Tenure Trap: Why All Faculty Created Equal But Some More Equal Than Others

Jill HaunoldJill Haunold

I always wanted to be a college professor. In my child’s mind, I thought teachers were the smartest people on earth. Logically, college professors were the smartest teachers, and therefore, must have answers to the most important questions, such as life’s meaning and who makes the best soft-serve ice cream.

Unfortunately, I came from an era and locale where education for women was seen as unnecessary and undesirable after high school.

Like the Dixie Chicks song, I ended up taking the long way around to earning my doctorate. I was, by then, 45, married and in the throes of raising 3 sons. My husband and I built a successful business and there was no chance we could move for my career. But it was the thought that counts. I loved the process. I had, in truth, learned much about making meaning in life, if not the answer to the soft-serve conundrum. I had achieved, in large part, a childhood dream. What I did not know, what we never discussed in any course work, was the Tenure Trap.

Not long after I was awarded my degree, I was asked to adjunct for a semester. I had vacation plans the college could work around. Perfect scenario. Eventually, and I am fuzzy on the details, my position morphed into full-time, but not tenure-track.

With the naivety of Boxer, the loyal, dedicated harness horse of Animal Farm, I worked hard, earned good student evaluations, was collegial, served my institution, researched and published beyond expectations. Something, if not tenure, resembling job security and faculty equity surely would be awarded.

Fast forward 10 years. I still love students and teaching but have developed learned helplessness — the psychological condition where the individual comes to believe no personal action will effect change. Theoretically, if after endless faculty evaluations and one-year contracts, I have managed to stay employed, I must be an extraordinary employee and teacher. But, as it turns out, in a catch-22 logic trap, my persistence in an unalterable environment provides evidence administrators could do better, if a TT line opened, (which it won’t because I am doing the job for less), by conducting a national search, in which, I have been told, I could not compete.

Perhaps I have Stockholm syndrome.

The social construction of tenure traps those who have it far worse than the have-nots. I attended a school play, titled Gut Girls, where the once-free-and-easy early nineteenth century slaughterhouse girls are conscripted into the cleaner, higher-class work of domestics, only to find they are less free or happy in the bondage of respectability. In reviewing articles of the pros and cons of tenure or how to play nice with the tenured class so they will keep us around, if not respect us, I found implicit in the Chicken Little argument that tenure serves to defend and protect “academic freedom,” without which professors would not be free to question or criticize, there is the idea that tenured professors regularly question and criticize. Tenure more often functions as a norming mechanism precisely into not questioning, a secret handshake club membership of the highest order. Noam Chomsky asserts education is to produce conformity and indoctrination. Harold Rosenberg described intellectuals as a herd of independent minds.

There are, of course, exceptions. There are tenured professors who question and critique, providing further evidence they are permitted to do so because of their successful rise to tenure, where they have a job for life. Howard Zinn was dismissed from his tenured departmental chair position at Spelman College for encouraging activism among the students. Not only can and are tenured professors dismissed, but more importantly, those who question and critique do so with or without tenure, while the timid will not question with or without tenure. Chomsky argues that while tenure is to ensure the academic freedom to pursue controversial lines of research, the actual nature of the academic freedom pursued is within increasingly narrow margins of sanctioned inquiry mitigated primarily over competition for dwindling public and private research funding with a non-boat-rocking agenda.

Who benefits? It can be argued it is the administration from which tenure was created to protect professors from arbitrary, irrational or vindictive loss of employment that has the most at stake in the status quo. Interestingly, there are employment policies, regulations and unions that achieve precisely this goal in other work arenas. However, unlike other employment venues, once a professor has achieved tenure at an institution, it is unlikely he or she will pursue a job elsewhere. Effort justification ensures the tenured will identify with his or her institution. Those foolishly attempting the explanation tap dance of why she or he would leave a tenured position will likely be met with a skeptical tenured search committee.

Once upon a time, when people had less ability and/or desire for mobility, or when there was only one person whose career was to be considered, this made perfect sense. However, now, once a professor is awarded tenure, she or he had better have no life changes that would create a need or desire to teach at another institution. In addition, if a professor were to move, the process of acquiring tenure can be a significant barrier to the older professor unless he or she is the rare animal of hired-with-tenure. A job for life is a double-edged sword.

Tenure does make for safe academic playgrounds. Research has found that children with the label “gifted and talented” tend to take fewer academic risks. With the explanation that, once labeled, who would want to jeopardize the title with mediocrity or failure? Tenured professors, like gifted and talented students, tend to take less, not more academic risks. Those who do, such as Irene Pepperberg, of Alex the Parrot fame, who abandoned a career as a chemist to study animal learning, lost years of funding, publications and tenure because — what self-respecting chemist would give up a career to play with a bird? It isn’t even a real science.

Tenure is social Darwinism. Much like gifted and talented children, breathing the rarified air of tenure makes tenured professors giddy and special, specifically, more special than non-tenured faculty. And in a world of participation trophies, who does not like to be special?

There is a great deal of discussion on both sides of the tenure divide of increasing hegemony between the minority, tenure-track faculty and their disproportionately female majority counter parts of NTT faculty. But there are few personal narratives, due, perhaps in part, to the risk involved. Those who have the social and political capital to change the system where job security, status and promotion are dependent upon coming early and often to the tenure trough are also those who are already walking on two legs and are more equal than others. I don’t blame them. I came to the party late, naively and with collateral baggage, but I covet the title and the impunity it implies.

Dr. Jill L. Haunold is co-chair of the Psychology Department at the College of Idaho