Oral History, Memory, and the Hallways of Academe: Tenure Decisions and Other Job Skirmishes

Article excerpt

Tenure is so firmly embedded in American academic culture, says Richard T. De George (University of Kansas), a philosopher, that many college and university professors view the concept and practice as indisputable.(1) "In fact," write Robert W. McGee (Seton Hall University) and Walter E. Block (College of the Holy Cross), two economists who have assessed tenure as a management issue, "it is very difficult to find an academic, especially one with tenure, who is not in favor of tenure."(2) The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, currently bearing the endorsement of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, provides a succinct rationale for justifying this stalwart defense of academic prerogative: "Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) Freedom of teaching and research and of extra-mural activities, and (2) A sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society."(3)

But strident critics of tenure in the society academia purports to serve argue vehemently that lifetime assurances of guaranteed employment for college professors are an extravagant luxury. As the Wilson Quarterly recently observed: "Long a sacred cow in academia, tenure lately has come under challenge as never before."(4) Richard De George distills the objections of complainers: "the downsizing that has gripped the corporate world has led some governing bodies to ask why, in a time of fewer available tax dollars, universities should not also be made leaner and meaner." Further expressing the outlook of detractors he adds: "The role, function, and justification of academic tenure are often simply equated with unnecessary, undeserved, and counterproductive job security for an elitist, self-serving group of overpaid and underworked college and university professors."(5) The increase in part-time college instructors (so-called "adjuncts") and faculty appointments to non-tenure track positions cause critics and advocates of tenure alike to wonder if this bulwark is crumbling. The consensus of a meeting in October 1998, organized by Harvard University's Project on Faculty Appointments, directed by Richard P. Chait, is "Few colleges will eliminate tenure in the next fifteen years, but many will become stingier about offering it and more creative in finding alternatives to it."(6)

Unfortunately, when historians look at tenure as a component of academic culture, they are constrained by the paltry number of first-person accounts drawn from memories of tenure quests and consequences, and by the evidential problematics these recollections impose on their interpreters. This essay gauges the difficulties of such reminiscences, especially from the viewpoint of a practicing oral historian, and suggests how a broad-based oral history project could productively enrich documentation of how tenure as a mechanism in academia has actually functioned over several recent decades. Additionally, this knowledge might helpfully provide correctives for prevailing folk-histories and mythic versions of tenure battles and outcomes since so many accessible narratives of tenure quests are authored by candidates whose aspirations were thwarted. As David Greenberg remarks: "When you've been denied tenure, it's hard to avoid both the suspicion that someone has wronged you and the desire to vindicate yourself."(7) William G. Tierney and Estela Mara Bensimon (both of the University of Southern California) note "If academe is to deal effectively with the issues surrounding junior faculty socialization, then our collective memory about promotion and tenure must be reconstructed."(8) Knowing more thoroughly the history of tenure as an academic procedure, in effect, will enlarge understanding of it, and thereby contribute fruitfully to the stormy public debate now underway about its future. …