Podcast Transcript: Is Tenure an Illusion? Interview with John Warner

Dan: This podcast episode is part of a multi-part series on tenure. In our last podcast, we heard from Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed, who described recent extreme changes to tenure at specific institutions, as well as the overall changes she sees in the tenure system as a result of the pandemic and before. Today, we hear from John Warner, a writer, editor, speaker, researcher, and author of eight books, most recently, Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education. He’s also the author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. With 20 years of college teaching experience and 10 years as a contributor to Inside Higher Ed, John has become a national voice on issues of faculty, labor, institutional values, and writing pedagogy. John is also a weekly columnist for the Chicago Tribune and has an associated newsletter, The Biblioracle Recommends on Substack. He is affiliate faculty at the College of Charleston, but of course his most impressive credential is that he was a previous guest on The Mortarboard. Previously, he has described his view that higher education is at a crossroads; the pandemic is either the latest blow in higher education funding or an opportunity to fix the system. Today, John talks with us about one such opportunity, the tenure system. John, welcome back to the podcast.

John: My pleasure.

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Dan: I’d like to first understand the origins of your interest in this topic. It’s pretty obvious that you’re used frequently as a resource for journalists like myself, and I know that if people are seeking you out on this topic, this is one that you’ve been interested in for some time. What is it that motivates your interest in the topic of tenure?

John: Well, you know, it’s really motivated from my career as a non-tenure-track instructor over the course of sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years – sort of depends on how you define my “career” at four different institutions – and at each stop along the way, I wondered why somebody like me, who was good at his job, dedicated to the mission of the institution, serving the needs of students in the department, could not find a sustainable job. It wasn’t just me. I was surrounded by people like me who were constantly moving in and out of departments leaving the profession entirely essentially washing out huge numbers of talented people who were doing the work of the institution. My work was only made possible by outside income of my own from writing and editing and my wife’s career. And so teaching college became something of a quasi-volunteer work, you know, making $25,000 or $35,000 a year to teach college full-time. It just didn’t make any sense. I had spent time in corporate America, where talent is recognized and rewarded and retained. Being a little bit naive when I started about the way that academic structures work, I initially couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being noticed and saying, maybe we should figure out how to get all these people. And again, not just me, the dozens and dozens of people I worked alongside, how we shouldn’t be working to get them more integrated into the institution and the work of the institution, as opposed to treating us essentially like fungible units of instructional labor which is generally how we were seen, at least by the logic of the bureaucracy of the institutional administration. And so that just made me curious. And then when I started blogging for Inside Higher Ed almost ten years ago now, we’re coming up on my ten-year anniversary, it became a logical subject for me to explore in-depth and over time learning, not just from my own experience, but reaching out and hearing the experiences of others. If you do it enough and you pay attention enough, all of a sudden you feel like you start to know a few things that maybe other people want to hear.

Dan: When you talked about corporate America, you talked about it recognizing and rewarding talent. And I want to make sure that I understand what you’re saying. Do you think that academia recognizes and rewards talent or is it simply recognizing and rewarding a different kind of talent than you think it ought to be? What is sort of in the fundamental analysis, how are you diagnosing what higher ed is doing wrong with regard to tenure?

John: The biggest problem is that a huge swath of instructional faculty – by some measure 75% – is not actually eligible for a system that would recognize and reward and retain talent. We are literally semester-to-semester or year-to-year contracts. I was never eligible for anything like a merit raise. There was no promise or expectation of even a three-year or five-year contract based on good work at an institution. And two, the mechanism does not exist for non-tenure-track faculty in terms of folks who can get themselves into a tenured position. Some of that is not for me to say – my set of values, I would say the way tenure works as a kind of quasi-guild system actually prevents people from doing their best and most useful work, often prevents people from doing their best and most useful work in the context of the institution.

Dan: You’re not the first person to say that to me.

John: If you’re desperate for tenure, and publication is going to be the thing that determines your tenure, you will chase a numbers game rather than, say, work on one longer, more substantive piece of work because you can’t risk that that thing isn’t going to get published and be part of your portfolio. The metrics by which tenure is decided, and I understand that these range from institution to institution, I think often are out of whack with what we actually would want faculty to do. There are all kinds of surveys of associate professors and newly-tenured professors who experienced this kind of crushing letdown when they’re tenured, and they begin to think, is this it? Is this really what I was doing this for? Or they’ll begin to think, “Now I can start doing my work,” after a seven-year period where they should have been doing the work. I’m not even sure that when I say ‘talent,’ that that’s even the right word we should be using. These institutions have a mission; and the way I see the mission is to enhance the intellectual, social, and economic capacities of those who intersect with the institution. And by that, I mean students, faculty, staff, and the community within which the institution resides, which is local, state, and national. So if that’s our mission we should be looking at structures that allow all of those different categories of people who interface with the institution to thrive. In terms of non-tenure-track faculty, such as the positions I held, we teach. And good teaching and consistent teaching and innovative teaching, we should find a way to reward that, or at the very least make it a job that is sustainable. I don’t teach anymore because I cannot afford to, because I’m fifty-one years old and I can’t have a main job that earns me $35,000 a year, and if I ever expect to not have to work until the day of my demise. So that’s a long answer to your question, but I think the answer is, is no – academic institutions don’t really have a structure that allows the labor of the people who work in the institution to thrive in the mission that we want them to engage with for the institution.

Dan: It sounds like what you’re describing is sort of this two-tiered system, both of which are deeply flawed in some way. At one level of the system, there are people who are simply paid to teach, but for those people, the system doesn’t allow them to make a living doing it. The other level of the system, the tenured faculty, are paid to do something else, which I think it sounds like you’re saying is often not only at odds with the mission of the institution, but is sort of at odds with the larger educational enterprise.

John: Yes, I do think it is in a lot of cases. The caveat I need to offer here is that some of this does get at where you kind of center your values in regards to the work of the institution. And for me that’s the teaching and learning mission, right? I don’t mean to discount the importance of research and research universities. I attended one as an undergraduate and have taught at three, but the reality of our public higher education institutions, which is the focus of my thinking, is that they’re largely funded by student tuition – in some cases, majority-funded by student tuition. And we know, although it is tough to determine in precise numbers how much, we know that student tuition, money they pay to attend and learn and develop and graduate, is going to the research mission. It’s essentially being funneled to pay tenured faculty to not teach. And those gaps are then filled by non-tenured faculty working for much lower wages in order to make the bottom-line work. I think that system is not only fundamentally unjust and that it exploits both the funding stream coming from students and the non-tenured faculty, but I think it divorces tenured faculty from the work of the institution. But that’s my set of values, that I think it’s the teaching and learning mission that we need to center as we think about the operations of institutions. I’m not unsympathetic to how these things have impacted tenured faculty – because there are many fewer of them, they’re having to do more administrative work spread among fewer people. They have to have to do more advising. They have to do more work that is actually not part of necessarily a tenure and promotion portfolio, but become necessary just to keep the wheels turning. So they’re making these shared sacrifices as well. This is why, when I look at these issues, I see them as structural. These are not a failure of individuals to do the right thing. It’s a failure of the structure of the institution to allow for operations that are consistent with the mission. It’s not unsolvable, but it does take sort of more than “we’re going to try harder and do better.” It’s something I write about extensively in my new book Sustainable, Resilient, Free – rethinking how we conceive of the labor of the people who work in the institution.

Dan: One of the first things that come into my mind when you talk about re-centering the institution on teaching and learning, is that even if I’m sympathetic to that idea, there are, and I know you know this just as well as I do, there are truly vast institutions with resources bigger than some countries, where the institution is literally created around a model that is not a teaching and learning model. It is a research-driven grant-driven organization that in some sense offers teaching as a sort of ancillary to what it does at its core. Is it really realistic to think that these huge research universities could really reshape themselves in this sort of very fundamental way that you’re talking about?

John: Maybe not. When we look at these things and, and again, my focus being on the big public institutions, it may be too much for the constellation of R1 universities to reorient and become something at least a little different than what they are. I will reiterate again that in many cases, these institutions are significantly funded by student tuition. If forty or forty-five percent of the institutions’ revenue is tuition, they’d better be pouring resources into teaching and learning. One of the bigger picture things that I think is the logic of my critique and what I would like to see happen, is that many more resources would flow into the institutions that are already oriented around teaching and learning. And I’m specifically thinking about two-year community colleges and the regional publics, which are truly trying to do more with less and therefore struggle, not because they’re inferior institutions, but because they are simply not resourced at the same level. When you disaggregate research funding as a source of revenue, they still are given less money per student. So some of my critique does involve looking at the question you just asked me: can these institutions change? And if the answer is no, then I think that our response has to be, where do we start putting our public money? What institutions can we direct that funding towards that has the greatest benefit to the public in terms of creating these opportunities to be educated and then prosper, because that is by and large the bargain that I think most of us think our public post-secondary institutions are meant to fulfill. And if they’re not doing that, if R1s are incapable because of their structural impediments or just these huge research apparatuses that surrounded them, then let’s put our money into the places where it’s already happening. I think that’d be a perfectly fine outcome, and I say this as the graduate of a research one university. We have lots of institutions that could do this work without having to radically reshape themselves.

Dan: Let’s return to the topic of tenure. I’m doing a multi-part series on the podcast about changes to tenure, how the tenure system may be evolving. In the last podcast, I had a reporter from Inside Higher Ed who described a specific school – a very radical change to tenure at that school – but also talked about the tenure atmosphere in general. She certainly felt that the tenure landscape was changing, and that’s been my observation as well. I’m curious as to whether or not you see it that way, that tenure is changing, and if you do, I’m curious as to whether or not you feel it’s changing in a way that would perhaps begin to address the concerns you’re raising.

John: That’s a big question. One of my broad contentions is that tenure already does not exist. It never existed for me. It doesn’t exist for the vast majority of instructional faculty, or for faculty period, at institutions – they’re not tenure-eligible. So if we come from that base and we think is tenure changing, it’s already changed. It has shrunken to the point where disappearance is threatened. We have the additional threat now of state legislatures that truly do want to kind of end or ban tenure in their states. My wish is for us to look at these things from the standpoint of values: what does tenure represent, and what does tenure allow people to do that is of benefit to the institution? Things like having the security of place and position, things like the institution having your back if the bad faith/outrage crowd comes for you for something that is untrue and defensible. We need those things for the protection of all laborers at the institution. Tenure traditionally was the way we thought of “that’s the mechanism by which we do these things,” but it’s not available to most of us, and it doesn’t seem to be up to the job in a lot of other cases these days. So if we ask if tenure changing, clearly it’s changing and it’s under threat from a lot of different spots, but I don’t know that we solve the problems by just saying, “okay, we’re going to try to make as many people tenurable as possible.” I think it’s more complicated than that.

Dan: Are you saying that for tenured faculty, they may not really grasp the extent of their own tenure? That is, it may in fact be some sort of an illusion where they think tenure grants them status or protection, this historic one that faculty have long enjoyed, or maybe thought they enjoyed. But in fact, it is much, much less than they think, and so they ought to understand what tenure really is in this day and age?

John: A hundred percent. We’ve seen during our last pandemic year that tenure is no protection against an institution declaring financial exigency. Many tenured faculty have been laid off across the country and had their jobs eliminated, and tenure was no protection for these things. Tenure is no substitute for genuine meaningful labor protections. Tenure is not worth anything if it’s a temporary job perk for a certain class of faculty. Tenure, by itself, is no protection against deeper assaults against the integrity of labor, institutions disappearing or downsizing, tenure’s no protection against these things – assaults from hostile state legislatures who want to redefine these things. Tenure is no protection against those things. This really is a kind of deeper structural problem around the labor that is associated with people who work in institutions, and so we need to be thinking: what do we need to do our jobs effectively and appropriately with sufficient security and compensation and freedom and all the things that make the work worth doing, and to be able to do the work effectively? I’ve spent 10 years writing in Inside Higher Ed about tenure, and tenured faculty would repeatedly come in and say, “We get it, adjunct faculty are poorly treated and this kind of stuff, but we’re doing the best we can.” There’s no more time for the best we can. We need actual solutions.

Dan: I think you’re describing something that’s a bit startling to me. It has been claimed by guests on this podcast, in publications – I would say this is a widely held position – that one of the reasons for preserving tenure is that you cannot recruit without it. So presumably scholars of value, scholars who are productive, scholars that the institution wants to employ they cannot be recruited unless the institution can offer them tenure. But it sounds like what you are saying is that everyone, knowingly or unknowingly, is participating in the kind of illusion or chimera, which is what’s being offered to the faculty member and makes the job somehow exponentially more appealing to them, the status of tenure, is in fact vapor when times get tough, when something unusual is going on, whether it’s financial or it’s ideological or something like that, that is this thing that the faculty member felt they absolutely had to have, and the institution felt they absolutely had to offer in order to recruit, that in fact is not really there in the first place.

John: There’s certainly no guarantee. It is not a hundred-percent protective shield once achieved. It also has its own problems of that seven-or-so-year period between hiring and achieving it, which requires all sorts of potential compromise in order to reach that level. In terms of needing it to recruit, I’m sure that’s true to an extent, in that the very tip-top of the profession those people would gravitate only towards the tenured jobs. But from a pure labor/marketplace standpoint, there is a massive oversupply relative to the available places. A university could end tenure tomorrow and still find highly competent, maybe not entirely willing, but nonetheless desperate-enough-to-take-the-job people to go work at that institution. Look no further than the current non-tenure track marketplace, or the raft of visiting professorships that crop up across the country which are untenured and temporary, which get hundreds and hundreds of people applying for them. While achieving tenure at a big-time university is probably a kind of very secure finish line, that is an extremely rare position relative to the vast majority of the laborers inside of higher education. It’s great if you can get it, but fewer and fewer people are getting it, and it’s not as great as it once was.

Dan: Look ten years down the road or twenty years down the road. If we were having this same conversation, how would it be different? How would tenure have altered during that time? There is some belief that the public has little patience for tenure, that state legislatures don’t really understand it and don’t have any sympathy toward it either, that schools have seen it as a bad business model. Where do you think we will go?

John: I think a big part of my answer rests on what sort of system of post-secondary education we have ten years from now. And the answer to that is, I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I think there’s a number of possible scenarios. We could be looking at a future where we have our set of elite universities, primarily private with a handful of publics, that look very much like today, but more and more people will start to congregate at a handful of largely online universities like Southern New Hampshire University or Arizona State or additional behemoths grow to stand astride the country like Colossus. If there are ten of those and they have fifty percent of the post-secondary market, there will be no such thing as tenure at those institutions. Or there may be a small – at a place like Arizona State – you’ll have a cadre of tenured research faculty who work on campus, or in this case, Arizona State, will probably have campuses spread over the world, who will work on campus and produce research and have a sort of halo effect associated with the institution, but will have very limited, if any, contact with undergraduates. All the undergraduates will be taught primarily online by really a fungible cadre of instructors. From a purely speculative standpoint, in some ways this could be an improvement in terms of wages for those instructors, because if there’s competition among these behemoth online education deliverers, and you can go kind of sell your skills to the highest bidder that could, in theory, be a good thing. My instinct, though, is it will be a bad thing. It’ll have created a wholly commodified education space that’s divorced from the learning aspect of education and substitutes training and credentialing for whatever is left. So it’s tough to say, like tenure, I think, you know, in a lot of ways, I hope we’re not having the conversation about tenure anymore because we are now recognizing the right of people, all people, not just college faculty or staff or anyone else to a certain base level of employment rights. I think that’s where the fight is – that people can’t be discharged on a whim in these sorts of jobs or any job. That you have due process and that sort of stuff. So if those sorts of things could attach to all jobs, we don’t have to have as much angst and sturm und drang over tenure as we do today because as we’ve been talking, I think we’re wrestling over something that really is an endangered species. And all of that energy going to that is maybe distracting from the conversations we should be having about how to allow the laborers of academia, faculty, staff, and even students to thrive relative to the mission that we perceive our institutions to be fulfilling.

Dan: Today, we heard from John Warner, a writer, editor, speaker, researcher, and author of eight books, most recently, Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education. With 20 years of college teaching experience and ten years as a contributor to Inside Higher Ed, John has become a national voice on issues of faculty, labor, institutional values, and writing pedagogy. John is also a weekly columnist for the Chicago Tribune and has an associated newsletter, “The Biblioracle Recommends” on Substack. He is affiliate faculty at the College of Charleston. Thank you, John. I very much appreciate your being here. Thanks so much for appearing on the podcast.

John: I love talking about this stuff. I’m happy to do it anytime.