Stephanie Hinnershitz is currently an assistant professor in the Department of History at Cleveland State University in Ohio where she specializes in U.S. immigration history. Her first book, Race, Religion, and Civil Rights, was published by Rutgers University Press in 2015, and her second book, A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South, will be published by UNC Press in October of 2017. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 2013 and taught at Valdosta State University for three years before coming to Cleveland State in 2016.
On August 4th, 2015 I was gearing up to prepare my pre-tenure review while entering my third academic year of teaching at Valdosta State University in Georgia. Two days later, I found myself sitting in the Dean of the College of Arts and Science’s office processing the news that due to an enrollment crisis, my contract would be terminated at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.
Just like that, I was laid-off from my tenure-track position. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” I told myself while I sat in my car in the parking lot, armed with an endless supply of HR paperwork detailing ways to turn a CV into a resume and frantically wondering how to tell my husband that my job was gone. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” friends and family, fellow academic and non-academics alike, told me day after day that year as I applied to job after job, many in the academy and some not, knowing that this could be the end of my academic career.
Why me? Was it because I failed to publish? Or conduct myself appropriately in the classroom? No, it was because when faced with declining enrollment, the administration looked at which programs had lost the most credit hours and chose to make the cuts there. Myself and seven other tenure-track faculty members (all from the College of Arts and Sciences) found ourselves on the chopping block that year because we didn’t have tenure. In this case, tenure provided the administration with the opportunity to take the path of least resistance and treat tenure-track faculty as contingent laborers.
My experience is part of a larger trend and the attack on tenure has been widely publicized within the past months. State legislators in Iowa and Missouri have recently proposed bills to end the tenure system, citing the coddling of “bad professors” as reason for seeking to dismantle the protections of free speech and controversial undertakings enshrined in the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of 1940. Politicians present their arguments in a way that frame a desire to do away with tenure as a response to a growing chasm between the professors it protects and the public that universities serve. Many academics argue that such maneuvers are not only a threat to the very nature of higher learning (producing knowledge free from administrators’ ideological restraints), but also an effect of a growing political regime that leaves no room for dissenters who, in turn, might prohibit the free speech of more conservative students. Attacks on tenure are attacks on university and college professors more generally and serve as proof of the political and ideological pressure on higher education.
While this is a sexy portrayal of the undermining of tenure in the United States, it hides the less exciting and more insidious ways that tenure is crumbling. With state legislators slashing funding for public education and universities and colleges engaging in building projects of epic proportions to attract “customers” (students), there is little room left to provide the type of long-term support required for nurturing junior faculty members on the tenure track. Money and funding continue to fuel the undermining of tenure, not only openly political or ideological attacks. These are distractions from the ways in which university administrators have slowly killed tenure for the past two decades and made tenure-track faculty contingent laborers. “Enrollment crises,” “program mergers,” and “program prioritization” will sound the death knell for tenure rather than proposed bills of state legislators or the angry cries of political agitators.
Florida State University, Clark Atlanta University, Ashland University, and my former institution, Valdosta State, have all laid off tenure-track faculty members within the past five years. What’s more troubling is that all of these universities did so without declaring “financial exigency,” or severe economic distress—one of the acceptable reasons for laying-off faculty under AAUP best-practices guidelines. While financial exigency provides administrators with a ready explanation for dropping tenured and tenure-track faculty members, they are hesitant to do so because such a declaration could have a negative impact on their financial reputation. All of the universities mentioned above are not unionized, which explains to some degree why they were easy targets. However, the larger message is clear: Administrators see tenure as a hindrance to achieving economic goals for their institutions. The situations at Florida State, Valdosta State, Ashland, and Clark Atlanta occurred well before the Wisconsin state legislature and Governor Scott Walker made the “jobs-for-life” guarantee with tenure obsolete and moved to make it easier for tenure-track and tenured professors to be laid-off during times of financial emergency. All eyes were on Wisconsin because of its reputation as a premier research institution, but a repeated lack of attention paid to lay-offs at other universities allowed a Wisconsin scenario to emerge.
Chiseling away at tenure through financial moves is nothing new, and I am not arguing that political attacks and economic attacks on tenure are mutually exclusive. In fact, with an increasing number of college presidents and administrators coming from political backgrounds, it makes sense that the economic means are used to justify the political or ideological ends. However, as tenure-track faculty become part of the contingent labor force in higher education, tenure will naturally suffer a slow and painful death as the tenured retire and/or leave their institutions. I was lucky enough to find another job in academia (with a unionized university), but others have not been as fortunate. Rather than martyrs for the cause of academic freedom, faculty members will become victims of a system of higher education in this country that sees no value in economically investing in its own employees. To any and all on the academic job market, you’ve been warned: Lay-offs in academia do happen and they will no doubt occur more frequently in the coming years.