Monday, July 9, 2007

Tenure Good?

An article in today's Inside Higher Ed reports on a situation at Northeastern University in Boston in which faculty members without "proper" accreditation were released so that the university could higher more tenure and tenure-track faculty members. The article notes that many of these lecturers and adjuncts have had decades of experience teaching at Northeastern and that Northeastern has often focused on "experiential learning" programs such as coops and gaining hands-on experience.

This situation is troubling to me on several levels, but there are two that stand out predominantly for me. The first concerns the role of a university. If the role of the university is to teach students, then I think that the practice of teaching is often overlooked as an important facet of the educational experience. I don't care how much expertise a person has, if they are unable to get up in front of a group of students and explain it in such a way that it makes students think in ways that they have not thought before, gives them skills that they can use in their chosen profession or give them the background kinds of knowledge that they need to go investigate the world themselves, then an educational institution has failed its mission. I don't believe that there is any reason why someone with an advanced degree can do this particular task any better than someone without an advanced degree. And, certainly for many professional programs, it is vitally important that there are teachers who have experience in the profession that students are being trained for. I have talked to people who are getting degrees/have gotten degrees in social work, public policy and public health who have never taken a class or gained an intimate knowledge of the practical problems that will be faced in a profession. While nothing can prepare someone comparably to gaining experience on the job, it is important that students know what kinds of issues they are likely to face in any given chosen profession and practical strategies for dealing with the situations that do arise.

This is not to say that advanced degrees don't offer something. I will not spend the better part of six years of my life attempting to obtain something that I don't think is worthwhile. But, obtaining Ph.D.s are a good way to become an expert in a certain area, which is vitally important. Maybe if our president had listened to the historians, military strategists, cultural anthropologists with highly specialized knowledge about specific aspects of war, we might not be in the quagmire that we are in. On the other hand, most professional jobs and more and more non-professional careers require that someone have broad-based knowledge about different aspects and how to deal with the practical uncertainties, divisions, memo-writing, agenda-making that make up the day-to-day tasks of jobs.

The second part that concerns me is the effort to make tenure the gold-standard for all higher-ed employment. While the AAUP has been defending tenure and the AFT has been pushing FACE legislation, there are other considerations to having a full-time academy than tenure. Protecting the kind of people who have been working at Northeastern for decades and the professionals who take a side job teaching college students because they want to have an impact on their profession need to be protected as well. To receive a notice that after decades of service, you are no longer welcome, is a disgrace and huge slap in the face. And while the representative from the AAUP quoted in the article claims that this is not the best way to handle these situations, on paper, the "long-term" outcome (more tenured and tenure-track professors as a proportion to the total of academics hired) is exactly what the AAUP and FACE legislation would end up creating.

While the goals and aims of both the AAUP and the AFT are solid, the devil is, as always, in the details. Without specific mention of situations such as these in policies and programs advocated by strong organizations, I am afraid that will be more examples such as this; or, even worse, universities will intentionally fire these lecturers to make a show and say "our hands are tied by the policies of the AAUP/AFT/[insert organization here] put in place — go blame them for losing your job." I don't think that will be good for anyone, but as long as the conversation remains solely and explicitly about tenure, I fear that this going to be the result of these policies.


Post a Comment