Befitting the title and the subject of this post, I’ll try to be brief. Stanley Aronowitz, in his 1998 essay on faculty working conditions called “The last good job in America,” tells us the following:
“Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors originally fought for tenure because, contrary to popular, even academic, belief, there was no tradition of academic freedom in the American university until the twentieth century, and then only for the most conventional and apolitical scholars. On the whole, postsecondary administrations were not sympathetic to intellectual, let alone political, dissenters, the Scopeses of the day. Through the 1950s most faculty were hired on year-to-year contracts by presidents and other institutional officers who simply failed to renew the contracts of teachers they found politically, intellectually, or personally objectionable.
For example, until well into the 1960s the number of public Marxists, open gays, blacks, and women with secure mainstream academic jobs could be counted on ten fingers. And contrary to myth it wasn’t all due to McCarthyism, although the handful of Marxists in American academia were drummed out of academia by congressional investigations and administrative inquisitions. The liberal Lionel Trilling was a year-to-year lecturer at Columbia for a decade not only because he had been a radical but because he was Jew. The not-so-hidden secret of English departments in the first half of the twentieth century was their genteel anti-Semitism. For example, Irving Howe didn’t land a college teaching job until the early 1950s, and then it was at Brandeis. Women fared even worse. There’s the notorious case of Margaret Mead, one of America’s outstanding anthropologist and its most distinguished permanent adjunct at Columbia University. Her regular job was at the Museum of Natural History. She was a best-selling author, celebrated in some intellectual circles, but there was no question of a permanent academic appointment. Her colleagues Gene Weltfish and Ruth Benedict, no small figures in anthropology, were accorded similar treatment.”
What strikes me as interesting about this is the fact that tenure, according to Aronowitz, only became generalized in the postwar period (50s or 60s), as higher education expanded more generally and as America saw the emergence of a tacit social contract between workers and employers that offered stability and decent material conditions. Since the 1970s (according to the usual way of telling this story, which I’m not really competent to evaluate, not being a labor historian), this contract fell apart, for various reasons involving deindustrialization, a shift to the service sector, rising right-wing political opposition to welfare and social services, economic downturns, and so on. As Andrew Ross put it a couple of years ago:
On the landscape of work, there is less and less terra firma. No one, not even in the traditional professions, can any longer expect a fixed pattern of employment in the course of his or her lifetime. The rise in the percentage of contingent workers, both in low-end service sectors and in high-wage occupations, has been steady and shows no sign of leveling off. For youth who are entering the labor market today, stories about the postwar decades of stable Fordist employment are tall tales indulged by the elderly, not unlike the lore of Great Depression hardship that baby boomers endured when they were young. In retrospect, the Keynesian era of state-backed securities for core workers in the primary employment sector, including higher education, was a brief interregnum or, more likely, an armed truce.
This description is, as Ross goes on to emphasize, true of academia as well. As practically every reader here probably knows, today in the United States, tenure-stream faculty amount to less than a third of all instructional staff in higher ed, and the growth of temporary, adjunct, part-time, poorly-paid, insecure teachers has been very rapid (the AFT has details). Ross goes so far as saying that “in no other profession has casualization proceeded more rapidly than in academe.”
That’s not news. But what’s news to me, and what seems worth emphasizing, is that the history of academic labor actually seems not that different, on the whole, from the broader trajectory of American labor relations. Not only have academic jobs gotten more precarious around the same time that precarious employment has generally increased, but academics only started to generally have tenure — this is what’s so important about Aronowitz’s comments, if correct — more or less around the same time that other American workers also started getting stable jobs in the post-war period. Sure, there are some important things that are specific to academia: the tenure movement had been in the works for decades earlier (according to the AAUP’s history), and it may have taken a few of decades longer in academia to cut pay and working conditions than it would have in some factory that moved abroad in the 70s. According to the only historical statistics I’ve come across, 51% of faculty were tenured in 1969 and 64.4% in 1979, which was still far from unanimous (though many of the remainder may have been on tenure-track appointments). At any rate, there was no golden age when everyone was tenured, although in 1982 the fraction of tenured faculty was still thought to be increasing by “a point or two every year.” These days, of course, the fraction of tenure-stream faculty declines every year instead by the same amount. I can’t tell you the moment when it began to fall instead of rise, although sometime between 1985 and 1995 seems like a reasonable guess. I’ll look for statistics.
The general point, however, would seem to be that an exceptionalist fantasy where universities are radically special – in terms of their social organization – is pretty clearly false. American faculty didn’t have tenure in an earlier age; they only had it for a few decades mid-century which, basically, seem to correspond to the age of big post-war economic growth and prosperity, though apparently lagging behind it by a decade or two. The conclusion here, it seems to me, is that it makes no sense for academics to defend tenure in itself, without looking at its historical conditions of possibility in the American economy. There’s nothing wrong with demanding a stable job, but it’s irksome when certain academics seem to think that only a professor deserves one in this day and age. Sometimes (as in that interview by Stimpson I’ve linked to) the argument is that tenure facilitates academic work in the public interest, but I’m skeptical of any a priori claims that academic work as such is in the public interest (this would need to be demonstrated, not assumed), and a general argument for stable employment strikes me as far less prone to fantasies of academia’s exceptionality and unique value.