I (Finally) Figured Out Why I Want Tenure

Monday, May 4, 2009
Today was a big day. This morning’s paper ran a story containing quotes from me and from this blog that many of my colleagues will likely view as uncouth. Others will misinterpret it as desire for publicity and name recognition. These folks just don't know me like my family, and particularly my Poppa, does.

To my mind, I had little choice but to do what I did. My University is moving in an untenable direction, one that makes middle-class folks feel good, while at the same time trampling the long-term opportunities of the voiceless. I'm not alone- my family members have a long history of doing exactly this. I went on the record as opposed to a policy that is strongly supported not only by my administrators and supervisors, but also by most of the faculty around me. I wish I could say I felt brave and confident as hung up the phone with the reporter. I didn’t-- in fact, I ran to the bathroom and lost my lunch.

Over the course of the past many months, I’ve received a lot of advice about the Madison Initiative. Advisers have patiently explained to me that the policy is going forward with or without me, and that my time and energy spent fighting will be wasted. I’d be better off simply recommending a few minor alterations and falling in line; at the bare minimum this would help to ensure I could devote my energies to peer-reviewed publications and the kinds of thing academia typically rewards. A fight like this one, I was told, was something I had to earn the right to participate in—something I needed tenure for.

This is all undoubtedly true. The numbers of hours I’ve spent agonizing over the Initiative, pouring over its details, listening to the administration, reading what students have to say, reviewing relevant research on the topic again and again—it’s taken plenty of time and left room for very little sleep. If I were more prudent, that time could have been spent on my many R&Rs, helping put the icing on my tenure case.

Except until now, I really wasn’t sure what tenure was good for. I never set out to be a professor—I just wanted to question conventional wisdom and address it with the best available social science evidence. I'd do it in whatever setting allowed it. I never worried about unemployment; heck at times I find myself with 3 or even 4 jobs at a time. I am insanely fortunate, I know it, and so I thought how could I expect more? Tenure, I began to think, could be phased out in favor of more competitive salaries.

But today, I get it. At the end of my 5th year as an assistant professor, I just spoke out in a manner that could hurt my job prospects, possibly my research agenda, and who knows what else. I’m not saying anyone will directly throw the hammer at me- not at all. But people will be pissed, and they’ll find ways to make my life difficult. I recognize that.

So why bother? Why not wait until I had tenure- and true academic freedom? Because I’m not a professor just anywhere—this is Madison. Madison, for pete’s sake—the place where every academic in the country believes anyone can and does speak their mind, and is praised for it. I am deeply proud of this University’s tradition, and I want it upheld.

And in this case, the truth simply couldn’t wait. In my reading, the research here is unequivocal. I’ve got mountains of evidence that truly open discussions were not occurring, and could not under institutional constraints. I spend my days with students who have struggled to gain access to UW-Madison, and also with many of those who’d hope to attend but for major financial barriers. Yes, this policy increases financial aid—and that is a wonderful thing. But there were other routes to achieve the same end, and much better policy designs that were never considered or outright rejected. And so it was time to stand up for my students—and even more importantly for the Wisconsin high school graduates from poor families who will never find their way here. My own personal interests (e.g. salary, community of faculty, even tenure) be damned.

I have a two-year-old. When I leave the house every day I think about why I’m bothering. Today, the world knows why. And honestly, I’m both proud—and scared.