In part 1 of this piece we tried to understand tenure through the lens of the role it plays in the system of academia. To do this, we first listed out some essential aspects of academia, and how tenure functioned in relation to those aspects. Let us now take these observations and synthesise them to try to understand what our position should be on the new type of tenure proposed by NEP 2020.
A Destiny of Failure
When we evaluate a machine, we think about the stresses and strains various components exert on each other. In normal conditions, it is by way of these forces that the machine performs its intended function. And t is precisely these forces that cause degradation over time — the piece that gets bent out of shape first is the one on which the most force is acting. Similarly, when evaluating this social system, we should evaluate the stresses and strains the components of tenure exert forces on each other, deforming it so that it is no longer able to perform its function; we should look for the ways in which tenure negates itself.1
The most obvious negation is well-encapsulated in the following couplet
Kursi hai, tumhara ye janaza to nahin Kuch kar nahin sakte to utar kyun nahin jate [It’s a chair not your deathbed; If you can’t deliver why don’t you leave.]
“India debates a nationwide tenure system,” reads a headline in Nature.1 It seems academics across the country are debating whether to adopt a tenure-track system for faculty, or keep the current one. This should confuse anyone who has spent any time in an Indian institution. Senior professors in our institutes seem to have no worries about losing their jobs, with some of them not even turning up at their office. What is the cause of this nonchalant confidence, if they don’t have tenure? Why is our current system not a tenure-track system? The Nature article clarifies the difference,
“Some scientists are calling for the nationwide adoption of a five-year tenure-track review structure. After around five years, research faculty members are reviewed on the basis of their publications and funding received. Teaching ability and service to the institution usually have a supporting role. If the candidate is granted tenure, they receive a permanent appointment. If they are not, the appointment is terminated.
“Under the probationary system in India, research faculty members who receive a positive assessment at the end of their first year are given permanent positions as assistant professors. After another five years, they can apply to become associate professors — a position with higher rank and pay. If they are unsuccessful, however, their appointments are not terminated. Faculty members can stay at their institutions as assistant professors until they retire.
Okay, we lied. It clarifies the difference between the current system and the proposed one, but doesn’t even attempt to resolve our original confusion. We usually think of academic tenure as a guarantee of continued employment, not a question about whether this guarantee comes after one year or five. The discussion summarised in the article takes for granted that professors should be given tenure; the discussion is not about whether professors should be given tenure but about which of two models the tenure system should follow, and whether tenure is called tenure. Why is this being discussed at all? Because the NEP 20202 has proposed such a change.
I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.
Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the
“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1