Getting tenure, the ‘Big Lie’ and the role of faculty

In a series of articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, a small Christian Reformed college in Holland, Michigan) has been raising a veritable army of angry adjuncts and underemployed PhDs through his revealing what he sees as “the Big Lie” of the academy – that universities are not telling the truth about employment prospects for those graduating with PhDs in the Humanities and ‘trapping’ vulnerable graduate students into believing that ‘the life of the mind’ is the only calling worth pursuing and that other career options could be as if not more fulfilling.  If you follow the comment threads to Benton/Pannapacker’s postings, you will hear the anger, outrage and disappointment of many graduate students who concur with him.  In spite of the irony of the author writing under a pen name and publishing an article on the ‘Big Lie’ (why not publish under your birth name if truth is such a value?), there is a deep concern brewing about re-evaluating what a university is for and ultimately what a faculty member is charged with.

Last week I received the call that many academics wait for – the notice that the Board of Trustees at the University had voted to extend me tenure.  I went on this journey once before during my time on faculty at the University of Glasgow so to go through it again was tiring to say the least.  It is a long process of evaluation through many vantage points in closed rooms – students focus groups, peer teaching evaluations, guild endorsements, reviews of published scholarship, administrative interviews, and meeting with the President.  In many ways, tenure is an ancient rite of passage more than a means of securing employment or (as many people think) the so-called ‘freedom’ to do and say whatever I want when I want (this was the number one thing that people said to me after the announcement – “so… are you going to just spout off and do crazy things?!”)  No, tenure is not a freedom to be self serving nor should it be seen as a means of subverting the very institution that has embraced me.  It is truly a statement of covenant in the oldest sense of the word – a commitment to a mission beyond the confines of contracts and student evaluations. In many ways, tenure is the ultimate act of faith extended by a body to an educator and scholar – a promise to support, nurture, and give space to voice the mission of the institution not as a mere employee – but as a physical embodiment of the institution itself.  In short, tenure is a burden of grace and trust not to be taken lightly.  It does sadden me to see other faculty who see tenure as a licence to ‘do their own thing’ – pull back on working with students in co-curricular ways, starting side businesses that take most of their attention away from campus life, stop sticking their necks out through submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals and seeking book contracts, and basically coasting through the remainder of their career in utter silence as the ultimate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.  These are few, but represent why the public views tenured faculty with such scorn.  For the public that Benton/Pannapacker speaks to and now has a substantive following, these are the faces of the voodoo dolls newly minted PhDs are sticking pins into with relish (which to layer irony upon irony Benton/Pannapacker is possibly another candidate if he is merely stirring up dissent and not courageously using his tenure status to make the changes he himself desires – I would love to know how his letters of petition to the Board of Trustees at Hope College have been going as well as his offer to cut his own salary to enable a younger faculty member to find employment.  As a scholar of Walt Whitman, he might find some courage in Leaves of Grass or as a faculty member at a Reformed school being one of the Elect…)

The challenge I want to lift up as a tenured faculty member is basically this – is the role of tenure a freedom ‘from’ the institutional restraint we perceive holding us back or is it a freedom ‘for’ living into the very mission of the institution that has chosen to embrace us?  Is perhaps the gift of tenure a gift of stewardship – learning how to be truthful about the difficulties of the profession and prospects of employment as Benton/Pannapacker frames so well in his article and also honestly take stock of how tenure means embodiment of the institutional legacy rather than merely licence to be left alone?

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s