On Contingency

April 2016

Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). ISBN: 978-1-137-50611-5

Is academic freedom necessarily plural and collective, or “defensively singular and individual?” (p. 109). On this question, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth provide insight into the collective significance of academic freedom for the American university; and, by implication, for Canadian universities. Writing in part as a response to the recommendation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) that shared governance include contingent faculty, Bérubé invites us to consider the necessity of the humanities for the academic mission of the university, while Ruth raises concerns about the devastation wrought by the structural blindness among the elites and the casualization of the professoriate.

From their tenured and expert positions they rail against the hegemonic version of economic determinism that so many espouse on academic freedom and tenure, that the latter are outmoded, unaffordable, elitist. “Far from being an elitist relic or a neoliberal fantasy… the tenure system works against the contemporary tide of expropriation” (p. 117). Few other institutions can serve this crucial role.

The public perception that the humanities hold less value than they once did is a continuing worry. Using several sources for a careful forensic analysis of decades of enrolment statistics, Bérubé gives an impassioned vindication of the humanities, arguing that in large universities demand for humanities courses often exceeds capacity, and that the much-maligned critique of the Enlightenment is both relevant and essential to the tasks of higher education. Bérubé argues that continual reinterpretation of the values of liberty, equality, and justice are necessary corollaries to the contingency of value, and that the Enlightenment project is incomplete, rather than morally bankrupt. In his view arguing about universalism is “precisely what we’re supposed to be doing” in the academy.

Subsequently, Ruth worries about the cultivated apathy among the tenured, suggesting that sparks of activism are smothered by a “theoretically sophisticated quietism.” Having established that there is more than enough money on campus, she argues that the real problem is a crisis of employment, noting that “somebody somewhere (everybody everywhere) was seeding a shadow workforce” (p. 58). She faults middle managers, tenured faculty mired in inertia and passivity, presidents of universities, and government, as well as neoliberalism and corporatization.

Comparing contingent faculty to Arendt’s “stateless,” Ruth’s voice is unusual in her recognition of the deplorable conditions under which so many teach, as well as the politics of ad hoc hiring practices. Acknowledging that the vast majority of such faculty are no longer “people working full-time elsewhere,” but PhDs seeking full-time positions, Ruth and Bérubé applaud the activism of contingent faculty on failing faculty infrastructure. Ruth observes,

“none of the potential paths forward would be possible [without this] concerted and considerable effort on the part of contingent faculty… . Most tenured faculty and administrators seem paralyzed in contrast.” But the solution proposed by the contingent workers - improved salaries, benefits, security - is unacceptable, she writes. Such changes will not underwrite academic freedom or ground participation in governance.

In the remaining chapters, the authors together argue for a necessary remedial professionalization. Since academic freedom is indispensable for any faculty member who participates in university governance, having more tenured faculty is necessary. Since there is no path for promotion for adjuncts, and since tenured teaching-intensive positions provide a path which “won’t break the bank,” universities ought to create such positions. “Only if professors hire and evaluate one another in accordance with the rigorous hiring and meaningful reviews assumed by the tenure system can they protect their autonomy,” argues Ruth (p. 116). Since there is no academic freedom without tenure, contingent faculty members have no academic freedom; their participation, then, necessarily generates conflicts of interest in governance. If they have a means of achieving tenure, teaching-intensive staff will provide the necessary complement of instructors for governance.

While I agree that more tenured positions might help to preserve, or enhance academic autonomy, there are residual problems. Ruth clearly articulates her concern about a tenured professoriate that is in the main apathetic and lethargic regarding casualized labour issues in the academy. Even though the authors are clearly activists, they appear to be rather unusual in the tenured class, so one might reasonably wonder whether an increased tenured class would only entrench passivity. The authors are concerned about the indifference of the tenured class, and yet it isn’t clear that there would be change in the politics of an enlarged tenured professoriate.

Further, I believe Bérubé and Ruth are too optimistic in finding tenured teaching-intensive positions to be a pivotal solution. Although some consider these a vast improvement over the instability of contract work, others argue that these positions reproduce injustice, creating more hierarchies where equality should obtain. Another concern is that teaching-intensive tenured faculty members are meant to perform service. Bérubé and Ruth’s solutions do not erase the worrying conclusions generated by Cary Nelson’s argument in No University is an Island: “the rise in research expectations has contributed to a culture in which involvement in shared governance activities are low on [tenured-track] faculty’s list of priorities” (p. 77). Might this disease not infect the new teaching-intensive tenured faculty?

Furthermore one might worry that teaching-intensive positions do not confer true academic freedom on such faculty, who may find their tenure contingent upon subjective views. Teaching evaluations might play a greater role in tenure decisions where the appointments are teaching-intensive than they do in cases of “regular” tenured positions. Ironically, in an effort to improve the working conditions at Ruth’s own college, where there had been no path to promotion for those off the tenure-track, the committee decided not to promote on the basis of teaching, but to give everyone research time. This decision is rather telling, yet Ruth drops that thread.

The weight of the evidence in this book seems to me to argue that deprofessionalization undermines the academic freedom of the tenured faculty, and consequently the autonomy of universities. If tenured faculty members do not form a large complement of instructors, they will have little power to shape decision-making about contentious administrative issues, such as how money is spent, or to hold administrators accountable. Governance is contingent upon tenured positions. The collective autonomy of the tenured faculty is fundamental to the individual professor’s negative freedom.

All university stakeholders have a role to play in rescuing the collapsing tenure infrastructure. But Bérubé and Ruth leave some options unexplored. One is Acadia’s provision for half-time tenured positions; the AAUP itself recommends half-time positions as one solution. In Canada and in the U.S., many unions argue for converting positions from contract to tenure-track, but Bérubé and Ruth understandably argue that this won’t work in the United States, where 70% of faculty is contingent. Canadian contract faculty unions are developing their own portrait of improved material conditions, such as long-service teaching appointments. Some tenured faculty unions include the contract faculty members within their unit. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has proposed a pro rata model. There can be no single resolution to the crisis in employment. But improvements in stipend, benefits, and security are, at the very least, a start for contingent faculty.

Canadian universities are also already burdened by the consequences of underfunding. But, since underfunding affects academic freedom, there will be difficulties rebuilding academic freedom for faculty unless our governments reinvest in higher education. Politicians, journalists, and the tenured class should devour this book. Somebody, somewhere (everybody everywhere) should be re-seeding the strongholds of tenure and academic freedom.