UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

June 18, 2009

THE ATTACK ON FACULTY TENURE

AndrewMc, Progressive Historians - On March 13, 2008, the Board of Regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System voted to abolish tenure for all new faculty hired after July 1, 2009. Despite numerous resolutions condemning the vote from Faculty Senates across the state, despite appeals to the president of the KCTCS system, and despite many letters to the governor, it seems that this decision will stand.

In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a great show of unity among institutions of higher education in any state on most any issue in the past few decades.

From editorials in major newspapers in the state, to faculty resolutions, to resolutions from professional organizations, to online petitions, to negative publicity in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, this is not a quiet story. But it is a complex one.

The decision by KCTCS reflects a long-term decline in both the valuation of faculty by boards and administration-types, as well as a short-term change in how boards are composed.

A few decades ago boards of regents positions were filled by a wide range of people in various positions--lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, community leaders, etc. While I haven't seen a survey to indicate the make up of boards today . . . my informal searches have turned up boards comprised by and large of business owners. While they may have some kind of business savvy with regard to whatever business they run, they don't seem to know much about how to run a university. . . If they pay much attention at all to the workings of the school they're supposed to oversee, they tend to view the school as a business that caters to a "customer base"--the student. And the point of a business is to squeeze as much money from a customer (here in the form of tuition) while expending as little of that revenue as possible (here, on salaries).

They also tend to see faculty as little more than "hired help" to be managed in the same way as one might handle a fast-food employee--keep salaries to a bare minimum, scale back or eliminate as many benefits as possible, and eliminate "problem" employees who prevent the business from functioning efficiently. That is to say--faculty are an obstacle to be overcome in the running of an efficient business.

Tenure falls into the category of "anti-efficiency," in the minds of some. It is a luxury at best, an impediment at worst. It prevents them from firing the Ward Churchills of the world, it prevents them from implementing serious cost-saving measures.

The place of faculty in a university, at least as far as many regents are concerned, can probably best be understood by taking the words of Yevette Haskins, regent at Western Kentucky University. At an April meeting in which salary issues were being discussed, Regent Haskins responded to concerns over low faculty morale and potential resignations by commenting that there are plenty of other faculty looking for jobs. Her attitude indicates her belief that faculty are easily replaceable--nobody rose to disagree. . . Another regent commented that any faculty who didn't like working at that university ought to leave, while at the same time justifying huge salary increases for some administrators by saying that it was important to retain quality people. . . I suspect this attitude reigns at many schools. . .

The overall result: a decline in tenure-track jobs at the same time that overall faculty positions have increased. . .

Adjuncts will tell us that faculty being treated as merely hired help is nothing new, either. Adjuncts have suffered this for years, and for them this whole issue may carry some "and when they came for me" shadenfreude. . .

Faculty have less of a voice in university governance than ever before, and the process is accelerating. In many states faculty are either unable or unwilling to unionize. This makes it hard to resist these changes. Senate resolutions are nice, but they don't mean much.

It will probably require faculty to make a greater effort to speak up, loudly, on their campuses. Faculty either have a voice, or they do not. Faculty either care to have that voice heard, or they do not. Faculty either want to have an effective voice on their campuses, or it is not particularly important to them. Faculty must decide. All faculty should be concerned with this and should ask some difficult questions of our universities. Faculty have to make clear to their communities--and themselves--why tenure is an important component of higher education.

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