Jul 18, 2011

The feminist case against tenure

It may be difficult to improve, in a reasonable span of time, the representation of women (and other underrepresented groups) in the philosophy professoriate unless there is either (i) a careful reconsideration of tenure or (ii) a strong affirmative action policy for hiring or (iii) both. (Other smaller steps may be helpful in the long run, such as the Gendered Conference Campaign and various efforts at combating implicit biases affecting hiring decisions-- but it seems unlikely that these efforts, even if massively successful, will be sufficient in the absence of the larger steps I mentioned.)

Many people see affirmative action as a way of promoting professorial diversity, but affirmative action is controversial and has some fairly serious downsides. Revising tenure, on the other hand, may be possible without any real sacrifice of academic liberties and may be one of the most effective ways of promoting diversity-- and yet very few (if any) commentators concerned with diversity make this point. 

Here's why tenure is important. The current tenure system is very conservative in the sense that it limits turnover, which tends to make it harder for underrepresented groups to increase their representation in the short and medium-term. On the other hand, tenure is beneficial to those who have it, so once representation of a group increases, tenure has the effect of making those gains more permanent in the long-term. From the perspective of enhancing diversity in the academy, tenure therefore has both advantages and disadvantages. Anyone who wants greater professorial diversity but has no interest in considering even minor revisions to tenure is holding an unstable position-- tenure, carefully crafted, is a boon to a diverse academy, but it would be a tremendous miracle if the current tenure system is delivering the greatest benefits at the lowest cost relative to other options. 

An honest consideration of tenure is thus a feminist issue, as well as an issue for anyone who wants to promote a more diverse professoriate with respect to all underrepresented groups.