I’m more than a little hesitant to write about the shootings at Alabama. It sounds like an incident that we can use as an occasion to talk about the horrors of the current academic status system, which too often licenses the worst sorts of pettiness and nepotism. My sense, though, is that while tenure is involved, the real story at Alabama is the more familiar tale of our cultural embrace of violence, our cowardly gun control laws, and especially our terrible mental health care system.
It makes us look bad enough, in other words, even without thinking about tenure. (In any case, “The Trouble with Tenure” gives it a good shot.) Still, I could not help but think about this incident, and about tenure, when I was reading about something that on the surface is totally unrelated: the emerging “Free Culture” movement, which recently held it’s first conference in Washington, D.C. It’s not as media-sexy as Tea Bagging, but in the long run Free Culture is much more important.
The students complain that their promotion of “free software and open standards, open access scholarship, open educational resources, network neutrality, and university patent policy” faces ambivalence on the part of some professors. I think that to a student, a tenured professor at a large research school or a small literal arts college, seems privileged beyond all imagining. They teach a few classes, and write a few articles (on a subject of their choice), get paid well, and can’t be fired.
In fact, most don’t have tenure, are not on the so-called tenure track, don’t have time to write much of anything, have too many students, and don’t get paid well. With certain exceptions, the ever-shrinking groups of privileged professors (as the tenure story reminds us)– are more and more interested in protecting their own material and social interests. It’s not surprising that students would find some professors ambivalent about the political risks– and material losses– of Free Culture.