From the President

Generational Conflict and the Coming Tenure Crisis

Lynn Hunt | Sep 1, 2002

Tension between the generations is no doubt natural and in many ways beneficial. The young criticize the status quo, push for change, and generally keep the relatively old on their toes. The old remember their youth with Wordsworthian wistfulness—“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”—and bemoan many of the current trends. The push and pull between these positions allows for change and accommodation, sometimes with more heat and fire (1960s) and sometimes with less (1980s). As feminists know all too well, there are generational tensions even between those who supposedly agree on their fundamental principles; feminists of my generation, for example, found our elders to be too angry and the following generation of women not angry enough. We were the first cohort of women—those who got their first jobs in the 1970s—to find the doors open to regular faculty positions. Our experiences differed both from those who had battered down the doors in the first place and from those who came after women had moved into tenured positions.

New kinds of generational tensions threaten to tear apart the customary push-pull mechanism of change and perhaps even undermine the tenure system itself. These pressures are coming from both ends of the age spectrum of the profession: the old who will sometime retire late and reluctantly, and the young who are eager, if not desperate, to have “real” jobs. Historians are, on average, relatively old, compared to other disciplines, but those over 55 are not necessarily planning to retire any time soon from their tenured positions. At the other end of the age-scale, many of those newly entering the profession are able only to obtain part-time or adjunct positions with no prospect of tenure and advancement. The anxieties of the part-time faculty were recently chronicled in an article in the Washington Post Magazine (Eric L. Wee, “Professor of Desperation,” July 21, 2002, W24). Although the position of women and especially minorities remains a critical issue for the profession, it may well be dwarfed in the next 10 to 15 years by these age and status-related issues.

According to figures recently presented by Robert Townsend in the pages of this magazine (Perspectives, January 2002), historians are, with an average age of 51.8 years-three years above the average for all fields-the oldest faculty members. According to the 1999 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, more than half (50.8 percent) of the historians in this country are over 55. No other discipline comes close to this figure; in English, 37.5 percent are over 55 and in Political Science 35.1 percent. Compared to all other fields, historians expect to retire at the highest average age (66 years old). Only 35 percent of those historians surveyed said they expected to retire within the next 10 years, which means that a hefty chunk of those over 55 do not plan to retire at or about age 65. Moreover, the respondents were surveyed before the recent market downturn; how many of those nearing the customary retirement age (wherever you peg it) now believe they will retire when they planned to do so?

There is, of course, more than one way to look at these figures. If half the historians are over 55, aren't we on the verge of the long-awaited explosion of job opportunities? Not if those “old” historians don't leave. Mandatory retirement ended by law in 1986 for most people, and after a study by the National Research Council, Congress let the exemption for universities lapse in 1994. The NRC recommended that universities set up special retirement incentive programs beginning at the age of 50. Although it is probably too early to judge whether the end of mandatory retirement will have a significant impact on retirement age, the early results seem to indicate that it will. [See the article by Ronald G. Ehrenberg in Academe, 85:3 (May-June 1999), 35-39 about the experience at Cornell University.] Retirement does seem to depend on incentives, but offering them (or their acceptance) turns out not to be so simple. Cash incentives, for example, are subject to federal and state taxes. The most common incentive, phased retirement, is by its very nature a partial solution.

Perhaps most problematic of all is the conundrum posed by the interplay between the tenure system and the end of mandatory retirement. If university faculty enjoy the same right to work as long as they want as other workers, then we may need to reexamine the tenure system, especially as it applies to retirement. Other workers can now work as long as they are qualified; the only definitive judgment of quality for university faculty comes very early on in a career and because of the tenure system, is virtually irrevocable. Why should our right to work be guaranteed for life rather than 35 or 40 years?

Even if a large portion of those over 55 do retire in the next 10 to 15 years, the promised job expansion will still fail to materialize if the trend of converting full-time tenure-track positions into part-time nontenure-track ones continues. Forty-two percent of employed historians now work part-time. The “freeway flyers” or “roads scholars” who cobble together various pieces of badly paid part-time work have little incentive to support a tenure system that excludes them, a system which under the current circumstances seems to conspire to maintain them in a situation of insecurity, underemployment, and dim prospects for an indeterminate future.

The inability or reluctance of older historians to retire will only add fuel to the resentments of the underemployed. Moreover, these generational tensions will be overlaid by gender and race issues: only 20 percent of those over 55 are women and the number of nonwhite historians over 55 is truly tiny. Won't the newer members of the profession—which includes larger numbers of women and minorities—resent the older ones?

Since I am over 55 myself, I don't want to blame the elders of the profession for our potential troubles. There are many reasons why historians will not choose to retire at age 65 or 66 or 67, ranging from the increasing longevity and activity of the population as a whole to the particular needs of departments and individuals. For example, women who choose to work either not at all or only part-time while their children are young may want or need to stay beyond 65 once they have permanent positions. This is not an appeal for all those over 55 to start scheduling their retirement. We do need, however, to start thinking about these pressures on the profession and especially on the tenure system. Designed to protect academic freedom, tenure has taken on a new set of meanings with the elimination of any form of mandatory retirement.

Until recently, I myself never questioned the tenure system. I'm sure there are those who will bristle at the mere thought of raising the issue, fearing that such questions just play into the hands of the enemies of academic freedom. But there are reasons for rethinking the tenure system, even beyond the problems created by the abolition of mandatory retirement. Two reasons concern me in particular. First, the tenure system is not very friendly to women, especially those women who want to start families. Their childbearing and child-raising years coincide with the very time they are expected to come up with an unassailable tenure dossier. Second, the pressure to defend the tenure system has had its own predictable but nonetheless unfortunate consequences: tenure, once granted, is almost never withdrawn, and as a result, various forms of bad behavior have not only been tolerated but de facto encouraged. The tenure system has fostered a kind of anarchic individualism that has sapped any collective ethos of responsibility. I am sure that you have stories at least as appalling as mine of faculty who never attend departmental meetings, who refuse to teach anything outside their own area of specialization, who neglect to develop a course syllabus before term starts, who cancel classes the first or last week of term with insouciance, who fail to show up for their office hours or even their final examinations, who routinely harass students sexually or otherwise—and never suffer any penalties at all. Faculty have conveniently pushed all responsibility for sanctioning such behavior off onto administrators who then choose inaction out of fear of lawsuits. Do we really expect the tenure system to continue in this fashion?

Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating the elimination of tenure. I am suggesting that we start to think about what works and what doesn't under the current system and the ways in which it might be improved. At the very least, we should give up the idea that this is someone else's problem. The Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment (a joint committee of the AHA and the OAH) is working hard to develop benchmarks of fair practices that can be conveyed in turn to accrediting agencies. This is a very important step in what promises to be a long and difficult process of stopping the hemorrhaging of full-time teaching positions. But we also need to think about the other end of the age-scale and the implications of its issues for the future of the profession. The many of us over 55 cannot simply close our eyes and be grateful that we'll be gone before the chickens come home to roost. Too many of us will still be here.

—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA

Tags: From the President AHA Leadership Tenure & Promotion


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