who’s really got tenure?

I’ve been thinking about pointing this out, off and on, for awhile now, but then David Brooks goes and lays it out so directly I can’t help myself. I’ve argued in the past that journalists and pundits, in general, don’t respect academics and teachers. Some people disagree. What’s much more clear, however, is that whether for university professors or school teachers, journalists and teachers don’t like tenure.

Academic tenure, that swiftly-dying job benefit that was designed to protect academic freedom and gives professors a degree of job security once they pass their initial (brutal) tenure review, is seen as a way for coddled professors to earn money without having to produce. (See Megan McArdle for a typical take.) Tenure for public school teachers is seen as a way to protect the unqualified and the corrupt and keep ed reformers from fixing our schools.  (See, of course, Even the Liberal New Republic.) Now I personally think that these claims are unfair; immediately post-tenure academics don’t, in my estimation, stop working hard as researchers. Indeed, often they accelerate, as there’s all sorts of status markers that academics tend to pursue in their tenured career. Whether the focus on research is healthy or beneficial is a discussion for a different time. I also have never personally understood the claim that tenured professors don’t care about teaching undergraduates, which simply does not jibe with my experience. But then, it’s only my experience. And it remains the case that there’s no strong evidence that tenure hurts student performance, and in fact the evidence mostly points in the other direction.

More to the point, though, my problems with media complaints about tenure is that they come from a class that appears, to me, to have a kind of tenure of their own. Brooks lays that out succinctly in this interview with Yahoo News:

 there are plenty of reasons for the 52-year-old to stay at the Times: He has unprecedented freedom and job security. Times columnists, Brooks said, are treated like “hothouse flowers.”

“I’ve never attended a meeting at the Times,” he said. “We can write about anything. I’ve been at the Times for over a decade, I’ve never had a performance review. We can go anywhere we want. And we are just left alone.” …

Brooks believes he — like the Times print edition — will still be published in 10 years.

“They’re making new old people every day,” Brooks joked of the Times’ print demographic. “I think I’ll have a job in 10 years that looks very similar to the one I have now.”

And he gets to have regular, off-the-record meetings with U.S. presidents.

This is one of those enduring questions: what would it take to get an NYT columnist fired? I mean how many times can Tom Friedman fart out the identical column before somebody at the Times wonders what they’re getting for their money? And, of course, both Friedman and Brooks have made some consistently horrible predictions about foreign policy, with Friedman adding a bit of moral hideousness that should be grounds for firing in and of itself. Ah, but they’re columnists at the Times. They are at the pinnacle of their profession! But I see journalistic tenure as a broad phenomenon. As we’ve recently been discussing, having been totally wrong about the most important foreign policy question of the last 25 years, and being implicated in the hideous consequences, has done essentially nothing to harm the job security of those who supported the Iraq war. They have not only not been fired, they’ve often been invited back to support a new war to fix the old war they were already wrong about.

And it goes on. You can plagiarize and write favorable pieces on foreign regimes for money and maintain a professional career and prominence in the media scene. You can beat the drum for war again and again, get duped by a lying source, and falsely claim that an attack is imminent and not only remain employed, but be considered a favorite of many other journalists. You can make a number of absurd, utterly wrong predictions about war, push the racist IQ argument before calling takebacks, and sit on your comfortable perch at the same website for years. You can be a Wall Street crook and get banned by the SEC, get people working low-wage jobs fired out of entitlement and spite, and run a series of increasingly-inane Forrest Gump-style ruminations on why the world is a weird old place, and remain a titan of awful clickbait “journalism.” You can be whoever is in charge of Salon’s web design and not be fired from a cannon into the sun.  I could go on and on: the world of professional journalism and punditry is full of people who have made bad predictions, violated media ethics, plagiarized, lied, taken money for positive coverage, or just repeatedly done shoddy work, and maintained their personal and professional standing in the industry.

As a critic of education reform policies and rhetoric, I am constantly reading journalists and political writers arguing that teachers need objective, external review to ensure that they are doing high quality work. (Including, of course, from David Brooks, who has the incredible shamelessness to complain about inefficiency from a position where he faces no review by his own admission.) And I just want to laugh: what objective, external review are politicos subject to, exactly? What systems ensure that incompetence or unethical behavior are punished in an industry that still runs off of editor word-of-mouth, personal connections, and Klout scores? I don’t know what the system of accountability is supposed to be, but I do know that in a political world where Jeff Goldberg still gets to be seen as dispensing wisdom from the mountain on the subject of the Middle East, that system isn’t working. I don’t doubt that for many at the bottom of the food chain, professional political writing and journalism are precarious, risky propositions, but it seems that once you’re in, you’re in, and there’s no shaking you out. Maybe instead of going after teachers and academics for having too much job security, journalists and writers should put their own house in order first.


  1. Spot on about journalists complaining about academics. I think you’re a little off base on the subject of teachers (at least in California). When you have situation where a teacher is paid $40k to quite instead of draging out the process of being fired for sexually assualting his students, something is amiss. LA Unified has more than a hundred thousand teachers and it stands to reason that some of them are bad actors. It needs to be easier to fire them without enabling people to get fired because the failed a school board member’s child.

    Also, they really shouldn’t call it tenure when talking about school teachers. They don’t, shouldn’t, have academic freedom.

  2. “instead of draging out the process of being fired for sexually assualting his students, something is amiss.”

    Because they were guilty and everyone *knew* it, right? Why even bother to labor under the possibility that they might be innocent, amirite?

    1. No, you’re not right. That guy got 25 years. They still wouldn’t have been able to fire him after a conviction. If you’re indicted for sexually abusing the students, you should get fired immediately. If you are than able to win in court such that it was clearly not true, you should then be able to apply again.

      1. “They still wouldn’t have been able to fire him after a conviction.”

        Is that really true though? I seriously doubt there is any termination process that wouldn’t accept “convicted of sexually assaulting student” as good cause for firing. Just because the administration doesn’t want to go through the hassle of using the termination procedure doesn’t mean the teacher is literally unfireable. If that is why the teacher was settled with, then the problem is as much cowardly and lazy administrators, as any problems with procedure they have to go through to actually fire them.

        Plus there are probably pension issues at play. If the 40k settlement was for a deal that included forfeiting any benefits for which he might otherwise be entitled (including medical, dental etc.), then it was probably a pretty good deal for the district.

  3. I worked as a HS teacher for many years. No tenure. I was subject to performance tests twice a semester and once by every graduating class. Failing to meet the stated performance benchmarks led to termination, but only after forced attendence at any number of of re education “seminars”. Seemed fair enough to me. I survived, anyhow. I was eventually dumped for political reasons which had nothing to do with my performance as a teacher. More importantly, the director who dumped me had complete and legal authority to dump me for whatever reason. She or he didn’t even have to explain anything. Or he or she could just invent a bunch of lies to cover up his or her bigotry (which was what happened).

    So I assume that tenure is designed to free a teacher from the fear of what happened to me. So I’m all for it. Teachers have to be free to run their classes however they want to or it’s not education. It’s indoctrination. Teachers must be trusted to know the difference. That’s the basis of the whole edu racket. I refused to indoctrinate students according to my director’s scheme, so… But most of the time, even in my case, the system worked. I think that with something as fragil as trust and education “most of the time” is good. I think we can figure out how to make any abuses of trust harder to pull off but we can never eliminate them. We’re human, after all. Abuse trust is what we do.

    I’m aware that tenure creates problems of its own. But these won’t be solved by simply eliminating tenure. Any solution creates its own set of new problems. And so on. That’s how history works.

  4. Instead of making an argument, I’ll tell a story.

    A few years ago, when I was teaching at my previous school, I got a visit from an upper-level administrator, whom I’ll call A.D. He showed me an email from a very — let me stress that: VERY — generous donor to the college who had read online an essay I had recently published and was furious that a person with such opinions was allowed to teach at that college. The donor demanded that something be done about me, or else he would never contribute another cent to the college.

    A.D. was clearly pained by this, and told me that he thought that donor had probably misunderstood me — though I actually think he understood me very well — and asked if I could just find some way to apologize, either for a wrong tone or not being clear or something. I replied that I knew he was in a tough spot but that I really couldn’t see anything in what I had written that I could in good conscience apologize for. He said he understood and left.

    A couple of days later A.D. emailed me. He had written a kind of non-apology apology and asked me if I would be willing to sign it. I looked it over and said I wouldn’t. He replied, again, that he understood and that he would handle it. I never heard anything about it again.

    My question is this: How do you think that would have gone for me (and for A.D., who clearly supported me didn’t want to be in the position he was in) if I had not had tenure?

  5. Add to this the fact that aside from a handful of big name columnists, most of the writers at places like Salon and Slate are freelances getting $150 a pop. Their adjunctification problem is if anything even worse than ours.

  6. Doesn’t this post make exactly the case that your antagonists are making (i.e. the consequence-free insulation of tenure consistently produces lower quality work)? That’s how I read it anyway. I completely understand that you would feel irked by the surface hypocrisy of a few fortunate pundits railing against academic tenure from the safety of their own comfortable sinecures. I get that as a matter of self-awareness or humility. But on the merits of the policy issue, why would Joe Taxpayer want to emulate the folly of Tom Friedman’s employers?

  7. Your first paragraph ends with the words “journalists and teachers don’t like tenure.” Did you mean to say “journalists and pundits”?

  8. What you really want is an organized or institutionally recognized form of respect. We don’t much do respect these days.

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