It’s become fashionable to call for the end of tenure, to claim that it is costly, doesn’t actually result in “intellectual freedom” and rewards unproductive faculty who atrophy after they reach this professional milestone, hanging up their scholarly and pedagogical hats and easing into inertia.
Most of the people arguing for its abolition are white. And tenured.
Given that faculty of color are disproportionally clustered among the contingent ranks, most of the people who work without the security and benefits of tenure are not white. There’s something wrong with the math here and there is definitely something wrong with this picture.
Just look at the pictures of the five-person panel The New York Times assembled for one of its “Room for Debate” virtual roundtables to take up the question “What if College Tenure Dies?” The debate held only passing interest to me when it was first published, but it came to mind with the recent death of the brilliant Derrick Bell.
Bell is famous for, among other things, being fired from Harvard after he protested the lack of women of color on the law faculty. At the time he was the Weld Professor of Law and could easily have rested on his laurels, but rather than bend, rather than yield he pushed back. Or, to be more precise, he refused to come back at the end of his sabbatical until Harvard addressed this deficit.
Considered a foundational voice in Critical Race Theory, Bell is the author of And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1987) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992). Students who sat in his lectures and seminars speak of him in worshipful tones, and in the days after his death, I couldn’t look at my twitter feed, my facebook page, or my favorite blogs without seeing someone mourning his passing. I know Bell primarily for his work in Critical Race Theory, but given what I’m steeped in these days, I couldn’t help but see his passing in the context of the current debates about the role of tenure in the twenty-first century academy.
The two biggest names in the Times debate were Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Presidents and Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University—two men comfortably settled into the privileges of academic seniority. Nelson is an ardent supporter of tenure while Taylor argues vociferously against it. He begins his contribution to the debate: “Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible.”
I know we live in an age when rhetorical thunderbolts abound, but it makes me queasy to see an intellectual, especially one firmly and safely ensconced in the academy, doing the dirty work for administrators who are all too willing to use economics as a way to explain why they are doing away with tenure lines and replacing those positions with the cheap labor that is contingency faculty. It’s particularly galling to have that thunderbolt from a scholar who I am sure is costing Columbia a pretty penny. I could go on about all the ways in which Taylor is wrong—particularly when it comes to thinking about how tenure makes it possible for institutions of all kinds to meet their obligations to society—but what really sticks out in light of Bell’s passing is the kind of diversity that will be left unprotected if tenure is abolished. Bell and others like him represent an ideal kind of diversity that wise, ethical, and long-sighted academics would be wise to protect.
Bell embodies what I’m calling double diversity. It is the opposite of the diversity ethos that I fear pervades humanities departments today–simple, crude diversity that tends to reduce faculty to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It’s the approach that has a department saying something like, “we need a Hispanic person” and then putting out an ad for Latino/a studies, conflating the scholar (and the scholarship) with someone’s identity. Double Diversity doesn’t just mean hiring brown faces or teaching texts by colored folks. Instead, it acknowledges that the academy works best when different teaching models, different research questions, different interactions with the world are equally valued and preserved.
Take, for instance, Bell’s approach to explaining critical-race theory by relating legal concepts through allegory. He does this with Geneva Crenshaw, a character he created for And We Are Not Saved. The dialogue he builds between Crenshaw and the narrator allows Bell to explore multiple sides of a complex issue in a mode that made often dry legal analysis interesting and accessible. The responses to this model were mixed, but the critique that stands out most sharply comes from legal scholar and judge Richard Posner. Posner, who currently sits as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, is described as conservative, but his dismissal of Bell’s approach is a critique that could easily have come either from a conservative or a well meaning but wrong headed liberal. According to the Times article on Bell’s passing he dismissed Bell’s approach, claiming that it “repudiat[ed] reasoned argumentation,” and that it “reinforce[d] stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.” Posner’s assessment appeared in The New Republic, and the whole piece is infused with carefully masked anxiety, hitting all of the high points of conservative terror. It begins:
“The postmodern left is defined by its opposition to the values, the beliefs, and the culture of the ‘West,’ the ‘West’ being conceived as the domain of nondisabled heterosexual white males of European extraction and their east Asian and west Asian ‘imitators,’ such as the Japanese (Hitler’s ‘honorary Aryans’) and the Jews. The postmodern left is radically multiculturalist, but it is more, for the “West” that it denigrates is not historically specific; it encompasses liberalism, capitalism, individualism, the Enlightenment, logic, and science, the values associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, the concept of personal merit, and the possibility of objective knowledge.”
Bell is among others Posner names, as “ensconced in American universities” and who even have “a foothold in the law schools.” And, he continues, it’s this postmodern left that has “demolished to its satisfaction universal values and criteria…”
I’ve been an academic of some sort for more than fifteen years, and this terror is what guides many decisions in the humanities from admissions decisions to how job advertisements are written to hiring and retention practices. Given that those who rise to power tend to be those who subscribe to the “universal values and criteria” model of what is and isn’t “good” scholarship, it behooves the rest of us to push as hard as possible to protect scholars whose scholarship aims to stretch the academy’s rigid boundaries. The tension in the academy is often between the old and the new. So, while scholars and administrators alike claim they value new contributions to scholarship, often “new” actually only means a slight variation of what people in positions of authority view as acceptable. Anyone invested in whole new areas of scholarship or new ways of engaging with old areas of criticism needs the protection that comes with tenure.
It goes too far to say that the most diverse academics I know are people of color. That’s a generalization too broad to make, but I know what I see and I see it because I move in a world of academic/activists of color, and the truth of it is even those who may have been intellectually trained in the most traditional of methodologies always occupy two worlds, and fact of this truth means that we bring a double-view to the table. This, in turn, means that we have learned to look at whatever is in front of us from texts to statistics to students with a complexity that benefits the academy in myriad ways.
And the only way to insure that the academy doesn’t fold in under the weight of sameness is to protect us with tenure.
Tenured, I don’t think we atrophy. I know we blossom. This suggests that the problem isn’t with tenure but with those who abuse its privileges, and, cynic though I am, I believe those are more the exception than the rule.
Bell begins his popular work with the following claim:
“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down at us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or to us.”
I can’t help but think that those who seek to abandon tenure, whether they realize it or not, are pulling up rather than letting down the ropes, and I worry that if they succeed future Derrick Bells will be left at the bottom of the well.