Attacks on tenure unlikely to stop

Mississippi Today’s Molly Minta has done excellent reporting on the latest IHL efforts to crimp tenure in Mississippi universities, i.e., injecting new and subjective performance criteria, and vesting final decision-making authority in the hands of university presidents; see – and related stories.

Like most faculty, I’d like to think the IHL, composed exclusively of members without extensive academic backgrounds, simply lacks full understanding of the essential value of tenure to the university mission of teaching, research, and service in a free society. In that case, correction – especially if voiced clearly and emphatically by key stakeholder groups, notably university leadership and faculty – is possible, facilitating a rapid return to a more-enlightened status quo ante.

Unfortunately, major trends in higher education – not just in Mississippi, or even just the U.S., but globally – suggest that the attacks on tenure will not stop; if anything, we can expect them to increase, as the role of higher education in a globalized capitalist order continues to be transformed. At least six interrelated structural trends, none of them new, strike me as most pertinent:

First is the already highly advanced bifurcation of faculty into “tenure-track” and “contingent” ranks. The AAUP and others have been tracking the steady decline in the proportion of tenure-track faculty for decades. Even without direct assaults on tenure, the strength of the tenured faculty has been substantially “hollowed out.”

Second is a parallel shift in the funding proportions of the public universities. Public universities have experienced, despite occasional counter movements, a dramatic decline in levels of funding support from state legislatures, with lost revenues replaced by rapidly rising tuition rates imposed on students. (When I joined the USM faculty in 1994, 80% of the university budget was provided by the state; today the proportion of public support is less than half that figure.)

Third, profit-oriented private sector interests now dominate the research agenda of most research-oriented universities. So-called “public-private partnerships” come down to publicly subsidized research on concerns usually set, directly or indirectly, by the private sector, the results of which are handed over to private interests for exploitation and profit-making in the market sector. There is less and less appetite for research in the public interest (such as the type conducted by social work faculty) that is not readily commercialized.

Fourth is the rapid and massive accumulation of student debt. In just the past twenty years, the student debt burden across all higher education sectors – public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit institutions – has risen over 400%. Today it is, amazingly, larger than total consumer credit card debt. Reaping most of the benefits is the financial capital sector.

Fifth is the distressing decline of study areas with critical thinking at their core. Academic programs that emerged and flowered as a result of the mass movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s – e.g., feminist studies, Black studies, etc. – have either been eliminated outright or “neo-liberalized” to the point of unrecognizability. A similar or worse fate has befallen scores of traditional liberal arts fields on the grounds that degrees in such fields are insufficiently “marketable.”

A sixth and final noteworthy trend has been the near-complete triumph of a market-based mentality – or less pleasantly put, consumerist propaganda – in defining the purpose of higher education (just one part of the prevailing corporate capitalist economic order) and configuring the roles of faculty (mere academic proletarians, to be managed and policed as tightly as any other workers) and students (consumers of an academic “product” first and foremost, as well as present and future cogs in the machinery of profit generation for their corporate employers).

It’s not a pretty picture. Whether anything can be done to change that picture, and if so, how, is the subject of future posts.

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