The Humanities, Higher Education, & Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.163 pages).

Reviewed by Sarah Austin: Instructor, USAFA Prep; PhD Student, Texas Tech University

According to former Emory University president, William M. Chace in his 2009 article called “The Decline of the English Department,”there were 34,000 English majors at universities across the United States in the academic year 1985-1986. Nearly twenty years later, during the 2003-2004 school year, that number jumped to 54,000, almost a 60 percent increase (Bérubé and Ruth 3-4). Why then, is there such a lament regarding the decline of English departments (and the humanities more generally) as reported by such reputable publications as American Scholar (2009), The Atlantic Monthly (1997), The New York Times (2013) and even the Chronicle of Higher Education (2013), which should know better? The answer, according to Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth in their new book: The Humanities, Higher Education & American Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments is that a declining English department has usurped the limelight from the actual problem: over the past two decades, college teaching has been deprofessionalized.

The book, a short 148 page read, including the Appendix, is a collaboration between Michael Bérubé, a well-known disability and queer studies professor at Pennsylvania State University and Jennifer Ruth, an associate professor at Portland State University who, in her time as English department chair, made monumental changes in her institution towards the increase of tenure-track positions. Together, they have created a snarky, but necessary call to action for their tenure-track colleagues, non-tenured counterparts, and the general American public in a manner indicative of academic letters of the past. Here, they flesh out their argument that tenure is mandatory for the maintenance of the American university system, a system they still find vital, the reasons behind the need for such a system, and even, an Appendix for how to go about instituting such complex and fraught changes.

For Bérubé and Ruth, the issue is not that there are too many PhDs flooding a saturated system, as has been put forth so often. Rather, there are university faculties staffed with too few PhDs. Their solution: dismantle the current, imbalanced three-tier system of tenure, non-tenure full-time, and part-time faculty and replace it with a two-tiered tenure-track system where one track is teaching intensive and the other is focused on research, service and teaching. This sounds like a feasible idea until one recalls that currently, 70 percent of the professoriate is made up of contingent faculty upon whom universities have come to rely (14). These are not faculty members who are retired and teaching a class or two a year on the side to supplement their income, or those who work full time jobs by day and teach a class here and there by night for “play money,” although those do exist in miniscule numbers (17). Instead, the most recent Coalition for the Academic Workforce (CAW) numbers show that only 2.2 percent of contingent faculty identify as retired, and 45 percent of contingent faculty make less than $34,999 annually. Likewise, CAW’s survey indicates that 61 percent of contingent faculty do not hold a Phd/EdD, making them, even in Bérubé and Ruth’s more ideal world, less likely to earn the teaching intensive tenure-track positions for which this text fiercely advocates. What contingent faculty do have, according to Bérubé and Ruth, is an inconsistent or non-existent (for part-time faculty) access to benefits, ineligibility for unemployment despite the fact that they can be fired at any time for any reason, no way to be promoted to a tenure track if they so desire, and unequal participation in “shared” governance due to a lack of academic freedom.

It is this last reality that Bérubé and Ruth find most problematic, and on which they base the majority of the text’s argument because, contrary to popular opinion, most liberal arts professors “don’t believe that knowledge is timeless…and don’t believe that anything is universally valuable” (29). This is true even when discussing the United States’ foundational ideals of “liberty” “justice” and “equality” (33). Bérubé utilizes the first chapter of the text to confer on the concepts of universality, values and the Enlightenment, evoking the likes of Heraclitus, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler and others in order to ultimately conclude that “work in the humanities can and must challenge that narrative’s potential for complacency and self-congratulation” (33). His biting sarcasm in this chapter shouldn’t detract from the very real issues posited by Ruth in chapter 2, where she outlines the rise of contingency in the American university using a frog in pot analogy, whereby faculty didn’t realize they were being boiled alive (or in this case, having their professionalism slowly dismantled, and with it their shared governance) until they were no longer capable of hopping out.

Together, Bérubé and Ruth conclude that tenure is the essential ingredient to successful reform because “faculty need the protections of tenure to participate actively in shared governance” (87). Not to have tenure means the “creation of fiefdom and patronage systems” (87) within which “corruption and cronyism” inevitably thrive (89). Thus, the authors argue for the regrowth of tenure in a slightly altered, two-tiered form.

The authors gracefully side step land mines by not vilifying contingent faculty, nor rendering them unprofessional. They also directly address the very painful reality, acknowledging that the implementation of their two-tier tenure structure will not justly accommodate those contingent faculty members who deserve to be accommodated, nor will it equally account for those full-time faculty who do not hold terminal degrees. However, the authors maintain that while the increase in contingent faculty may reduce the economic crises many public universities face, and the unionization of contingent faculty, as has been happening more rapidly across the country, will alleviate tangible, short-term issues like high course loads, lack of benefit packages and gross pay inequities, these measures are simply stop-gap BandAids. The long-term solution, they insist, is the two-tiered system wherein professors are universally and publicly vetted for traditional or teaching-intensive positions. Such a choice, they claim, will alleviate (unsubstantiated) public fears that the caliber of a university education has diminished, stave off many of the economic issues contingency has been used to slow, and reinstate the imperative academic freedom upon which the American university system relies for its shared governance and academic prowess.

This might seem far-fetched to many of us both in and outside the university. However, thanks to the inclusion of Ruth’s own blatantly honest depiction of her experience at Portland State University (PSU), and the Appendix, which acts much like a professional organization’s position statement in its use of ‘how to’ and ‘why’ statements without feeling prescriptive, the book offers a glimmer of possibility amongst an array of cynics.

Where many books of this nature, that is, academically-minded and problem-defining, often fail to provide a clear roadmap for the implementation of grandiose, complicated and always painful changes, Ruth is transparent in her acknowledgment of the stress, resistance and guilt that accompanies such projects. She says, “transitioning [a full-time non-tenure track university] workforce to the tenure track is more of a logistical and cultural shift than it is an economic nightmare” if the institution already has full-time non-tenure track positions, as Portland State did (132). Even that though, didn’t make the transition easy, “In order to expand our numbers of tenure lines, we essentially renegotiated the departmental division of labor. We [gave] out fewer course releases…[which] meant that chronically under-enrolled courses were starting to creep up to their caps because we were hiring fewer adjuncts to avoid the trap of generating semester credit hours(SCH) cheaply for the university” (73). Ruth continues, “At the time I was surprised that people didn’t see things the way we did (73), and she admits that “I can’t say for sure that if I understood in advance how strained the departmental relations would become, I would do it over again. But I hope I would. What is tenure for if not to enable you to endure unpopularity for something bigger than yourself” (72)? Indeed.

Ruth’s consolation is, of course, that the strategy worked. When the PSU English department, under her leadership, made it apparent that they were not going to continue growing “on the backs of contingent faculty” Portland State granted them “two new tenure lines and an agreement to convert a fixed-term position when someone retired into a tenure-track position,” a conversion that occurred the following year (73). Unfortunately, the success is Ruth’s only consolation. Though the shift, over time, meant a lighter load, short-term it increased people’s workload, and to many, it appeared as though she had turned into a typical “admin-type” who was adding to an already overtaxed faculty. Ruth stepped down as chair soon after, and was replaced by a tenured faculty member whose spouse had been given a full-time position at his request. Despite the constant back-and-forth that advocacy and transformation inevitably bring, Ruth stands by her decisions insisting that “students deserve a faculty who can make independent judgments, [who can] deliberate and research and teach and grade without anxiety over the next paycheck warping the outcome of these activities” (74). The Appendix outlines one way to go about ensuring such a reality.

While many academic, problem-defining texts skip the “how to” for fear of being called prescriptive, if one feels strongly enough about inciting transformational change, as Ruth and Bérubé clearly do, setting out contextualized guidelines for what such momentous change looks like is crucial to getting others to follow you. The Appendix lists, in bulleted form how to “immediately stabilize the employment of a large percentage of…faculty by converting positions of Senior Instructor from NTT to TT. Using Portland State as the contextualized example, from which others may adapt as their institution sees fit/necessary, the Appendix walks administrators through what such an implementation entails, from the way to handle current Senior versus non tenure track instructors, past hiring decisions utilizing adhoc instead of national searches, timelines within which the transition should occur, specific dates for grandfathering positions, to how PR should be handled including a list of reasons why these changes are vital.

Bérubé and Ruth recognize that flexibility is necessary for individual circumstances, and differing institutions. The above guidelines include some room for such differences. However, they reiterate their Bottom Lines, reminding their admin audience that the list contained hereafter is not negotiable, nor should it be for the reinstatement and maintenance of tenure. The list includes:

  • Grandfathering no one who has been at the university fewer than seven years.
  • Maintaining the stringency of “up and out” that tenure demands
  • Utilizing regional and national searches, but not adhoc hiring.
  • Aligning tenure and non-tenure track position responsibilities with the exception of service, which should be contractually evident.
  • Converting positions will have three years to prepare for tenure review, whereas new hires will have the traditional six years.
  • Reviewing for tenure is done only by tenured faculty, not by contingent “peers.” (145-148)

This is a comprehensive, and necessary list for the implementation of such a complex change, and makes the transformation seem feasible except in one instance.

However, the group most at-risk for dismissal given Bérubé and Ruth’s plan are those individuals who have Master’s degrees (terminal or otherwise, full-time or part-time), and are in their 50s and 60s. Generally, these individuals have no interest in getting a PhD, but are nearing retirement age and need to maintain benefits and income. According to the CAW survey, 37 percent of full-time faculty hold Master’s degrees, 12 percent of which are terminal; 50 percent of them are above the age of 45 and a remarkable 66.6 percent of full-time faculty have no benefits from their institution—and hence those nearing retirement will have no health benefits or pension to draw upon.

And this doesn’t even consider the part-time faculty, 45 percent of whom are above the age of 45, and nearly 50 percent of whom hold a Master’s degree, 15 percent of which are terminal. Neither group is carefully attended to throughout the text; and while many of them meet the proposed timeline for grandfathering, most of the full-time faculty who have served the university well for years do not meet the degree requirement that a regional or national search would invariably require.

These individuals have to be considered. In order to do so, we must outline new ideas that honor the work and commitment of contingent faculty to their students and the universities in which they toil. In addition, we must recognize the commitments colleges and universities made to them. One might draw the comparison of common-law marriage: the lack of a binding, long-term contract does not assume a lack of rights. Ignoring such a considerable sect of contingent faculty further embroils universities in the increasing public belief that a college education, while important, is marred by big business attitudes instead of being focused on the learning of its students and the quality of life of its employees. It is possible to reinstate academic freedom via tenure and respect the time, effort and skill of 70 percent of the postsecondary workforce. It’s time we did both.