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I'd like to begin with a preface and a footnote. My talk this afternoon is partly inspired and partly provoked by a remarkable series of articles appearing in Context between this past November and February. The series raised important issues about tenure and the possibility of implementing a post-tenure review process at UTK, and engaged in conversation some seven different faculty members from a variety of disciplines in addition to the Chancellor. A conversation of this seriousness about substantive educational issues is something of an event on campus--and virtually a unique event in my 15 years at UTK; it is one that I am both pleased to acknowledge and privileged to continue. As downsizing moves ahead, we will need to sustain many more conversations of this kind. Given the recent expressions of interest in the topic by Governor Sundquist and our own Joe Johnson, continued conversations are virtually guaranteed. End of preface.
Now for my footnote--on the mythology of my title. I realized that I was in trouble with this title when one of my department colleagues asked if I'd made a typo: you mean, he queried, "the Downsizing dragon." No, I explained. Later that evening, my wife assured me that everyone really would know what I'm talking about; you mean, right, she said, "dag-gone," like that "dag-gone" mut whom you let into my kitchen. No, I explained. The Dagon of my title is the ancient God of the Philistines--the one Milton rails against so powerfully in his eloquent defense of heroic knowledge, Samson Agonistes; Dagon was worshipped by the Philistines as a slippery amphibian with a taste for social sacrifice; downsizing, of course, is a wholly unrelated contemporary deity, worshipped by slippery philistines with a taste for social sacrifice. Always useful to begin by making distinctions.
I begin by talking about downsizing because all important educational issues at UTK are currently conditioned by the rhetoric and the politics of downsizing, and none more conspicuously than the renewed attention to tenure. At the heart of the argument for implementing a post-tenure review process is a set of related propositions having to do with public perceptions: that a public outcry against waste in big government is readying itself against waste in higher education, and that the ready target for such outcry is a tenure system likely to find itself increasingly under attack (our Chancellor fears) because of its (seeming) guaranteed, lifetime employment for mediocrity and even incompetence. (Those who have read the Chancellor's open letter to the faculty realize I am paraphrasing his remarks). A post-tenure review process would, it is argued, correct such mistaken public impressions by producing evidence of real faculty productivity.
Public perceptions are key matters of concern here, and while I am sympathetic to the good intentions that motivate these arguments, I am skeptical about them, first and most important, because they misrecognize the very social reality they seek to explain: attacks on tenure are occuring in Tennessee not as public outcry against public perceptions of a bloated, mediocre professoriate, but as the politically interested arguments of conservative columnists like Thomas Sewell or fiscal opportunists like Governor Sundquist. There simply isn't any evidence of a genuine public outcry against tenure. (On this point, I am happy to acknowledge agreement with my colleague, Sheldon Cohen.) Once more, to mistake such criticisms for a genuine public outcry is to misunderstand, more crucially, what the public does want from higher education. Public interest in higher education is difficult to gage, so infrequent and so quiet are its manifestations, but it is certainly arguable that the public interest is at once relatively uncomplicated and eminently rational: Tennesseans want a university system that makes available fine research facilities, but even more crucially they want a first-rate undergraduate education for their daughters and their sons. What Virginia has, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin--states that continue to maintain a high-quality publicly funded system of higher learning as an alternative to what must otherwise become the future of university education in America: a grand canyon that divides the private and the privileged from the publicly diminished and demotic. Conversely, I would argue, the public has no interest in the wholescale replacement of the tenured professoriate by temporary, tenureless adjuncts (which of course, is the ultimate object behind these attacks on tenure, as well as the likely employment future of American higher education generally, where now more than 50% of all job hires nationally are for adjuncts); only the philistines who preach downsizing have any interest in gutting the professoriate.
I do not mean to suggest in the absence of such public outcry that Sundquist will be unable to pull a Minnesota in Tennessee, to rally a legislature and perhaps even a sizeable public voice in opposition to tenure; I want only to indicate that such outcry would be the product of the politics and the rhetoric of downsizing, and that the provocation of such an outcry can be effectively forestalled best by a university community that acts in order to persuade the public that its real interests are being met, that the University is serious, first and foremost, in guaranteeing a quality undergraduate education to the people of Tennessee. Debates about tenure matter, then, because they remind us of that all-important battle for public support.
I am aware that fiscal considerations trouble these perhaps too-optimistic reflections. It is altogether possible that Tennesseans might be persuaded that they cannot afford higher education of this kind, just as I speak with the hope that sufficient persuasion can be exercised to reestablish a high priority for higher education in the state's budget. My point is that the issue remains up-for-grabs, remains a matter of persuasion and politics, and that we need to muster our best persuasive resources for the political fight. The studied vagueness of that term ("best persuasive resources") covers a multitude of sins, from the peculiar reticence of university administrators to talk publicly and meaningfully about the destructive consequences of downsizing on educational quality, to the easy capitulation of the professoriate to the necessity of deeper and deeper downsizing cuts. Downsizing is not like the weather; we can do more than talk about it; a professoriate that cannot reproduce itself will soon be no professoriate at all; and is it really still too early to think seriously about unionizing? But I digress. No more talk about downsizing and educational priorities; let's get back to what's really significant: post-tenure review processes. Forgive my parody of the diversionary rhetoric of the whole tenure review issue (or non-issue as it really does seem at moments), but frankly--amidst the overwhelming reality of budget cuts currently cutting into the heart of UTK's educational enterprise--some of this discussion about tenure, especially as it sets faculty against faculty, and as it diverts attention from more substantive issues, can appear strangely hollow. But there I go again, talking unnecessarily about uncomfortably important issues. Let me return to my topic.
So wouldn't implementing a post-tenure system of evaluation be a useful weapon in winning that battle for public support? Again, I am impressed by the good intentions of those who make such arguments, but I am not persuaded. Neither Sundquist nor a legislature bent on making an example out of the pampered professoriate is likely to be persuaded from downsizing by new systems of evaluation; the fiscal logic of downsizing requires a reduced professoriate and its gradual replacement by adjuncts (personnel costs consume some 90% of the higher education budget), and a revalued faculty would be an embarrassment either to be ignored or denied. Moreover, as a number of my colleagues have already pointed out in addressing these proposals, implementing a post-tenure system of evaluation is quite unnecessarily redundant: the Faculty Handbook already provides for five specific circumstances in which tenured faculty can be disciplined or terminated, ranging from incompetence to dishonesty. Perhaps all that would be necessary, then, to combat the coming firestorm over tenure would be to mail the governor a copy of the Faculty Handbook or perhaps, even, some renewed evidence of its appropriate implementation on campus. Of course, nobody really believes such gestures would matter, because, I think almost nobody really believes that tenure is the real issue here; the issue is downsizing, the diminished priority for publicly funded higher education amidst downsizing; now, a new election with a new governor might in fact make a difference in Nashville.... Sorry to stray from education into politics, but the cart's got to follow where the horse goes.
While post-tenure review is not likely to impress Nashville, the rhetoric of its proponents is already having some negative impact on Knoxville's campus. I know very few tenured professors on campus especially happy to be labelled mediocre and incompetent, and few who believe many of their colleagues could fairly be called such, so when some propose seriously to dignify such charges against us by the creation of elaborate review processes, justly or not, a certain resentment is created among that great majority of hardworking, dedicated professors who so conspicuously fail to fit the image. Once more, very few people know what "post-tenure review" means anyhow, and when the phrase gets tossed about in a climate where fears about tenure are strong, the possibility of misinterpreting "post-tenure review" as an attack on tenure itself is all too real. Let, therefore, administrators beware. Instead of having the Chancellor call for revised methods of revaluating tenured professors, I--like most faculty--would be a great deal more impressed by forceful reassertions of the value of tenure in protecting intellectual freedom. (And if you don't think intellectual freedom needs protection in this state, just remember Nashville's most recent spate of Monkey bills). Even scarrier, I think, and less productive are the rationalizations provided for post-tenure evaluation by some senior faculty on campus, Kathy Bohstedt among them, Associate Professor and Philosophy Department Head; what fantasies of imperial rule are being nourished when she writes about post-tenure reviews as an "intervenionist" tool "to help wayward faculty improve in specified ways"--the sheer bureaucratese of the prose is numbing; or about the potential utility of such reviews against "iconoclasts" and "departmental troublemakers"? Mainly when proponents talk about post-tenure review, I feel like I ought to duck and cover. This rhetoric will not do, and in itself provides a dramatic, if unintended reminder of the salutary prophylactic power of tenure.
At its heart, however, what's so wrong with the rhetoric of post-tenure review advocacy is the misunderstanding it fosters about the nature of higher education. The fiscal logic of downsizing requires (there is a certain coherence to this) fiscal accountability from the university and its faculty; but it requires simultaneously (and here logical incoherence reasserts itself) the assumption that the value of the faculty can be measured by the values of the business community. Higher education is not a business; students are not consumers; and knowledge is not a product that we create or that we sell. Education has economic consequences, and I am persuaded that publicly funded higher education works as a powerful democratizing force in our state, some bridge that narrows the grand canyon between rich and poor, securing some better measure of economic justice, but those benefits are the consequence of an education whose value is not defineable by economic ends alone. It may be utopian to think so--to think, that is, that the good of knowledge is the good life that knowledge makes possible--but it is on the basis of such utopian claims, such ethical argumentation, that public support is ultimately best won--and best won, because the only public support worth having is the kind that supports our pursuit of knowledge. Faculty success, then, cannot be measured by reference to fiscally-driven criteria without imperilling our identity as a community of educators. Even at the moment that we might persuade the public at large or Nashville in small that the professoriate is good because it is good for business, a real capital boon for upwardly mobile Tennessee, and that professors are shrewd cultural capitalists happy to quantify their credentials with the best of the business crowd, we would succeed merely in advancing an image that would deface us. The goal is not institutional survival, but rather the survival of an institutionalized community of educators. In turn, a faculty seeking to have its own importance valued by the public at large cannot flee from evaluation--from a continuing need to demonstrate its own public value. But it can do so effectively only as it provides continued guarantees for intellectual freedom, since such freedom--protected for us by the institution of tenure--defines the value of what we do and what we are.
The call for a post-tenure system of evaluating faculty seems, then, mainly a well-intentioned proposal gone wrong, partly because of its redundancy, partly because of its poor timing, poor rhetoric and inadequately theorized assumptions about the nature of higher education, but principally the proposal fails because it neglects the major crisis at hand: how to win renewed public support for higher education in an era of downsizing. Tinkering with post-tenure review is likely neither to win much support from a public currently indifferent to university bureaucracy, nor to impress some future public that has rallied to the anti-tenure outcry. So what alternatives are available more effectively to forestall the coming firestorm over tenure and to strengthen the UTK's posture in an era of downsizing? My alternatives are predictable in view of the positions I've already articulated; they are unspectacular insofar, especially, as they afford no possibility of a quick fix; and they are (to try a paradox) pragmatically utopian, because they assume the possibility of practical ethical persuasion in the public sphere--the possibilty that people can be persuaded by reasoned appeal to the good.
Predictable, unspectacular, and utopian as it might be, my recommendation is for a renewed, institutional commitment to providing the daughters and sons of the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee with a first-rate, undergraduate education. As the centerpiece of that renewed commitment are twin institutional realignments: first, the provision of a meaningful program of general education that would supply a center for the intellectual life of the community, and second, the restructuring of professional advancement at the university to bring rhetoric into practice, making teaching genuinely an equal partner to research in faculty promotions. I emphasize, first, a renewed commitment to undergraduate education at UTK because, as the state's primary research institution, we have the best resources available to make that kind of quality education available. And quality education--real knowledge communicated by committed teachers in classrooms, studios, and laboratories--is the best public relations tool we've got; what the public knows about us, it knows overwhelmingly because of our students. Bain Stewart did more in 42 years of teaching in the English Department to enhance public relations than Phil Fulmer will ever do on a football field: Bain sent generations of students, and future teachers of Tennessee students, out into the state with strong convictions about the quality of education available at UTK; Fulmer's arrogation of attention to UTK's athletic prowess does little but continue to embarrass us--us as educators--locally and nationally.
And conversely, when our students leave the University telling tales of overcrowded Psychology lectures of several hundred students taught by some underprepared, graduate TA who doesn't know quite what to do except read to them from the textbook; of upper division English courses staffed by overburdened instructors who've got too many classes any longer to worry about remembering names or keeping office hours; of bored, indifferent or hostile professors in a Computer Department that routinely disregards teaching credentials in its promotions; when they talk, that is, about the Big Orange Screw, they are talking about a perceived institutional indifference to them as ordinary students undertaking what ought to be the extraordinary adventure of education. And they are talking to their friends, their neighbors, their legislators, and no wonder all they seem to care about is whether Peyton comes back for his fourth year. What we have to fear from Sundquist on the tenure issue pales in comparison to what we must fear from graduating students who routinely scorch us on THEC exit polls. And the problem here is not one of finessing the questions or fudging the results, or even of persuading students to be nicer to us; the problem is providing them with a quality undergraduate educational experience.
I don't have time to tell you all the reasons why I think Linda Maxon's announcement of a new Center for Undergraduate Excellence merits the enthusiastic support of both faculty and senior administration--because it is so wise in its provision for beginning real general education on campus (the kind that secures intellectual community while preserving a rich diversity of options); because it is so well devised to foster and enlist good teaching; because it is so timely as a response to an impending crisis of public regard. (All Linda needs now is money. Best of luck). I don't even have time to argue that the important debates about tenure that need to take place on this campus concern the standards by which tenure is awarded, not how tenured faculty ought to be evaluated; and for provisions to compel departments in their five-year reviews to put into place systems for revaluing teaching in hiring and promotion decisions. Meaningful institutional reform is impossible without serious structural realignments: when faculty are rewarded for good teaching, the quality of teaching on this campus will get better; when the strangelhold of the departmental culture gives way to the creation of independently funded interdisciplinary institutions, we will have real university education. Tenure and tenure-review--these are not the issues; downsizing is the issue, and the only appropriate protection against downsizing is the provision of a better quality undergraduate education. And if I'm wrong, if providing better quality undergraduate education does not work to forestall the coming firestorm over tenure; if Sundquist succeeds in persuading the state that it can get by with third-rate higher education supplied by an ever-growing cadre of temporary, tenureless adjuncts, what will we have lost? Everything, perhaps, except what is worth holding onto: our dignity and our vocation as educators.
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Last updated: July 22, 1997