A debt


On July 1, my job security improved. I am now part of the ludicrously small proportion of the academic workface with tenure: 21% in the U.S. in 2015, according to this AAUP chart based on IPEDS data, as against 57% part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty (the other 22% are grad students and junior faculty on the tenure track). I first applied for full-time academic jobs in the fall of 2008—that glorious season! Though private and public university management used the financial crisis to justify the austerity they imposed, austerity did not end with the official end of the Great Recession, at least when it comes to hiring faculty into good jobs. The MLA’s most recent report on its Job Information list begins by remarking that four years of decline in both English and foreign-language job ads brings numbers to “another new low,” having sunk beneath the level of the “troughs” of earlier decades. “How’s the market this year?” the senior academics ask Ph.D.-job-seekers, as though they were asking about the weather. But as with the weather, short-term fluctuations do not disguise the menacing trend.

I have spent the entirety of my academic career so far watching the intensified hollowing-out of my profession. The destruction is not limited to those friends and grad-school colleagues whose “job hunt” turned up nothing—or turned up academic jobs which make the same demands as the tenure track without the same job security. The harm can be counted, too, in the numberless person-hours every academic I know has spent tailoring job application materials, drafting custom syllabuses, and performing all the other rituals of applicant abjection. If you care about the work scholars do, the atmosphere is demoralizing. It is, to be sure, worse in worse jobs: when I was a part-time adjunct, I found the isolation particularly depressing, and I liked my “individualized” health insurance plan even less. But even in a good job with outstanding colleagues and students all around, something eats away at the ordinary routines of my academic life: all the day-to-day work of simply doing the job (teaching the students, carrying on the research, going to the meetings, the meetings, the meetings) takes on more than a tinge of denial, something for the few of us who have good academic jobs to do while we wait for the last curtain to fall on professional scholarship. Nor is it encouraging to witness the parade of more active forms of denial: bad-faith solutions, illusory comforts, and intellectualized excuses for selfishness.

But mostly I regret the good work that could have been done by all of us in a better, more just system. It is hard to be optimistic about the possibility of bringing such a system into existence, but faculty with tenure and a conscience ought to put to good use the protections, such as they are, that they have from being sanctioned for openly addressing and seeking to change the conditions of the university. Change, and not defense alone, must be the aim. The latest headlines draw our attention to attacks on faculty coming from reactionary forces outside the university. Protecting our colleagues and our students from these attacks is an urgent task. But we should recognize that the very same corporatizing process that has eaten away at tenure has increased the vulnerability of faculty to political attacks, since those attacks work by pressuring an administrative class that has fewer and fewer common interests with the people who do the research and the teaching. Management protects the brand, not the faculty. Organized action by faculty and students is the best hope for guarding what is worthy in the university and remaking the rest in the name of the public good.

Tenure can hardly be said to confer any special perspective or (Cthulhu forbid) leadership role in such a movement for the public good. Discouragingly, experience suggests rather the opposite about the capacity of the tenured faculty for leading radical change. Still, I recognize a debt. What I owe to everyone else who should have been “coming up” at the same time as I did is this: pursuing the collective interest in more just academic institutions, even if this sometimes conflicts with the narrow interests of the ever-shrinking group who share my academic rank.