Rethinking Tenure, Part V: Broadening the Scope

Can’t We Cool Off?

Like the child of parents who are committing divorce, I just wish people would stop fighting, talking past each other, and having knee-jerk reactions.

Not that I want people to agree or get along, but it sometimes feel that debates and disagreements focus too much on some specific problems (or on some specific positions and even on some specific people) instead of looking at things in as broad a way as possible. Sure, the issues involved may be “serious” and “important.” But it’s too easy to get caught up in those issues and think that any form of thinking has two sides or that these issues are all that matters. As Michel Rivard sings: «Une toute personnelle fin du monde» (“A Very Personal End of the World”).

What else is there?

Even in the divorce case, it’s not “think of the kids.” And, despite what some teachers say, “higher” education clearly isn’t about “kids.” So, as I talk about universities, it’s not about a specific group of people. It’s about the whole picture, the whole set of alternatives. Not limiting your options to what is being presented, as in the proverbial nine-point “box.”

Call me a holist (it’s allowed in my field), but I can’t help thinking about broader ways to approach things.

Questions about Tenure

More specifically…

How can we think about tenure in a broader way? What are the implications of the tenure system? Can other systems provide something similar to what the tenure system provides? Aren’t there shifts in what’s needed from tenure? Is there more than one alternative option to the tenure system? Aren’t there broader changes related to tenure? What are the constituencies involved when we talk about the tenure system? Is it just something happening between administrators and professors?  In business, the questions about stakeholders are used to open up discussions. So, who are the stakeholders in the tenure system? Would it be enough to add non-tenure employees, students, and “society” or “governments” to administrators and professors? Isn’t the tenure system involved in a much broader set of issues, which include not only tuition fees and costs for textbooks but social expectations in terms of post-secondary education and even the meaning of life outside the Ivory Tower?

A Bit of Context

The trigger for this new post in an already-overextended series and the reason for my long preamble is a post by blogging dean “Dean Dad” (DD) meant as a response to a proposal by the New Faculty Majority (NFM), “The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity.”

Confessions of a Community College Dean: A Response to The New Faculty Majority.

“Program for Change: 2010-2030” | A Discussion Covened by NFM.

Avoiding the Debate?

Despite my blogging from this starting point, I would actually prefer not to enter the latent or actual debate between “higher ed” administrators and contract-based faculty members. Previous posts in this series, especially the first one, contain enough about my opinions about the specific situation of non-tenured faculty. And I specifically don’t want to wedge myself between NFM and DD. I haven’t read the full NFM proposal and my reaction to DD’s post isn’t about specific “points of contention.” Personally, I would both disagree and agree with several points made on both “sides.” But, in my mind, it’s not about agreement or disagreement. And it’s not about me.

In fact, I don’t feel that connected to either side. Though I’m officially working as a part-time faculty member and I certainly empathize and sympathize with my colleagues who are unsatisfied with such a position, I have a hard time seeing this as a “side.”

«C’est la lutte finale!»

At Concordia, I’m represented by a union which has as its specific mission to defend the interest of part-time faculty members.  In fact, my union has scored some significant victories in the recent past and it seems that “my side” is adequately represented. But, by analogy with nationalism and patriotism, I wish I could be a “citizen of the World” instead of belonging to just one society.

I don’t have anything against unions. Not only was I raised in union-friendly Quebec but unions have been a relatively significant part of my own environment. Besides, the underlying point of the previous post in this series was that unions are a very appropriate way to solve labour issues, including what “academic freedom” ends up being, in a number of contexts.

Yet I think that union-mindedness can become a bit too focused, in some specific contexts. In my mind, there’s room for thinking outside of the debates and even conflicts between “union and management” (I’d say «syndicat et patronat», so much has union-speech infiltrated my life). So, to come back to my preamble: who’s involved, here? Is it a back-and-forth between employees and employers? Is it all about working conditions?

“Think about Textbook Publishers!”

Textbook publishers aren’t that directly impacted by issues related to tenure (apart, maybe, from longtime textbook adoption commitments by individual professors they bribdo business with). But they do have a stake in the current university system. Not that they contribute significantly to the operational income for “higher learning” institutions. But textbook publishers are part of “the whole picture.”

Why do I mention them here? Several reasons. One is that discussions about tenure often  revolve around money, including the money spent on faculty salaries and money spent as tuition fees. The cost of textbooks is something many (undergraduate) students may need to put in their budgets. In fact, if one is to follow “the money trail” in some educational systems, an important path in that trail probably leads to publishers. Not that textbook publishing is “where the money is.” But, after teaching courses in which students spent more on textbooks than was spent on my salary, I got to think about that part of the money picture.

But part of what leads me to think about textbook publishers has less to do with textbook costs and more to do with transitions in educational systems.

I originally thought about mentioning journalism. The advantage would have been widespread awareness of a current journalism crisis. Not that I know the financials for textbook publishers, but people don’t usually talk about a “crisis” when they talk about textbook publishers. At least, not on the side of publishers.

Yet textbook publishers, like newspaper publishers, have to adapt to new realities. Large-scale corporate concentration, longterm shifts in business practices, the cost of paper and… the Internet. If textbook publishers aren’t adapting, they might end up with significant problems. I happen to think that publishers tend to have too narrow a focus and that they will eventually run into significant problems. But even if I’m wrong, the idea remains that a broad focus can help. (And, yes, I sound like a broken record but it’s not a song which is being heard so clearly, so redundancy may help.)

“The New Realities”

So, going back to the tenure system… Universities will “need to adapt to new realities.” From the trenches, you can hear some people talk about this. But I mostly get the impression that many people in academic contexts are either ignoring the broad isuses or focusing too specifically on a subset of what “the new realities” might be.

In the US especially, people tend to talk about “for-profits.” Usually, people are against “for-profits” (at least, among people and blogs I read). The core idea, though, is that a shift is happening and that “for-profits” are part of the new realities. And what are “for-profits,” you ask? From what I gather (just heard recently about this), they’re accredited institutions of higher learning which deviate from some norm as to what colleges and universities should be like. So, it sounds like a variation on the dichotomy between “private” and “public” institutions with a shift in emphasis on the motives instead of the way these institutions are financed. The way they’re described, “for-profits” sound quite different from private universities. But the implied distinction (between “for-profits” and “not-for-profit?”) resonates in some of the same ways.

Online courses are also among “the new realities.” In this context, rarely do people connect these courses with the history of distance education. What puts online courses as part of “the new realities” isn’t really about the context in which learning happens but about some shifts in roles and goals. Part of this is connected to “for-profits” as there’s an embedded business model in people’s minds when people discuss online courses. In a way, an increase in online courses transforms these courses into products, regardless of pedagogical approaches used.

Then there’s the increase in the number of courses taught by “adjunct and contingent faculty.” It’s probably the reason behind the NFM name: the majority of faculty members  is found on the contract-based side instead of the tenure side. The shift is perceived as being mostly negative, since “adjuncts obviously have worse conditions than people in the tenure system.” Besides, ranking systems clearly state, “courses taught by tenured faculty members are inherently better.” (Yes, there was a bit of sarcasm in here….)

There are obvious connections between the adjunct-teaching “new reality” and the previous issues. For one thing, adjuncts teaching online may get even less protection than with offline courses. And one issue people have with “for-profits” is that they mostly hire people through contracts.

What these connections tell me is that we’re talking about a complex system, with numerous parts which are interacting in non-obvious ways. It doesn’t sound like a complicated causal model with a clear set of causes and a clear set of results. Especially if we consider a number of issues which aren’t frequently discussed within the walls of institutions of “higher learning.”

Alternative Learning

For an example of something infrequently discussed within the Ivory Tower: how about learning outside formal institutions of higher learning?

When a similar issue is raised (outside of the Ivory Tower), it’s often in rather provocative terms.

Bill Gates: The Internet Will Replace Universities – PSFK.

With the “money quote”:

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.

Haven’t listened to Gates’s whole speech but this specific quote, reproduced in a number of places, seems to imply a rather narrow perspective on learning.

Problem is, the counterpoint from universities isn’t that well-composed. “What’s the role of the university when you can get content online? The campus experience! Grades! Credentials!” I love improvisation but these reactions sound like someone trying to catch up with chord changes.

And catching up is perhaps not the most efficient way to adapt and cope to “new realities.”

Not only is the Web making it possible to attend lecture and to get learning “content,” but the world in which we live offers some new opportunities for “learning outside the school”: homeschooling, self-learning, informal learning, personal learning networks, etc. Sure, steady jobs still tend to be associated with degrees that people get, and even grades matter in some contexts. But there also seems to be an increase in contractual hiring outside the “CV and interview” system. No, getting jobs without presenting a CV isn’t likely to become an appropriate solution for everyone. But happy lives achieved without seals of approval from formal institutions represent a challenge many a university system.

Through all of this, what needs to be rethunk about tenure isn’t just tenure itself. It’s how the whole university system fits in a new context. Tenure is just a sore thumb, sticking out in a mangled hand.

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