Ellison: A trying time for tenure

The shocking murder of three faculty members and wounding of three others at the University of Alabama on Friday was, no doubt, an act of a narcissistic and severely disturbed mind. The accused, Amy Bishop, an associate professor of biology who had been twice denied tenure presumably had a great deal of emotional baggage about which I cannot begin to speculate. But, at least according to Friday’s report in The New York Times, the professor spoke about her failure to receive tenure as “unfair” and presumably that factored heavily into her horrifying act of retribution.

The extremity of the Bishop case does, alas, provide an opportunity to reopen the endless discussion of the value of the tenure system. As a senior planning to go to graduate school in the humanities and then into academia, I have had a number of surprising insights into the system since I have begun to speak with my professors about careers within the university. Some of these insights have been disturbing, and my impression of the system is that it almost always undermines the intention of intellectual freedom upon which the idea of tenure was originally predicated.

Junior faculty, especially those in the humanities, are under inordinate pressure to perform. I was once in a class during which my professor, whom I happen to like very much, repeatedly referred to valuable items of scholarship only to dismiss them, saying jokingly, “of course, that won’t get you tenure.” A tenured professor once encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in classics, which I had been studying heavily my sophomore year — even though I had expressed an interest in changing my field to English and comparative literature — simply because he thought the job prospects would be better. (Though classics graduate students struggling to find jobs right now may grumble reading that.) When I mentioned that Amy Hungerford, a professor of English and the department’s director of undergraduate studies, had issued similar warnings to undergraduates considering graduate school in her field, but tempered her warnings with a heartening reference to how much she loved her job, the professor simply said to me, “Yes, but, she has tenure.”

Fair enough, but should the potential loss or gain of tenure weigh so heavily upon a faculty member that it colors undergraduate student advising? Is it only possible to enjoy one’s career as an academic if one has tenure? Are the only valuable intellectual endeavors those which will result in tenure? The anxiety over tenure seems to deflect attention from what should be the most prominent piece of advice to students considering academic careers: Pursue what you love, engage in the intellectual activity you regard as most important and leave concern for tenure until it actually becomes an issue, which is to say, 15 years from now. Over the past four years, I have witnessed a couple extraordinary intellects at Yale be denied tenure at Yale — a failure which I feel could only have been motivated by factional ideologies. So, it seems safe to say that, at a certain point, it really is out of your hands.

Especially savvy students in the humanities are often aware of which professors have received tenure and which have not, or even, perhaps more bizarrely, which professors are “up for” tenure. I have known of students who have shied away from the courses of untenured faculty members because they worried that a recommendation by one of these professors would be less valuable. More strident tenured professors advocating for a given junior faculty member may unwittingly set up unseen factions within the department. Students have speculated, “Well, who was it that voted against this person? Surely I must, then, avoid him or her.” Denying tenure in a particular field of interest could result in the impression that the department’s attitude toward a given intellectual approach has changed. False impressions and undoubtedly unfounded rumors may ensue.

Rumors and disappointment and wayward advising are, no doubt, a far cry from murder. But should professional academic advisers already be planting the seeds of tenure anxiety in the undergraduate minds just beginning to find their bearings in the academic world? Is this obscene checkpoint, which has become an ideological apparatus rather than a tool to promote intellectual courage, really all that matters? Bishop’s reaction is surely outrageous in its own right, but if tenure can induce mass murder, then surely it must induce much less patent problems among even the most brilliant faculty and graduate students such as depression, anxiety, self-doubt, passive aggression and factionalism, none of which would stimulate rigorous and passionate intellectual inquiry. We need to think harder about the function of tenure for today’s academic climate before the university becomes just another locus of self-aggrandizement or a political stomping ground.

Tim Ellison is a senior in Saybrook College.