Friday, June 5, 2015
Cranky Bear On Tenure's Long Slow Death
Editor's Note: My rather impolitic friend Cranky Bear has come out of hibernation with a vengeance this year. It's a Friday night here and I am tired, I thought I'd let him have a turn again.
Cranky Bear here, with a hoppy summer beer in my hand and righteous indignation burning in my heart.
The academic world is abuzz this week with the news that the state of Wisconsin seems poised to effectively eliminate tenure in its state university system. This is coming on the heels of a major cut to the state university system's funding, and I am willing to bet that the tenure elimination is an attempt to make sure that the funding cuts bring about massive layoffs of professors, rather than tuition hikes to make up the difference. People like Scott Walker want state universities to become glorified vocational schools producing obedient workers smart enough to do the menial knowledge tasks of the new economy, but too ignorant to be able to question the system. (George Carlin basically nailed it right before his death.)
Walker basically got away with destroying collective bargaining rights, and then a bunch of other Republican governors jumped on the bandwagon and did the same thing. If he succeeds in kneecapping tenure and shared governance, you can bet your ass that the likes of Mike Pence and Rick Scott are going to do the same damn thing, and that administrators around the nation will be falling all over themselves to put their faculties in their place.
Here's the deal, though. Tenure is already mostly in the grave anyway. For the huge numbers of adjuncts and other non-tenure track academics, it never existed in the first place. For forty years now universities have hired a growing army of employees who have been told that they don't need (or deserve) tenure. Honestly, who the fuck is going to listen to tenured scholars when they defend their privileges when they have been complicit in a system that denies this supposedly essential right to their own co-workers?
Obviously I'm not blaming those with tenure, or at least not mostly blaming them. The neoliberal onslaught has consistently pushed universities to "be more like a business" with predictably wretched consequences. Just like the supposed "talent elite" (that phrase makes me puke) in other fields, university administrators make more an more money, while the grunt workers make do with lower pay, fewer benefits, and a general climate of fear to keep them in line. Adjuncts, visitors, and lecturers have experienced the worst of this, having practically no job security or respect. Now the protected are about to lose their protection.
Think of it this way: the grand edifice of tenure began to slowly rot four decades ago, but nobody seemed to notice who wasn't being actively fucked over by that system. Year by year by year the rot kept creeping in more and more and more, with those lucky enough to have tenure looking at the contingent laborers drowning around them thinking "there but for the grace of God go I." Or at least they thought that if they actually paid the plight of contingents any mind. Now the whole thing has gotten so rickety that a couple of good smacks from a legislative hammer can have the whole crumbling structure come crashing down to earth. That is exactly what's going on in Wisconsin.
And you know what? It makes me sick to my fucking stomach. Good ole Cranky Bear has long since ambled his way out of academia to greener pastures, but I have many friends who still reside in its walls. These are amazing people who are smart as hell and bust their asses to reach their students. They have endured the indignities of a wretchedly tight job market, they have been furloughed by conservative politicians, and they have faced years without pay raises. They are so talented and do so much, yet their efforts are met with so much derision and hostility. The message of Wisconsin's government to these good people is "you are expendable." It is a job where one is forced to live wherever one can find work and make a helluva lot less money than many other professions that require a lot less brainpower and work. It used to be the case that scholars accepted these things, but knowing that they would get security and respect in return. Now they are being given neither.
As horrible as this is, let us not pretend we didn't know the die was cast a long time ago. It was easy for so many to turn their heads and pretend they didn't see the exploitation that surrounded them, now tenured and untenured will be cooking in the same pot, in solidarity at last as they are consumed and shat out by the great neoliberal Moloch.