Don’t Mourn… The Imminent Abolition of Tenure Creates a Threat as Well as an Opening

We spend our lives together. Many of those of us who teach in colleges and universities begin our training in our 20s, finding colleagues and mentors in the universities we attend. As we pursue degrees, research, and eventually jobs, we are compelled to move frequently, making the bonds we have with one another even more important. To this day, three decades into my life in universities, my first responders- the people I call to vet ideas, laugh, or share catastrophes with – are people I met in graduate school. I am married to one of them.

The profession of university teaching relies on collegiality. Graduate students training to become college professors select advisers, who often become lifetime mentors. Within our home institutions, we evaluate our colleagues for tenure and promotion; work together to run departments and programs; collaborate on the functioning and governance of colleges and universities. We spend time reading and evaluating the work of colleagues at other institutions around the world; we write and do research with them; we meet and talk to them at conferences to facilitate our ongoing research and teaching.

We spend our lives together. We love each other, compete with each other, critique and despise and drive each other crazy, rely deeply on and bemoan the shortcomings of our colleagues. This interdependence strengthens us and makes our intellectual and institutional work possible.

Now that the Wisconsin State Joint Finance Committee’s Omnibus Measure for the UW system proscribes both tenure and faculty governance as we know it, we need each other more than ever. While it is possible that tenure will be retained in some form by the Board of Regents, new state policies will make faculty radically more vulnerable to layoffs and firing. Our institutional recourse through the traditional channels of peer review and faculty governance will be gravely diminished. My colleague Nick Fleisher analyzes this bill in detail:

How can we be safe, how can we protect each other, in face of the decimation of faculty governance and tenure and the broader attack on worker rights in our state?
Struggling to create academic job security in contemporary Wisconsin will necessitate our working together. This will not be easy, because while we rely on collegiality, we tend to think of ourselves in individual terms and explain success as the result of talent and hard work. Even fields that rely on the collaborative efforts of laboratories and projects tend to be competitive.
Relying on one another will also entail a redefinition of who has access to job security. As universities have changed over the past few decades, fiscal austerity has contributed to the growth of a vast, contingent labor force. PhD graduates who have carefully prepared themselves for a life of teaching and research find themselves laboring outside the system of promotion and tenure, teaching heavier course loads than those inside the system, living on meager wages and struggling to find the time to do their research and writing. Universities and colleges depend on this growing contingent labor force, but typically do not reward them with job security. Tellingly, the Omnibus Measure abolishes the status of “indefinite” for lecturers in the UW system, which offered some protection to those working outside of the tenure system.

Without tenure, all faculty become contingent laborers. Regardless of rank or tenure, we can all be laid off or terminated for “budgetary or programmatic” reasons created by the Chancellor and administration. These “reasons” will be determined outside of the oversight of faculty governance. We will have little power to resist these decisions. Unless we stand together.

The current broad assault on public education and democracy holds teachers and learning in low esteem. And yet, by making us all into contingent laborers, it removes the barriers between us, giving us the gift of a common problem. We can work together to protect our universities, all of us: professors, lecturers, researchers, and graduate students; we can find allies in our heroic and hard-hit K-12 colleagues.

Writing this the day after the Joint Finance Committee’s actions were announced, I am terrified. Part of my job is to run a small but dynamic Comparative Ethnic Studies program that could easily be vulnerable to “budgetary or programmatic” assault. I am characteristically outspoken, and speaking freely without fear of recriminations has been one of the benefits of tenure. That is unlikely to be a habit I can shuck now.

Before the federal government recognized the right to organize unions  in the 1930s, workers organized to protect one another. As Wisconsin turns the clock back on public education and democratic labor rights, we can and must do the same.

Don’t Mourn… The Imminent Abolition of Tenure Creates a Threat as Well as an Opening

5 thoughts on “Don’t Mourn… The Imminent Abolition of Tenure Creates a Threat as Well as an Opening

  1. Brava, Rachel. Thank you for finding the words, which so fail me now — with my “Teacher of the Year” daughter in K12 laid off, with our academic staff colleagues even more blindsided than are we, with our TAs set back again in their struggles . . . this is commonality in the trenches, indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. protecting one another is a radical idea in the present age … well said

    I don’t know if we see what time we are in, the protecting-each-other-time

    Do you think those closest to you well feel your explanation? Those who share your labor? Why is there the need to explain right how?

    “I explain a few things”

    by Pablo Neruda

    You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
    and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
    and the rain repeatedly spattering
    its words and drilling them full
    of apertures and birds?
    I’ll tell you all the news.

    I lived in a suburb,
    a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
    and clocks, and trees.

    From there you could look out
    over Castille’s dry face:
    a leather ocean.
    My house was called
    the house of flowers, because in every cranny
    geraniums burst: it was
    a good-looking house
    with its dogs and children.
    Remember, Raul?
    Eh, Rafel? Federico, do you remember
    from under the ground
    my balconies on which
    the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
    Brother, my brother!
    loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
    pile-ups of palpitating bread,
    the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
    like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
    oil flowed into spoons,
    a deep baying
    of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
    metres, litres, the sharp
    measure of life,
    stacked-up fish,
    the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
    the weather vane falters,
    the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
    wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down the sea.

    And one morning all that was burning,
    one morning the bonfires
    leapt out of the earth
    devouring human beings –
    and from then on fire,
    gunpowder from then on,
    and from then on blood.
    Bandits with planes and Moors,
    bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
    bandits with black friars spattering blessings
    came through the sky to kill children
    and the blood of children ran through the streets
    simply like children’s blood.

    Jackals that the jackals would despise,
    stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
    vipers that the vipers would abominate!

    Face to face with you I have seen the blood
    of Spain tower like a tide
    to drown you in one wave
    of pride and knives!

    see my dead house,
    look at broken Spain :
    from every house burning metal flows
    instead of flowers,
    from every socket of Spain
    Spain emerges
    and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
    and from every crime bullets are born
    which will one day find
    the bull’s eye of your hearts.

    And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
    speak of dreams and leaves
    and the great volcanoes of his native land?

    Come and see the blood in the streets.
    Come and see
    The blood in the streets.
    Come and see the blood
    In the streets!

    Also a song:


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