Life and Tenure Among the Social Darwinians

1. Striving for tenure at a university is like gambling in a casino; the house sets the rules and controls the odds. From a university’s point of view, the granting of tenure is an enormous commitment. If one assumes that a newly tenured professor will work at the university for 30 years with an average salary and benefits of $100,000, granting tenure is a $3 million commitment, a substantial obligation for any institution to assume. Therefore, to protect the institution, university tenure guidelines include phrases stating that the granting of tenure shall occur when it is in the best interest of the university. Tenure is based on the university’s needs, not the achievements of those seeking tenure, and the university sets the rules and controls the odds. Changing budgets and administrations vary the standards for those receiving tenure over time, making comparisons with earlier cases potentially dangerous to current tenure candidates.

What I Wish I’d Known About Tenure, March 27, 2009, Leslie M. Phinney

Irony is one of the most difficult concepts for students. It’s not that they don’t have a sense of irony, it’s that they use the term in a very broad, sweeping fashion, almost as if it were synonymous with anything unusual and funny or humorous. Irony, though, is more specific; it always involves a kind of reversal of meaning.

When I read this piece on tenure I kept thinking that I was reading an ironic description. This is the way things are, Phinney implies, but it’s the opposite of the way things should be. I am fairly certain I am wrong. There is no irony in this text, and certainly it does not see anything it describes as unusual or funny.

This is a ‘realpolitik‘ depiction that tries to present the ‘hard truths’ that, it assumes, few young academics are willing to face. It’s accurate and, in the end, a little silly in the way it asserts what it calls the ‘institutional’ needs, as if that were a distinct ‘interest group’ separate from students, faculty, and staff.

It all sounds clean-cut and simple, like a character from a 50s sit-com. The truth peeks out from behind the rationality when Phinney admits that “the majority of those beginning tenure-track positions will end up in the gray or middle zone, and the outcome will depend on local departmental and university conditions.”

What Phinney doesn’t say is that the ambiguity or ‘gray area’ isn’t resolved ethically, as a matter of right and wrong, but as a kind of aggressive psycho-pathology. Typically, she defines it as “integration into the department.” Ask anyone who’s been through it; it’s a much nastier thing.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn’t want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so.

I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com.

I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that ‘at’ symbol] writinginthewild.com

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