Naomi Schaefer Riley, an outsider to academia, former editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America, argues for the abolishment of tenure in her 2011 popular commercial release, The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. In fact, she boldly asserts, “The tenure process, which to a greater extent than ever rests on a professor’s research rather than his teaching qualifications, is what is eroding American higher education” (8). Calling tenure “a guaranteed job for life” throughout the book, Riley spends a great deal of time asking questions and pointing out what’s wrong with tenure, but her primary solution is to abolish it without seriously considering any other options. The most convincing chapter supporting this argument is “The Academic Underclass,” where Riley takes on tenure as a system of exploitation and inequality that hurts graduate students and adjuncts by feeding off of an oversupply of PhDs willing to work twice as hard for half as much while university administrators and department chairs tighten financial belts. Her direct indictment does have validity in this current economic climate in which states are cutting funding to higher education at an alarming rate: “Aside from the hypocrisy of academics who claim concern for society’s marginalized while ignoring the lower classes in their midst and what many would deem the unfair treatment of their labor force, is there any compelling reason that universities – as self-interested as any institution – should reconsider their policies? Why not give customers essentially the same product at lower cost?” (85) Of course, this statement requires readers to agree that students are merely customers, the quality of teaching is the same regardless of who is standing in front of the class, and universities are merely another capitalist business. However, not all readers will agree with Riley’s debatable premise.
Ultimately, Riley enthusiastically supports as an alternative to tenure “multi-year renewable contracts, which are offered with much greater administrative input and not just by vote of a department” (11). She believes that these untenured contracts would increase faculty salaries as well. According to Riley, administrators “can be relied on to care more about teaching than professors ever would,” which is the first of many jaw-dropping statements that she makes in this attention-getting book.
Would you be surprised that the ultra-conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation, loves Riley’s take on tenure? As a Harvard grad, newswriter of all things higher education and religion in such publications as the New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, Riley presents herself as qualified to write a treatise against tenure. This assertion seems thin at best. Her academic credentials include a BA from Harvard, which means Riley is not qualified to teach at a community college, much less a university. The book has a “suggested reading” list instead of a scholarly works cited and the bulk of her quoted sources and suggested readings are like-minded writers who dislike the academy in general and professors in particular such as David Horowitz, Martin Anderson, Roger Kimball, and Stanley Fish. In the preface, she cites her own family’s intimate ties to academia (both parents were college-educated, father was a tenured professor, mother was an entrepreneur, family friends whose lives were made more complicated by the practical rigors and challenges of academic life), and establishes her credibility with this general statement, “I am both an insider and an outsider to this world” (x). But she has never stood as a university professor in front of a classroom full of college students, nor has she been an administrator at a university. Therefore, her claim to be an insider to this world and the system of tenure falls flat and renders her comprehensive attack lukewarm at best.
Lobbing her primary argument, Riley states, “It’s time for faculty to take a hard look at their promotion system to see whether it is helping or hindering higher education,” which suggests that Riley is starting this difficult conversation and is expecting others to join in and offer both complementary and dissenting opinions. She then lists a range of open-ended questions that we, as faculty, are to consider such as “What does tenure have to do with the sort of experience colleges and universities owe their students?” and “How can [faculty] teach subjects that are both timeless and relevant?” (xi). Riley ramps up her argument toward the end of the preface by calling the idea that students’ success at college relies on their ability to make the most of opportunities provided to them at college “a con game made to suit the interests of the tenured faculty who would prefer to write obscure tomes rather than teach broad introductory classes to freshmen” (xi-xii). Furthermore, Riley accuses university administrators of “putting up a smoke screen” when they give “kids ‘the freedom to explore’ major options” (xii), especially when those options include such wasteful majors as women’s studies, ethnic studies, queer studies and other specialized and frivolous disciplines (41). Her answer to this problem of smoke screens and con games? Change the tenure system.
Academic freedom, a commonly held reason for the necessity of tenure, hasn’t been adequately defined and is no longer relevant, according to Riley. Of course, she doesn’t define academic freedom and dismisses every answer her interviewees provided, so let us use this definition by one of my colleagues in the field of Anthropology: “The ability to research and teach ANY topic that contributes to our scientific knowledge or enriches students’ lives in a responsible manner regardless of office politics, funding responsibilities, publishing pressures, etc.” Another colleague in Political Science pointed out that “academic freedom only comes after being tenured and abolishing it would virtually mean the end of academic freedom.”
Hand in hand with academic freedom in Riley’s book is accountability; specifically, to whom university faculty should be accountable. Riley seems to support taxpayers, parents, and religious and business leaders as those to whom university faculty are beholden (37-41). Citing the 2006 Supreme Court case of Garcetti v. Ceballos as interpreted by the American Association of University Professors, Riley quotes the AAUP general counsel, Rachel Levinson, “’The paradox of Garcetti is that the more you know about something, the less you are protected for speaking about it.’ Levinson believes this is ‘problematic for the faculty and the public interest as well’ because “surely the jobs of a professor and that of other public employees are different” (28). Therefore, a constitutional law professor might need the protections of tenure in order to speak out against a policy such as the Patriot Act without fearing professional consequences. But not all professors are classed the same, according to Riley, and some are less deserving of tenure than others.
One of the most offensive statements in “The Battle Cry of Academic Freedom” chapter is Riley’s assertion that freshman composition is a “vocational course” (32). Specifically, anyone experienced in teaching basic composition will know how patently untrue this claim is: “If these courses are not fundamentally rigorous exercises in ‘how to’ rather than ‘why,’ then the faculty teaching them haven’t done their jobs” (32). Other vocational offerings, according to Riley, include such areas as security and protective services, business, transportation and moving materials, agriculture, health sciences, fitness studies and baseball history. Professors teaching these subjects are undeserving of tenure because they have no need for academic freedom: “These are all fields of study with fairly definitive answers. Faculty members don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them” (33). In addition, granting tenure to anyone teaching in “ethnic and gender studies. . .only invites trouble” (20). Riley openly disputes the necessity of academic freedom following the professor outside the classroom and once again parallels the university with the corporation as though the goals and purposes of these two entities are the same:
There is no reason why tenure shouldn’t be abolished at the vast majority of the four thousand degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States where academic freedom is an almost irrelevant concept. When professors are engaged in imparting basic literacy skills, or even classes on how to cook or how to start a business, there is no reason why their academic freedom must be protected. At that point professors are just like any other employee (41).
Chapter Three, “Stop the Academic Presses: Get Teachers Back in the Classroom,” makes several salient points worth noting. Opening with a brief overview of three recent candidates for the Cherry Teaching Award, sponsored by Baylor University, Riley upholds teaching as more important than research, especially when it comes to delivering undergraduate education and she laments the fact that “to get tenure, professors must publish” (50). The second problem with the tenure-teaching connection, according to Riley, is that “many senior faculty would prefer to engage in research and publication, and teach as little as possible” (51). Riley then spends some time explicating Ernest Boyer’s 1990 suggestion that “publication be more closely connected with the teaching enterprise” (53). This former U.S. commissioner of education and former chancellor of the State University of New York was proposing a new tenure model in which “the ideal professor is one who is both an active researcher and a devoted teacher” (53), an idea that Riley acknowledges as influential in “improving pedagogical practices” on many college campuses (55). The overemphasis on publishing is exhausting and requires professors to make difficult decisions about how to divide their time and too often, students and classroom work are not priorities because they don’t “count” as much toward tenure. Riley states, “Some professors simply tire of putting the effort into teaching. . .tenure means they can simply neglect their students with little or no consequence” thanks to the current incentives built into the tenure system (62).
In the remaining chapters, Riley takes up the perils of academic unions, “University Politics and the Politics of the University,” the potential financial incentives to fresh, young faculty in a non-tenured environment, and the innovative climate fostered by at least one university program where tenure is not offered. Riley asks many questions throughout The Faculty Lounges that she does not answer, but seems to invite response. While she does raise some excellent points about the imbalance between teaching and research as requirements for tenure and the devastation wrought upon adjuncts, Riley’s argument is a bold-faced attack with thin arguments, very little in the way of substantive evidence, and scant credibility as she is decidedly an outsider to academe. It is time for those experienced insiders who care about the liberal, altruistic purpose and benefits of the life of the mind to trounce our attackers with sound argument and volumes of evidence instead of sitting in the shadows of our bookshelves quietly taking this abuse. The reason the American public has developed such a negative opinion of faculty and higher education is because the only people doing the loudest talking and getting the press are people like Naomi Schaefer Riley. It is time to leap into the fray and fight this fight with the heaviest informational bats at our disposal. Who among you will take up the frayed ends of this book-length conversation starter and repudiate or complicate Riley’s position?
Dr. Amanda Morris, Assistant Professor of Multiethnic Rhetorics, Kutztown University.