Thursday, August 5, 2010

More on Trower

The tenure articles posted by round-table Mark tenure really do have the best of quotes. Let us return to the quote by Cathy A. Trower:

Research shows that Generation X values qualities that are in conflict with this system: collaboration, not competition; transparency, not secrecy; community, not autonomy; flexibility, not uniformity; diversity, not homogeneity; interdisciplinary structures, not disciplinary silos; and family-work life balance, not “publish or perish” careers.

There was so much wrong with this quote that I decided it deserved a second post. By setting her argument up this way, Cathy seems to be associating the academy with: competition, secrecy, autonomy, uniformity, homogeneity, disciplinary silos and poor work-life balance. Now it is possible that some of these issues could be altered (in a positive direction) by the removal of tenure.

But some of them are likely to move the opposite direction if tenure is abolished. I am unclear about the conditions in the Gamma quadrant, but are we sure that work-life balance is going to be improved by reducing job security? People feel less pressure to work hard when they do not have job security? Or what about competition -- does this mean that if private industry wanted to create a more competitive environment they would offer more job security?

Now I don't want to construct a straw person argument here there are three points that I think are really important. One, if one wants to re-envision the academy it is necessary to fully spell out the alternatives and not just attack one feature that people find unfair. Ideally, this would be done with the clear understaniding of how successful top-down reforms typically are. Do note that this is a critique that begins with the idea of competition as being bad!

Two, it is odd to attack a key instituition of the American academy at the point when it is at the peak of it's success. Look carefully at the Academic Rankings of World Universities (a Chinese project, by the way) and see how many American schools are ranked in the top 100 (in 2009, it was 8 of the top 10 universities with the other two being British). Sure, the methodology can be criticized but it's not a sign of complete failure to rank so strongly in international rankings.

Three, I find it odd how people simplify the academic enivironment as if there was a single system across the entire United States. Working in an NIH funded biomedical research shop is very different than teaching english at a community college. The stresses and solutions are very different. Recognition of this compexity would do a lot to refine the arguments being presented.

But, to be fair, I am not sure that the virutes of competition, autonomy and disciplinary focus are things that we want to get rid of (and I am sure that work-life balance is unlikely to improve with less job security). That the list of problems, itself, contains virtues is a rather interesting dilemma and it does rather make me wonder what the end state looks like.

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