, usually boiled down to excuses about finances, complicated scheduling, resource allocation, and shifting student enrollment. Institutions of higher learning are no longer equitable and fair workplaces, if they ever were. Academia is now a stratified workplace, in which the exploitation of the many support the security of the few. What, then, is tenure’s role in these academic labor systems? How can we reclaim justice for all teachers and not just a few?

Tenure, after all, was established as a system to protect instructional faculty. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued its first statement on tenure and academic freedom in 1915, which was revised in 1925 and restated in 1940 with additional commentary added as footnotes in 1970. The goal of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure was “to promote a public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure” as well as to provide procedures to guarantee it both at colleges and universities.¤ Tenure, according to the AAUP, was only a “means to certain ends,” securing the employment of teachers in higher education. It offered two main protections to teachers: (1) academic freedom in the classroom, research, and “extramural activities” and (2) economic security to “make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” What proves interesting is that tenure emerges as a method not solely to protect individual teachers or their institutions, but to promote the “common good.” College and university teachers needed to be free to search for and speak the “truth.”

Tenure, then, protected faculty because of what they did as faculty, not because they were faculty. The work of the Higher Ed required teachers and scholars; tenure allowed that work to continue. Moreover, it was not a guarantee of permanent employment as teachers could be fired for adequate cause or in the case of financial exigency. What tenure offered to faculty, then, was a modicum of protection in both the classroom and research agendas. Your job was fairly secure, and you were academically free to teach as students were likewise free (and protected) to learn. (In the additional notes from 1970, AAUP also emphasizes that academic freedom is not only for tenured teachers, but should also be extended to full-time and part-time teachers as well as graduate students.)

Tenure, after all, was established as a system to protect instructional faculty.

The link between teaching and tenure here is crucial. The AAUP statement on tenure focuses on teachers and only adds researchers who don’t teach as a concern in 1970. The university is the place where students come to gain education; this happens inside and outside of classrooms. Higher Ed needed professors to have both academic freedom and economic security to pursue research and, most importantly, to teach students. The AAUP describes teaching as the main work of the university, and tenure became the mechanism to protect teachers from the whims of political leaders, the larger public, and their own institutions. Education was a common good that must be safeguarded. The centrality of teaching to academia in this statement makes me cheer and lament simultaneously. I cannot help but wonder what went wrong. The work of the university is about educating students, but sometimes it doesn’t seem so. Fruscione reminds us that a “professor’s job, first and foremost, is to teach.” However, institutions don’t necessarily market themselves as centers of learning, nor does teaching remain a crucial component in the training graduate students as future academics. Did the pursuit of the common good dissipate when we could no longer agree what it might actually entail?

Depending upon the institution (community college, liberal arts college, or research university), the requirements of tenure varies. It can be tied to teaching, research, and service with differing gradations of importance. I cannot speak to the guidelines of individual institutions for tenure; these are too particular and distinct. What I can speak to is how tenure is envisioned more broadly today. In particular, the most common defenses of tenure focus on academic freedom and shared governance. Academic freedom is the constant refrain, but not economic security. That other crucial component of tenure about payment and job security is mentioned less often, if at all. Tenure is about both, and the tenured are granted both. Contingent workers get neither. Economic security is just as important as academic freedom because teachers need to be able to support themselves not only to thrive, but also to survive. What is so striking to me is that tenure once envisioned as a protection for all teachers extends to the few.

Is this what tenure should do? Protect some laborers but not others? Should anyone be guaranteed a permanent job if that permanence is predicated on temporary work of others? (Isn’t this our current economic situation in a nutshell?) What happens to our teaching and scholarship when faculty work side-by-side under very different labor conditions? Nothing good.

More pressingly, who gains the protection of tenure and who doesn’t? As I’ve written elsewhere, men are more likely than women to end up as professors and deans. Fifty-nine percent of full-time tenured faculty are men, despite women earning more PhDs than men. Overall, women are seven percent less likely to get a tenure-track appointment than are men; marriage harms women’s chances even more, making them 17% less likely to gain tenure-track employment. Married women with children do even worse on the job market. Women, then, are the majority of contingent faculty nationwide with estimates ranging from 51% to 62%. The demographics regarding race aren’t much better. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom notes that African Americans scholars are 50% more likely to be off track than their white peers.

Tenure appears to be a privilege for the already privileged.

In the introduction to this series, Peter Martens writes, “If tenure is to endure, it is because academics provided compelling reasons for its continued existence.” As I wrote this piece, I searched for such a reason. I want teachers to have academic freedom and economic security. I want this so badly that I sought for any reason, even the smallest one, to support tenure as I once did. I was left wanting. What I realized is that if tenure exists as a system bolstered and supported by teaching labor of the non-tenure track, I can’t defend or support it. Exploited laborers teaching the bulk of classes in the modern university is a problem. A small class of people reap tenure’s benefits while others struggle to eke out a living wage. If this is the only way tenure can exist in Higher Ed, then we need to dismantle it and build something new.

However, I don’t think this current exploitative tenure system is our only option. There are ways to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty if we are willing to do so. Tenure, and all of its securities, can be expanded to contingent laborers. Those who teach most of the classes need security and support. They need both academic freedom and economic security. This does not require a reimagining of what tenure is and who it should protect, but rather a return to the AAUP’s original conception of tenure for all of those who teach in Higher Ed. Can we please make tenure a right of many, not a privilege of the few? This is the only way tenure and justice can rest easily beside one another. It is the only way I’ll ever support tenure.

A line from Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things kept repeating in my head as I wrote and rewrote this essay about tenure and justice. She writes, “Be brave enough to break your own heart.” While breaking hearts might (or might not) seem a far cry from academia, her words still apply. We must be brave enough to look at inequality and exploitation in our own academic systems, if we plan to make them just and equitable.

Break your own heart. Confront your own privilege. Understand how you are implicated in the academic system. Make a stand. Treat the contingent laborers in your departments and institutions fairly. Find ways to make their jobs better, not worse. Recognize that landing on the tenure track is a privilege and that you can wield it to help others. Don’t support tenure to save yourself. (Who knows how much longer it will last?) Create a tenure system that will save all of us. Don’t be silent. Don’t look away. Be better. Be brave. And then, maybe we’ll have equity.


[The title of this essay is a line from Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” (1989, 2014).]

v CAW’s 2009 survey relies on the collection of data about the instructional workforce at two-year and four-year institutions by the federal government.

¤ The AAUP’s “Tenure: Perspectives and Challenges” (2002) acknowledges that the 1940 statement is an most accepted definition of tenure.