AGAINST TENURISM appeared as a feature article in the CPFA Journal, Fall 2017 edition. Access the full journal online here.

Pictured: Keith Hoeller

Author, Keith Hoeller

In my book Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) (Read more here), I contributed an article entitled “The Academic Labor System of Faculty Apartheid.”  While the term “apartheid” originally referred to racial disparities in South Africa, it can refer to “any system or practice that separates people according to color, ethnicity, caste, etc.

The two-tiered system, enshrined in virtually every union contract in America, creates a system of privileged “haves” and unprivileged “have-nots,” whereby the tenure-track faculty form a minority, now less than 25% of all college professors, who rule over the majority of faculty who have little to no job security, low wages, few benefits, and virtually no way out of this academic ghetto.

Worse, the have-nots, often called adjuncts or contingents, are often represented by the same unions who represent the tenured faculty who serve as their immediate supervisors.  In 1980, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that tenure-track faculty were “managers” and not entitled to unions at all at private colleges and universities (NLRB v. Yeshiva University).  The NLRB has since made it clear that tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty cannot be placed in the same bargaining units.  (See Seattle University v. Service Employees International Union, Local 925, NLRB Region 19 decision, April 17, 2014).

But public colleges are governed by state laws, often drafted and supported by unions.  While some states have outlawed “mixed units,” some have allowed them, and a few have mandated them.  It is not fair to force adjuncts, who have no job security, into the same bargaining unit with tenured faculty, especially when these tenured faculty function as supervisors, hiring, evaluating, and re-hiring and/or firing the adjuncts.

Contingent professors have lacked a name for their exploitation.  I invented the term “tenurism,” a form of “rankism,” as defined by Robert Fuller in his book, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.  I wrote, “I think we can now give a name to the treatment of non-tenured faculty by their tenured colleagues:  tenurism.  Like racism, which categorizes people by their race, and sexism, which categorizes people by their sex, tenurism categorizes people by their tenure status and makes the false assumption that tenure (or the lack of it) somehow defines the quality of the professor.”

Like all divisive “isms,” tenurism must try and defend itself as natural.  So throughout academe there is a common myth that the tenured faculty are inherently better and superior to those who teach off the tenure track.  This is underscored by the fact that nationwide it is the tenured faculty who are chosen to observe, evaluate, and hire the contingent faculty; virtually nowhere are the contingent faculty assigned to evaluate those on the tenure-track and they have no role in the granting of tenure, even though some colleges place students on tenure committees.

When research suggested that contingent professors were in fact better teachers than tenured professors, a firestorm of criticism ensued.  (See my New York Times dialogue “Academia’s Two Tracks).

This is the argument in favor of the privileging of the tenure-track faculty:  The tenure-track deserves its superior treatment because they have won a competitive national search process and passed the tenure-review process and awarded the prestigious status of tenure.  Contingent faculty, however, are often hired on the spur of the moment, and are not put through the rigorous tenure process.

Given the large number of well-qualified applicants and the scarce number of tenure-track positions, it seems reasonable to conclude that many of those who did not secure a tenure-track job were equally, or perhaps even better, qualified than the one who was chosen for the position.  As for teaching competence, it has been argued that the major factor in receiving tenure is research, not teaching, at least at research universities.  Contingent faculty are not supported in their research and must often conduct it at their own time and expense.

But what about the tenure process?  Academia’s major mantra is that tenure exists to protect “academic freedom.”  Does it in fact do so?  While it appears to grant lifetime job security, colleges and universities have not hesitated to get rid of even tenured faculty who speak out if the colleges feel they are threatened.

I would argue, however, that if anything, contingent faculty are even more heavily evaluated and for longer periods of time, according to entirely arbitrary criteria, than tenure-track faculty.  Lacking job security, most contingent faculty are subjected to far more observations and evaluations than tenured faculty undergo even in their post-tenure reviews.  And contingent faculty must continually pass muster or they can be summarily dismissed for any reason or no reason at all.

I hasten to add that just as opposing racism does not mean opposing white people, or opposing sexism does not mean opposing males, opposing tenurism does not mean opposing either “tenure” or people who are tenured.

In opposing tenurism, I am calling for the abolition of the two-track system and full equality for all professors.  I am in effect arguing for the one-track system as it exists in the Vancouver Community College system in British Columbia.

More than six decades have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down public education based on race:  “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (May 17, 1954).  It has been more than five decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 striking down this nation’s discriminatory system of laws based on race, color, religion sex, or national origin.  Since tenurism is the ideology offered to support the denial of equal treatment to contingent faculty, it is necessary for us to oppose it and to seek its abolition.


*Keith Hoeller is the co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and Editor of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press).

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