Nov 29 2013

Fawlty Faculty


Fawlty Faculty

My writing on higher education began with the supposition that students, and their parents, generally fail to appreciate important distinctions between contingent and tenured faculty. Once they do so, they will inquire about the constitution of the faculty when selecting a college or university, and choose to attend an institution that employs a large percentage of tenured professors.

However, preexisting notions about the duties and obligations of tenured faculty can crowd out that simple idea. For the sake of illustration, an entrenched perception exists that once a faculty member is tenured, an immediate, tangible, and ongoing decline in productivity, service, and the quality of teaching follows rapidly. Some of us may even know a professor who seems to exemplify this stereotype, yet a majority of post-tenure faculty continue to work on a demanding schedule that contributes to burnout and to decisions to leave the academy. The assertion that productivity declines post-tenure is often overstated and misleading, as this report from the NEA, and other studies, suggest.

Another well-entrenched criticism of tenured faculty is that they practice ideological indoctrination. Certainly, institutions of higher education like Naropa or Liberty promote chosen worldviews, yet ideology in the American university writ large is not monolithic. Because educational ideologies vary from institution to institution, and from teacher to teacher, attempts to “unpack” them in a systematic way to reveal some hidden agenda to indoctrinate are easily frustrated. While I’ve yet to meet one, somewhere a Marxist business professor must be teaching classes critiquing the perceived shortcomings of American capitalism. However, what would be harder to discover would be a school of business where all of the faculty members are Marxists.

In their study of faculty ideology and changes in student political orientation, Mack Mariani and Gordon Hewitt conclude that regardless of “any biases (intentional or unintentional) that professors bring to their teaching, the findings presented here should help alleviate the concern that students, on a widespread basis, are being forced to adopt the political positions of their liberal professors.” In a similar vein, Neil Gross suggests that a view of academia as a bastion of leftism is as flawed as the supposition of its bias against conservatives.

In my view, there are more stinging criticisms of faculty members than attacks on tenure, or so-called indoctrination. To begin with, not all tenured and tenure-track professors are student focused, although the teacher-student relationship is at the heart of the educational endeavor. At a research institutions, for instance, the emphasis on publication might trump teaching, while at the public community college, service on faculty committees may consume time better spent preparing classes. Secondly, tenured faculty members can act like bullies even hazing their junior counterparts, a process so engrained in academic culture that it is taken for granted. Tenured faculty members are also prone to constant infighting that stymies progress, regular displays of a shocking inability to critically interpret political discourses on campus, and they are often highly obstructionist (happily frustrating many an administrator).

Perhaps worst of all, in the context of finding a solution to the crisis in higher education, many tenured faculty members are made cowards by years of solipsistic doctoral coursework, the vagaries of the dissertation defense, the fear of failure on the job market, and the terrifying three-to-six year probationary period leading up to tenure. This cowardice is especially disconcerting because those with the protections of tenure should use them to actively support their contingent colleagues, who have legitimate reasons to fear organizing.

Yet, despite these shortcomings of the tenure system and faculty members as whole, the tenured professorship does provide a guarantee of due process from arbitrary sanctions and dismissals on the part of administration, and perhaps more importantly it puts in place safeguards against political pressure and discrimination. In addition, the ability to discuss and publish controversial ideas still borders on the sacrosanct in American higher education, and this right should be extended to contingent faculty members as well. All American citizens have First Amendment protections (of free speech); tenure slightly enhances them, but in important ways. Arguably, the institution of tenure creates a space in our society for the open exchange of ideas, thereby helping us to protect our democracy, which was founded on the principle of liberty.

Although tenured faculty members are not ideally suited for the task of reforming higher education, if empowered by students and their parents, they may yet regain their right to meaningful governance, work together to streamline the administration and lower tuition, and to begin to erase the legacy of administrative bloat, which threatens the very foundation of American higher education in the 21st century. As Benjamin Ginsberg succinctly points out: “Professors, taken as a group, are far from perfect. They can be petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome. Nevertheless, at its best, the university is a remarkable institution. It is a place there ideas are taken seriously; where notions that are taken as givens are problematized; where what has seemed to be reality can be bent and reshaped by the power the mind.”

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!