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Glenn Allen Phillips

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What I Think I Know About Tenure

I always have trouble remembering if assistant or associate professors have tenure. I understand the tenure process. I understand that one follows the other. However, the distinction is something I have to think about longer than I should, like what time zone Wisconsin is in or how to spell “restaurant.”

The son of a high school math teacher and a pipefitter, mechanisms that insure job security are not novel. To me, tenure makes sense, but it goes much further than unions or collective bargaining. Tenure identifies a professor as a sole, invaluable, inexpugnable resource of the university. Tenure is an association at least, a consecration at best. I think this is why it makes everyone so crazy.

As a graduate student, I have learned three things about tenure. There is not an assistant professor in the country that has not gone “round the bend” over whether tenure is a political distinction as much as an academic one. Bottom line … tenure is difficult to sell.

Before matriculating into the College of Education, I was a poet. Two years earlier, I meandered through classes and research papers until I got an MA in English. I couldn’t have told you the academic designation of my professors any more than I could have explained positions on a cricket team. Some of them, however, were a bit crazier than others. As a graduate student in my current department, I know exactly who does and does not have tenure. Assistant professors’ graduate assistants are overworked. Their offices are cluttered. Their doors are closed. They pace. Some of these professors spend their time writing. Some of these professors spend their time forming excuses for why they don’t write. They are crazy.

I am an adjunct lecturer at a local community college. I teach mathematics. I have a semestral contract, and I am disposable. However, I know many lecturers that have served my university for years who are constantly burdened with additional administrative tasks and painstaking workloads for no additional pay. Meanwhile, associate professors with half their experience are making double their salary. The discrepancy doesn’t seem wrong as much as it seems unfortunate. Tenured professors make rules. Rules favor tenured professors. End of story.

In 2010, I was doing some research on tenure when I learned about Amy Bishop’s gruesome murders. We do not want Bishop to be what people talk about when they talk about tenure, but we rarely get to choose our most ubiquitous publicity (see Penn State, Ted Haggard, and General David Petraeus). It is difficult to defend tenure to the person who does not care about tenure. Scandals like Bishop’s (however unique) make it even more difficult.

As a graduate student I do not know what it feels like to work towards tenure, to have tenure, or to be denied tenure. I am likely to experience two of these in the next 10 years. I will keep you posted.

About the author

Glenn Allen Phillips is a Mathematics instructor at Blinn College and a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. His current research focuses on veterans returning to higher education.

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