Amid the chorus of happy promotion and tenure announcements circulating online, it is tempting to forget how tumultuous and unsettling this past year was for those of us going up for tenure. Moreover, those of us in this generation of newly tenured scholars are stepping into an environment where the stakes for defending the democratic university and the institution of tenure itself are arguably higher than ever.
While the process of tenure has always been tethered to various forms of marginality falling along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability, the pandemic has intensified those exclusionary dynamics. The recent prolonged controversy about granting tenure to highly acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones attests to an overall lack of transparency behind such decisions and is inciting more fear about how research can be subjected to political scrutiny, pressure by trustees and donors, and other forces that inadvertently challenge the very principles of tenure and academic freedom.
The pandemic began just as many of us were finalizing our dossiers for external review. Around that time and in response to the pandemic, my own university took unprecedented measures to mitigate financial damage, including implementation of one of the more aggressive furlough plans among major research institutions in the country, and rescinded financial aid offers from graduate school applicants who were still undecided.
It is an understatement to say that things felt very structurally unstable on the academic front in the spring of 2020.
And, as was the experience of most working parents across the United States with school-aged children, many of us suddenly found ourselves at home with our children all day, every day. I was still teaching two classes and -- like many other women faculty members -- attending to the multiple grievances of my undergraduate and graduate students who had been pushed off campus; physically isolated from friends, family and loved ones (especially the case for international students); or derailed in their research plans.
It wasn’t a surprise that the gendered division of reproductive labor still present in many American households became even more entrenched or that the productivity of women in the academy took a nosedive as they fulfilled caregiving obligations. Feeling squeezed from all directions, I and other academic mothers I know fought for what little, if any, personal time we had to process our rage through writing. Many universities encouraged -- or in some cases, required -- faculty to submit COVID-19 statements along with their dossiers to explain how the pandemic had impacted their productivity as well as gave them the option of extending their tenure clocks. But often notably absent was systematic attention to how racism, sexism, trans/homophobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination and bias had shaped trajectories to tenure and promotion decisions.
That was followed by a summer of historic organizing and protest around Black Lives Matter and calls to defund the police. With antiracist activism and calls for abolition entering the mainstream, my discipline of anthropology, along with many others, began experiencing a long-overdue reckoning. In a June 2020 statement against police violence and anti-Black racism, the Association for Black Anthropologists urged members “of the discipline to start at ‘home,’ to accept the ways that anthropology has been and continues to be implicated in the project of white supremacy (both in its implicit and explicit manifestations), and to lay out a clear path for moving forward.”
In response, some of us in my department at the University of Arizona -- including faculty, students and staff -- formed a committee in midsummer to address structural racism within our discipline and institution. We then proceeded to develop antiracist curriculum, overhaul syllabi and scrutinize practices around student recruitment, admission and faculty hiring and promotion.
Such efforts, carried out by a number of departments elsewhere across the country, were imperfect for a number of reasons. Still, they represented an important step in the right direction.
A Sober and Radicalizing Time
Then, however, as many of us were entering the fall semester, some colleges and universities announced plans to shut their doors permanently as well as to lay off tenured faculty. Such events heightened the sense of anxiety and distrust felt among those of us whose tenure cases were pending.
Not only have those repercussions of the pandemic intensified such anxiety and distrust, but as the case of Hannah-Jones has illustrated, the federally sponsored gag order on racial and gender justice curriculum has made forms of institutional repression and retaliation -- often waged through tenure denial -- seem all the more possible.
We all probably know people for whom our getting tenure is not good news. Those individuals have demonstrated through their words and actions that our presence in the academy -- in my case, as a mother, critical scholar, feminist and activist -- challenges the very premise of their power and privilege. Our teaching, research and writing calls out the dangers of white male supremacy and how it both undergirds and gets reproduced within the hierarchical structure of the university.
In fact, many of us probably feel that our pretenure scholarship is nowhere near radical enough in its intellectual orientation, but conditions of economic precarity within higher education inevitably limit academic freedom. To draw from my own experience, it took nine years to receive tenure after obtaining my Ph.D. My first position -- if we can even label it that -- consisted of a few courses strung together across the span of a year that the chair of my department generously suggested we call a “postdoc.” Later, my spouse and I lived apart for one year so that I could pursue a postdoc in a different state. That was followed by a one-year teaching position. Then another one-year teaching position after an unfulfilled promise of a multiyear contract. Then the multiyear contract and finally the tenure-track job. Those were the pre-pandemic realities of the job market. Academic career prospects have further plummeted during the era of COVID-19, with students ubiquitously reporting high levels of stress, uncertainty and despair.
That so many of our colleagues are relegated to the status of contingent faculty indexes what is probably the most urgent question facing the future of the democratic university. The overall disposability of these workers threatens our collective capacity to produce liberatory scholarship while also eroding the practice of tenure. It is incumbent on all of us gaining the privilege of tenure now to advance the struggle against the further entrenchment of non-tenure-track faculty appointments and to demand better work conditions for all. At my own university, the efforts of the Coalition for Academic Justice led to the creation of a union this past fall.
It is surreal to be promoted at the end of this decades-long journey for most of us and after a year that has been especially sobering and radicalizing. As we congratulate our peers on their success, let us remember the stakes that have been laid bare over this past year and accept what is required by those of us now tenured.