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Tenure in trouble?

By Owen Paine on Sunday February 21, 2010 10:52 AM

The tenured faculty of Florida State may become the air traffic controllers of this brave new age of job massacre: the university is going to lay off 21 tenured and 15 additional tenure-track faculty.

Now that's big news in the academy, no doubt, but... oh the inhumanity of it all!

Actually I take a certain glee in seeing those feudal rights sliced away, and them enoromously swelled and stuffed heads stripped down to prole-ized proportions. Naturally the profs' "union" has stepped forth handsomely to do mortal combat with these bloodthirsty bureaucrats of the gown:

"United Faculty of Florida, the union representing FSU's faculty, is challenging the termination of tenured members and hopes to have an arbitration hearing this spring."
An "arbitration hearing"! Why that's but one small step from storming the Winter Palace. Man, if I was organizing that fightback, I'd have the central admin building set on fire by marauding gangs, like the Reichstag or die tryin', with a torch still burnin' in my cold dead hand. But in their higher wisdom united faculty has choosen the legal route.

I wonder -- can the tenured be saved by legal means only? I don't have a copy of the FSU faculty contract, but here's what I suspect is fairly typical relevent contract boilerplate language. It's from a AAUP contract -- the big prof union -- covering the duly credentialed and honored and honorable scholar gents and ladies of science at Deeetroit's Wayne State:

"Faculty Layoffs

1. Normally, part-time faculty will be laid off first followed by lecturers. In unusual circumstances when special experience is essential to the unit, a full-time or fractional-time faculty member may be laid off, while the part-time faculty member is retained. If the budgetary constraints prove it impossible to staff the range of courses with the full-time and/or fractional-time faculty, then the full-time and fractional-time faculty may be offered the opportunity to teach the courses on an overload basis without additional compensation rather than to use part-time faculty during the academic year."

"Fractional" vs part-time -- nice distinction, eh? But here comes the by-the-book chopping-block rankings:
2. Additional faculty layoffs shall occur in the following order:

  • (a) non-tenure-track faculty by rank and (within rank) by length of service at the University,
  • (b) untenured faculty on tenure track by rank and (within rank) by length of service at the University,
  • (c) tenured faculty by rank and (within rank) by length of service at the University.
Sounds like the tenured oughta get protected till all else are gone, eh? But watch this -- the contract goes on:
"For purposes of this paragraph, untenured lecturers and senior lecturers with more than seven years service shall be treated as tenured faculty."
Sounds like nice modal lingo. I wonder how easily it can pivot both ways? If tenure-type status can be extended in some aspects and contexts to the non-tenured, might not tenured status similarly be abridged in certain aspects and contexts? Imagine we merge all trackers with tenureds and throw out the high-cost top dogs, keeping the trackers.

Length of service? There's gotta be loophole language in there somewhere. As my dear Fieldsian dad used to say, "Don't sign anything without loopholes 'less yer signin' it with [non-whites]." (He hailed from a bygone era, my dad.)

So a way around may exist somewhere -- probably does, in fact. Maybe this cloudy passage in the Wayne State contract contains the makings of such a loophole, or at least close enough to cover an arbitrator's ass:

"... It is understood that in a viable, complex and multifaceted University, it may be necessary to adjust programs and staff through normal attrition. Historically, this adjustment has been accomplished by not renewing term contracts in specific units, departments or schools/colleges. This provision and accompanying procedures do not apply to this historic practice."
With a few jiggers and pops, maybe instead of extending the rights of the tenured to the non-tenured, the university, in order to "adjust staff" by means of un-historic practice, might simply subject the tenured to the peremptory treatment doled out to the untenured, and/or bust the ranking system or re-organize departments, etc.

The last seems to be in the works at FSU:

[A] 15-person department... [was] being eliminated... FSU decided to merge oceanography, geological sciences and meteorology.
The yolk of many a tenured egghead may yet flow across the campus of dear old Kudzu U.

Comments (5)

Defending tenure when the universities have already been subjected to corporate takeover strikes me as a case of shutting stable doors after the horses have bolted.

Universities no longer behave like places of inquiry and education, but as corporations protecting their brand name. When Ward Churchill created a PR problem for the brand of CU-Boulder, they dumped him, tenure or no. Of course, they had to go through some ass-covering farce of a hearing first, the results of which substantially misrepresented both Ward Churchill's scholarship and the history of indigenous Americans. But they got what they wanted, so who cares if the standing committee had to commit far more egregious acts of academic fraud than any Churchill was accused of?

If Brand X University wants you gone, you will be gone, tenure or no. This is a fact widely acknowledged by proffies all over the world. So I'm really perplexed as to what the union thinks it's defending, save for the right to maintain sinecures for those who are willing and eager to tell our lords and masters what they want to hear.

The FSU thing has been coming for a while. Part of it may be due to the characteristic of all deans, provosts, and chancellors as petty, vindictive, self-aggrandizing little tyrants, but the economics of the decision was already set in motion by several factors. In Florida, any student with a high school GPA higher than 3.0 gets 100% of his or her tuition paid for by the state, which results in pressure on the university to keep tuition low. Then, because Florida is peopled by rich retirees who don't want to pay taxes or by people in the panhandle who have an ideological opposition to it, the legislators don't want to raise taxes. Faced with the choice of funding the university infrastructure or funding the tuition program (which nobody dares to touch), the students get the tuition money and the departments' funds are cut.

Right now, the humanities and fine arts classes have been cut to the bare bones, but they've still got to have them because they're the ones students want to take. So now the university turns its attention to disciplines that don't attract many students while requiring lots of expensive equipment, like petrographic microscopes, for the few students they do have. Thus geology gets put on the chopping block, so does oceanography and meteorology. And this in a state where sinkholes swallow houses because of the unstable karst topography.

The pursuit of 'free market' principles, ironically, leads to the sciences getting the Invisible Finger from the angry god of the market long before the humanities. Unfortunately, the only leverage we scientific types have over the universities is our ability to take our expertise to the private sector, but in situations like these such a threat is met with, "Good! Go!"

"Universities no longer behave like places of inquiry and education, but as corporations protecting their brand name."

Nullifidian, was there ever a Golden Age when universities acted as purveyors of Truth and guardians of Liberty? It seems to me, like the Church in another era, they've always functioned, in some fashion, to perpetuate reactionary values.

I am willing to grant the natural sciences flourished during a brief and unprecedented period of respect for rational thinking (in narrow domains not threatening to the established order) now apparently passing into a twilight. But, contra the humanities and quack sciences like political science, the natural sciences were always atypical, antagonistic to the natural logic of the Academy.

I knew someone would jump on that. I thought about adding a parenthetical statement that I am far too young to remember them functioning in any way other than their current incarnation. However, even then I did not say nor imply that they once functioned "purveyors of Truth and guardians of Liberty". Instead, when I said "inquiry and education", that's exactly what I meant.

The universities these days simply do not educate. Not as in "not educate to be a revolutionary", but rather not educate at all. I have heard horror stories of professors who are among the top scholars in their fields asking graduate students if they understand the difference between a primary and secondary source. Thus not only do the undergraduate level classes not teach these basic distinctions of research, but students can get into humanities courses in top-flight graduate programs without demonstrating an understanding of these basics.

Even taking for granted that the American university may have been a locus of social control for at least the last half century, and taking for granted that the natural sciences have usually been shielded from the worst of the shitstorm, it seems to me that the university is no longer functioning in its most basic capacity as a place to teach students and do research.

Honestly, when the university system cannot even reach such a minimal level, then I cannot think of what function it serves, aside from turning out merit (class) badges for the scions of the global elite.

Boy, N. K.:

Do they really have a clown program at FSU?

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