Academic tenure has a negative reputation among university students, most of whom think that professors stop caring as soon as they get their tenure. It is creepy that students are buying into this anti-tenure discourse circulated by right-wing politicians, corporate businesspeople, and university administrators, mainly rich people. I argue that academic tenure benefits not only professors but students as well, and without academic tenure, we will both lose.
Despite the common belief, having tenure does not mean that the professor cannot be fired. Had this been the case, it would not be unreasonable to assume that professors might cease to care about their students, the courses they offer, and their job performance in general after getting tenured. Research shows the opposite though. There are numerous studies finding that professors get better at their job after getting tenured. Student evaluations support this fact.
It cannot be overstated that tenured professors can and do lose their jobs, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply lying. Tenure means that a professor’s contract cannot be terminated without “just cause”. Violation of ethical standards, continued poor performance, or the university being in serious financial crisis are few of these “just causes” for an institution to lay off a professor.
Right-wing politicians, corporate businesspeople, and university administrators however spread false propaganda about tenure. They want to get rid of tenure, because they will have direct benefits from the disappearance of this job security measure. There is a serious trend of decreasing government funding to academia. With lowering financial support from the government, universities are trying to increase their income in other ways and cut their expenses. This is why student tuitions are skyrocketing. Moreover, universities are trying to hire faculty with the lowest wages as possible. Securing a living wage and benefits for workers, the tenure system becomes the enemy.
While government funding is decreasing, capitalist corporations are increasingly providing funding for universities, which jeopardizes the independence and integrity of science. As you can imagine, for-profit organizations would not like to see the institutions they support to publish research that might challenge their business, criticize their products, having the potential of making them lose money. Therefore, individual scientists who are critical and progressive are having difficulty finding research grants. Capitalists pressure university administrators to get rid of scholars whose research might be dangerous for their business. And administrators comply. It is hard to say no to your major financial provider after all.
As a result of this socio-political trend, many universities (most of them private and for-profit) already stopped offering tenure, and getting tenure is significantly more difficult now, even at the institutions that still offer it. Tenured professors are being replaced with faculty that has numerous names in the literature: adjunct, contingent, part-time, stipend, sessional, non-permanent, temporary.
Adjunct faculty members are paid incredibly low, such as $5,000 for a course they offer. So if one adjunct faculty member offers three courses a year, their annual income would be $15,000. More often than not, they are not given offices, secretarial support, or parking privileges. They do not have health insurance, retirement/pension benefits. When they are hired, they are rarely assigned a mentor or given any orientation or training. They are hired without advanced notice to teach courses in which they cannot shape the content of the curriculum, and they do not get adequate preparation time to teach a syllabus someone else created. They do not have any say in departmental or university governance. They cannot acquire funds for class material or attending academic conferences. Because of the low pay, most adjuncts cannot survive by teaching at only one institution. They end up teaching courses in different universities, spend a great deal of time commuting, and consequently get exhausted. There is absolutely no guarantee that their contracts will be renewed in the next academic term, so they cannot voice any critique or objection against their unfair treatment with the fear of losing their livelihood. If they get unionized, if they strike, will they be hired the next semester?
The attack against tenure sucks for students as well. You know why you see all those “TBA”s, “TBD”s, and “staff”s under the “instructor” column when you’re trying to choose the courses you want to take next year? It’s because those courses will be offered by adjunct professors and no one knows who your instructor will be. They will be hired last minute, and teach the course with no preparation, so the quality of your education will suffer. Do you have favourite profs whose courses you want to take or maybe even ask them for a reference letter? If they are not tenured, there is no guarantee that they will be around next year. They can just disappear.
You would prefer more interaction with and more assistance from your professor, wouldn’t you? What if they are not given an office and they are not paid for office hours? Who will provide you the guidance you need? One adjunct faculty reports that, because they don’t have an office, and they have to commute between multiple universities, they keep their files in the trunk of their car, and meet with their students at parking lots. Not the ideal academic advising, right?
Finally, academia is all about critical thinking. What’s unique about university is that that’s where you’re supposed to be confronted with provocative, controversial, authentic ideas. To develop an analytic mind, you’d want to be challenged by your profs. If they cannot voice dissent and repeat mainstream beliefs instead, because they are scared of getting fired, there is not really a point of going to university.
Every time there is a labour dispute and academic workers go on strike, scabs emerge and yell “Students first!” in order to delegitimize the struggle of the workers. This outrageous, insidious, counter-revolutionary rhetoric must be analyzed.
It’s necessary to start by saying that workers do not go on strike to screw around with students. They strike because they demand fair treatment. Research shows that the major reason adjunct faculty members continue in this career despite the terrible conditions is that they love teaching and they care about their students. What is most upsetting for them is not being able to do their job properly and benefit the students as much as they should.
Any reasonable person would know that if an employee has better working conditions, they will be better at their job. There is not a conflict of interest between students and workers. Instead of seeing striking workers as the enemy, we should ally with them and demand better working conditions for them, so that they can offer us better education.
Feel free to contact me through my email for any correspondence including asking questions, making comments, or hearing about my sources: firstname.lastname@example.org. I gained the knowledge required to write this article through my research assistantship with Dr. Michelle Webber. I am thankful to her for employing me. For the unabridged version, check out brockpress.com. If you want to listen to adjunct faculty directly, please watch the short documentary “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor” at ccdigitalpress.org/conjob/
- Mehmet “Memin” Boyacioglu
*The views and opinions expressed in letters to the editor do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of The Brock Press and its editorial staff.