The Value of Faculty and Tenure

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Susan Weissman interviews Mary Burgan

MARY BURGAN IS the secretary-general of the American Association of University Professors. She is on leave from her job as professor of English at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. Her book Illness, Gender and Writing: The Case of Katherine Mansfield was published in 1994 by Johns Hopkins University Press).

The long-standing institution of academic tenure for university faculty is currently under widespread assault. Suzi Weissman spoke with Mary Burgan about this issue and “The University Under Attack” for her radio program “Beneath the Surface” on KPFK in Los Angeles, August 1, 1997. For space reasons we have excerpted her remarks.

Mary Burgan: When I think about the attack on tenure I try to find the sources of it, and there are several. First, I think, there’s the notion that all institutional structures must work like a business corporation in which there’s a bottom line, profit, and in which I’m afraid benefits are measured in the short rather than long term.

This mentality leads to the conception of the student as customer, the faculty as employees who service the customer, and education itself as a service, kind of like downloading a CD-ROM into a passive computer. If that were the case–which I think it isn’t–then why treat faculty as long-term employees? Why provide any benefits to them? Why pay taxes to support universities?

That’s the managerial source (of the attack). I think another source is a misunderstanding of the process of how people mature, the fact that education is an aspect of that process. When we give up on that, we give up on providing a mature mentorship from one generation to the next, and I think we play into some very chaotic possibilities in our social arrangements…

When we talk to students, a lot of them want an education–not only the skills and certifications for a job, but to encounter at least some discussion of the meaning of life. They are philosophically and spiritually inclined.

I know of one school where there have been lots of opinion surveys about using computers to teach, and one interesting response from a student was: “I’d rather have a mediocre teacher, live, than a charismatic TV screen.”

I also think that many parents have divided up their thinking. For their own children, they want the kind of education we’re talking about. But as taxpayers, when they think about paying for other kids’ education, they think it’s OK for them to be taught by a video screen.

There’s a teacher-student interaction that’s irreplaceable. I’ve taught in an electronic classroom, I’ve used internet to augment my teaching–and it’s wonderful. I’ve used film in teaching Shakespeare, and it’s marvelous, irreplaceable. But I’m irreplaceable too.

I’ve discovered that the more technology I use as a professor, the more time it takes–being on internet with students takes two to three extra hours a day. So I think the teacher cannot be replaced and that technology is important, but it’s not free.

The teacher needs to be technologically expert, because the students are–but the teacher can answer questions, and–in my field–the teacher is there to read the students’ writing. No machine can ask, “What did you mean when you wrote this?” or be the one person in the world who cares what you say and wants you to say it clearly.

The “reformers” want machines to be a cheap substitute for faculty, and I don’t think they can do that.

Getting back to the attack on tenure: To the argument that “everybody’s insecure,” “let’s join the faculty to all the other insecurity,” I say, isn’t that a shame? Is that insecurity something we want to celebrate and extend?

Our society is beset by downsizing, which I think is very hurtful not only to the people who are its targets in IBM or AT&T, but to the ongoing continuity of those businesses.

But let’s come back to tenure as being appropriate for safeguarding academic freedom. Part of our freedom as a nation is based on an education system that values academic freedom, and says we are going to accept the risks entailed in having faculty free and able to speak their minds.

California in the McCarthy period had a loyalty oath. [This persisted in the junior colleges even longer than in the university system, as I discovered when I began teaching–SW.] I will never forget the response of Erik Eriksen, the famous psychologist, who refused to take that oath and quit his job at Berkeley.

Eriksen said: When I became a citizen of this country I swore an oath then. I will not swear it again, because my students need to know that as a psychologist I speak the truth without being concerned whether other people approve or disapprove. It would destroy my discipline.

The insistence on conformity is never over. AAUP at the national level receives many phone calls from people telling us they’ve been fired, or not renewed, because of their opinions–from matters of doctrine in a religious setting, to being critical of local practices. Or maybe just because a faculty member is too doggone “sassy,” or a member of a board says, I don’t like that one, let’s get rid of him.  

I would also emphasize continuity. Tenure allows faculty members, who by the way don’t make lots of money compared to doctors and lawyers, to stay in the field, teaching students over time. That’s a tremendous asset that is assured not by the money they make but by job security…

[What about the argument that tenure entrenches a white male professoriat while others are pushed into non-tenure track jobs?] I can sympathize with that, inasmuch as relegating all kinds of people to part-time, non-tenured jobs is just another form of exploitation.

But I think that most women and minorities think: Now that we are finally here in the academy, and prepared to be full-time, lifelong faculty members, you tell us the privilege will no longer be there. Thanks a lot!

ATC 71, November-December 1997