coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Rules of the Game

At the university there were very different standards of behavior for the two distinct groups of employees: faculty and staff. For instance, I couldn't wander those hallowed halls barefoot, with hair uncombed, sporting crooked glasses, muttering to myself, thinking beautiful thoughts, or making bizarre jokes like the professor we affectionately called "Professor Joe." He was a sweet old man and the staff loved him.

He was also a little odd. Within academia he was protected; safe, really. I honestly do not think he could have survived outside. In the "real world" many would have thought him more than a little odd. 

What I found most charming about him was his sense of the absurd. He was often irreverent. He was also brilliant, a scholar of international reputation who had won some of the most prestigious awards in his field of study. Students adored him. He was good at what he did. According to the rules of HIS game, he had earned the right to say or do pretty much whatever came into his head. I always thought "Good for him." Except that time I had finished interviewing for a staff vacancy and he stood by my door as I reviewed my notes yelling, "Hire the pretty one!" I can assure you he never even saw any of the candidates. He walked away laughing to himself without waiting for me to reply. Sigh.

The rules of my game were a little different. No matter how good I was at my job, I couldn't say everything that popped into my head. Sure, I wanted to! There were plenty of irreverent thoughts up there that wanted to come out, especially at inappropriate times. I pushed the limits as best I could, but something always stopped me. Something controlled my behavior. I am fairly certain it was the fear of being fired.  FYI, tenured faculty do not have that fear. Instead, they have "tenure." I am still trying to figure out if that is a good thing or a bad thing. 

In the U.S., after 6 years an assistant professor in a tenure-track position must endure a mind numbing, spectacularly brutal peer evaluation of their work called a tenure review.

The stakes are high both for the tenure candidate (who pretty much cannot be fired after they get tenure) and the department (who could conceivably be stuck with a horrible colleague forever if they give him/her tenure). If an assistant professor doesn't get tenure, they are given a terminal year of employment and then they are out the door. 


Let me say this again in case I wasn't clear, once tenured you cannot be fired unless you do something criminal or litigious. You have a job for life even if you never publish again, don't mentor graduate students, advise undergraduates poorly, treat your colleagues like dirt, or fail to attract large numbers of students to your classes because you are so incredibly boring. Of course the overwhelming majority of professors maintain collegiality and high professorial standards, but there are always a few notable exceptions. 

A professor would tell you tenure is the basis of academic freedom. Tenure allows them to pursue truth and do their best and purest work without fear of reprisal, censure, or compromise. That is probably true.

Still...it is an imperfect system. The collective damage caused by an unfettered ego or a mean-spirited, malicious malcontent can be a special kind of trauma for everyone else in an academic department. And if the ego or malcontent is a tenured professor, there is not much you can do to stop it except to find another job and hope the new department doesn't harbor a malicious malcontent, too.

Tenure is an established rite of passage for academics. Faculty count on it. They will never give it up. As a direct result of tenure, academia sometimes feels like an alternate reality, one in which actions don't always have consequences, and rules don't always apply...for some.

A gargoyle holding up a table on the Arts & Sciences quadrangle


14 comments:

  1. Too much freedom can be a very bad thing.
    I can see why someone would want to be tenured. But I can't understand why a university would want to tenure someone. What is the advantage to the university?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The universities have to offer competitive contracts or else they won't get good people. I think tenure only exists in the U.S. and Canada. It is long standing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenure

      Delete
  2. From the outside looking in, academia always seemed an alternate reality. As a university student, professors were awesome, on the whole. As I became more involved, as a university employee, and gained more perspective on the mystery their careers, they were less awesome. I took up teaching, though, and after a couple of years I had to give it up to find a real job and support my children. In retrospect, I wouldn't have made it there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I learned early on that earning a PhD doesn't necessarily make someone a superior person.

      Delete
  3. My work environment is very similar, I tidy up the desktops, sort out endless loose ends, send applications on time and edit the publications of several brothers of your Prof Joe. They treat me like a pet most times, as long as thing work out. When things go bad, they hope I may turn into their mum.
    His sisters, there are few - the system is archaic, have more specific requests, professional and to the point. We get on well.
    I am mostly invisible.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, it appears he has a large family and they are spread out all over the world. You have described the dynamic quite well.

      Delete
  4. Sounds like being in my union. I have come to the realization, rather late in life that I cannot be fired. I speak my mind a lot more these days, of course that might be the menopause as well. It's quite liberating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Unions, menopause - whatever it takes!

      Delete
  5. I am not a big fan of tenure although I do understand the rational behind it. Unfortunately universities seem to be going the way of the rest of the world where everything a professor says had to be politically correct, and even tenure won't protect them.

    It does seem absurd to me though that our grade school give teachers tenure. It makes it so hard to weed out the bad and sour apples.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I find it odd that school teachers would get tenure. I don't really understand why they would. It seems like if they have a strong union with a good grievance procedure that would be enough protection. I might feel different if I was a teacher. Perhaps I don't understand the reason they get tenure.

      With professors I can understand it more, because their contract requires teaching, research, and public service, and (for better or worse) in large research universities the research part is the most critical component. Tenure is to protect their research from being compromised or controlled, not their teaching. The non-professorial teaching staff (lecturers) are only hired to teach - no research required. They do not get tenure.

      Delete
  6. I remember one of my college professors who definitely took advantage of his tenure status! He was cranky and inflexible, sometimes easy to get along with but not often. I attended a commuter campus (one of the regional campuses of Indiana University) which meant that most of us were out in the work world while also attending classes. We had to COMMUTE to campus....trains, accidents, etc. could creep into our timeliness. This professor would close and LOCK the door at the start of class...no one could be late! I get that it could be slightly disruptive when someone enters belatedly, but most of us were adult enough to understand and not create further chaos. He had a bit of a power trip thing! Oh, and let me not forget that he would bring his little poodle to class and set her on the table/desk at the front of the room! Um, okay, that is a bit disruptive! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, perhaps you are familiar with the following joke: How many professors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? 1 to stand in place holding the lightbulb in the socket while the rest of the world revolves around him. Oh man, I sure hope some of the professors I am still friendly with aren't reading this particular post. Oh well, they know I love them, and that they are the good ones.

      Delete

So, whadayathink?