The Gig Academy Part 1: The Enduring Tenure of Academic Tenure

– The NotA Collective

“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.

The matter gets murkier later in the article when a tenured professor opines in support of the NEP’s proposal, “How do we ensure that quick appointments to a very well paid, highly privileged and permanent position does not encourage complacency?” Why does the speed of tenure matter? Does tenure not always encourage complacency? The Nature article doesn’t find it necessary to elaborate.

Before we may think about these questions, we should ask what this semantic circus is obscuring; and since it is easier to recognise an obscured shape when you already know what the shape is, let us first discuss what one should think of academic tenure is as usually understood.

Why is Academic Tenure?

To understand the role that academic tenure plays, we must first understand the context in which it exists. For how can we suss out the role of a part of a system without understanding the needs of that system? So let us begin our study by listing out some important features of academia broadly that seem relevant.

  1. An intensely hierarchical organisation consisting of an underclass that works in a situation of financial precarity and general instability, reminiscent of a drug gang.3

    [T]he income distribution within gangs was extremely skewed in favor of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s. They calculated 3.30 dollars as the hourly rate, that is, well below a living wage (that’s why they still live with their moms).

    If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at Mc Donalds. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. Rank-and file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing. It is very unlikely that they will make it (their mortality rate is insanely high, by the way) but they’re ready to “get rich or die trying”. [Emphasis added]

    Who can say that academia is not reminiscent of a system in which younger members stay in underpaid, unstable jobs; in which most of these members will have to leave for greener pastures; all in hope of a stable job which they are unlikely to ever lose if they get? Not us, because we are not blind. This is exactly what academia is like.

    Academia has a very distinct pyramidal structure; with graduate students at the bottom, a smaller number of postdoctoral researchers in the middle, an even smaller number of early-career and adjunct faculty above that, and finally a tip consisting of the lucky few tenured professors. Only the tenured faculty at the top have any measure of stability in their jobs.

    Ideally, when you start working, you are an employee, or at worst a trainee; not a student. You might even have an expectation that you will be allowed to build a career unless you decide to switch jobs or are laid off for a specific reason. But in academia4 the first five to ten years of your working life are ones of instability, and most younger members will find jobs elsewhere.

    There is another similarity. Just like Henry Hill from GoodFellas felt that being part of a gang “meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies,” young academics feel that being in a field where they love their work and in which they are offered the promise of creative and intellectual fulfilment distinguishes them from the workers of the ‘outside world.’ In other words, academics feeling a lack of alientation from their labour plays a crucial role in facilitating this structure’s perpetuation. This came through very clearly in a letter sent by the faculty to the PhD students in a prestigious US university:5

    [I]f you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school. No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so. [Emphasis added]

  2. An ongoing worldwide intensification of this hierarchical structure.

    Where in the early twentieth century a PhD was optional,6 now it is quite common for prospective faculty members to be expected to have held two postdoctoral positions (depending on field).

    The number of adjunct and contract faculty has been steadily increasing. Currently, around 40% of the academic faculty in Delhi University are on a contract or ad hoc basis.7 Universities in Telangana have more contract faculty than regular faculty.8

    The article3 that noted the similarity between academia and drug gangs goes on to discuss this process of ‘dualisation’ between a privileged core and a precarious periphery in the US, UK and Germany. This process is exactly what we would call an intensification of the hierarchical structure, since it increases the gap in power between the tenured few and the precarious many.

  3. A personal evaluation system that consists of simple metrics (publication, citations) that are ripe to be gamed; where not coming up successful at these metrics causes you to lose your job.

    We trust that the reader is aware of these metrics. Let us call this constellation of issues “publish or perish.”9

  4. An ongoing worldwide neo-liberalisation of society, implemented in India by our fascist overlords.

    Neoliberalism is a regulatory paradigm in which public control and investment in infrastructure is reduced so as to maximally free the international flow of capital. These changes are legitimated by an ideology of extreme individualism that conceives of individual freedom as freedom from the state and society in economic transactions.

    In academia, this policy regime has resulted in an increase in the number of private education institutes, reduction of government funding for research coupled with a pressure on universities and research institutes to source funding from private corporations and casualisation and contractualisation of (both academic as well as supposedly non-academic) labour (meaning that workers can be fired at a moment’s notice) and handing over of policy decisions to private capitalists. These same trends can be seen across the world, from the global North to Uganda to India.

    The Modi government’s economic policy has been unrelentingly neoliberal from the get-go, further intensifying a harmful process that has been imposed upon us since 1991. These policies likely played as large a role as xenophobia and hate in his meteoric rise, as one can see from the demographic breakdown of Modi voters10 or tracking his funding,11 or noticing how outlets like The Economist cannot say anything bad about him without noting their admiration of his economic policies.12

    The year after the first Modi government came to power, CSIR passed its Dehradun declaration demanding that laboratories find funding from private sources. They emphasised that13

    Cash-strapped, the Ministry of Science and Technology has mandated organisations involved in scientific research to start ‘self-financing’ projects; send in monthly updates and ensure that research stays in sync with the Central government’s ‘social and economic objectives.’

    The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been directed to generate half of its funds and start sending report cards to the Centre on how “each of the laboratory [is] focusing its resources on developing specific lines of inventions which would contribute to the social and economic objectives of the Narendra Modi government for the poor and the common man.”

    The original discussion of the tenure-track system was initiated by a recommendation in the new National Education Policy, another flagship neo-liberalisation effort of the Modi government.2

    Another important aspect of neoliberalisation is the decimation of workers’ bargaining power by making their jobs unstable in various ways. In academia, we are seeing it in the intensification of the hierarchical structure mentioned above; we are seeing it in the rise of the gig economy (e.g. Uber, Swiggy, etc) in which workers are legally not employees of the company but self-employed;14 we are seeing it in the contractualisation of labour throughout the economy, especially on our campuses15; and finally we are also seeing it in the industrial belt in the Indian heartland,16

    “the restructuring of production and labour regime by capital substantially reduced workers bargaining strength. Workers subjectivity at the important locations of production networks is either being contained and co-opted (among high-salaried permanent workers) or being smashed/dispersed. The main burden of production is now on a category of ‘universal workers’, young contract/trainee/temporary workers/diploma workers and others, who do not imagine getting a permanent job and are not attached to any particular factory for more than few years. How the subjectivity of this section of workforce will be articulated is a difficult question. But beyond plant-level struggles, they have appeared as a ‘social category’ in the new industrial regions.” [Emphasis ours]

  5. A very specific caste- and class-composition

    Academics are predominantly dwija in caste background17 and petit-bourgeois or bourgeois in class background. Both of these groups are founded on exclusion of a certain sort, the former in social relations and the latter in economic (and also social) relations. In particular, in these two forms of social advantage we see the emergence of a discourse of merit as a garb for exclusion — of the sort exemplified by the recent hate campaign against Prof. Saderla18 — long before academia.19

    Jeff Schmidt explains this point well by focusing on the problem of why theoretical scientists are accorded a higher status than experimental ones.20

    Theorists have higher social status not because their work is any more intellectually difficult, but because people *perceive *it to be.

    […] What, then, is the source of this mistaken common sense about work in science?

    The answer can be found in the structure of work in the larger society, beginning with the separation of mental and manual work, of conception and execution. This division of labor is inherently hierarchical and makes possible a hierarchical system of production in which nonlaborers control the products of the work of laborers. […]

    The hierarchical system of production looms large in the lives of people throughout society, and every individual is keenly aware of where he or she stands in it. Those who control the employing institutions and who enjoy the right to treat the products of labor as their own have great power both in the workplace and in the larger society, and have higher social status than laborers. This basic arrangement sets the tone for the culture, which mediates the assignment of status to people throughout the society. In the culture, work gains social status if it resembles in form the activity of those at the top, and loses status if it resembles the work of laborers. [Emphasis ours]

    Here, “the top” is meant to be the capitalists and the ruling classes, but would you be surprised if we told you it meant brahmins?

    Here, it is important to state a position and make a distinction. The exclusionary nature mentioned above clearly falls hardest on groups at the receiving end of the sort of bigotry prevalent in society at large; and academia is clearly (as a whole) as socially regressive or more than comparable professions as a result. The hierarchical structure very obviously and clearly falls harder on all disprivileged groups — not just working classes and Dalits/Bahujans/Adivasis but also women, LGBTQ people and hijras — than on the privileged, since the hierarchy needs gatekeeping mechanisms that automatically reflect the bigotry of the gatekeepers. This is horrible and needs to be fought. But here, we are pointing to something else. We are pointing to how the two social advantages of class and caste play a more important role in forming and informing the exclusionary nature of the system, as a result of the fact that both these sorts of divisions provide discourses and social structures that work with the hierarchical structure mentioned above.

To summarise, academia is (1) intensely hierarchical, (2) getting more hierarchical with time, (3) marked by incredibly simplistic evaluation measures for advancement along the hierarchy, (4) within a rapidly neoliberalising economic system and (5) predominantly made up of dwija, petty bourgeois men.

We now ask the question, what do these features tell us about tenure? In other words, how does tenure interact with these other features? Here, the point is not to immediately make up our minds about whether tenure is good or bad but to try and understand its role in the system. We will get to making up our minds later.

So what are these burdens that tenure seems to be able to carry?

  1. It gives the academic precariat enough hope to function, allowing more research to be squeezed out of each grad student; it gives the academic precariat a goal to strive for, a reason to compete with the far-too-many peers that they have.

    Thus, it plays an important role in preserving the unjustness of the structure of academia.

  2. It gives academics “academic freedom,” and space to work on deeper problems that might not help with metrics.

    The discourse commonly functions as if this role of tenure is just a fact of nature. But we have to emphasise that it is a role specific to this system, for why would such a space be needed in the first place if our evaluation system wasn’t so hopelessly broken?

    The Nobel-prize-winning physicist Kenneth Wilson famously did not publish a paper for years after getting a faculty position. The only reason he got to keep his job was that Hans Bethe, another great physicist, threatened to resign if Wilson was fired. This is because he was working on a genuinely deep problem that underlies a lot of modern physics; the work he did during this time changed the way we think about physics and earned him his Nobel prize. We may admire Bethe for taking a stand, but can we not also ask why Wilson needed a Bethe at all?

  3. It insulates academics from the whims of the market.

    Academics’ jobs are, as a result of tenure, not determined by the boom-bust cycle of the economy, protecting them from mass layoffs in times of recession.

  4. It is a gate-keeping mechanism.

    The decision of whether or not to award tenure to a particular faculty member is a very subjective one made by the faculty based on inscrutable considerations. It is not rare for candidates with reasonable publications and citations to be denied tenure for “not being a good fit” (among other things). It would be downright surprising if this decision wasn’t influenced by the impulse towards exclusion that is so central to the castes and classes that make up academia. Thus, it inevitably functions as a gate-keeping mechanism to keep out all the “unsuitables,” and those too closely allied to these oppressed groups.

    Readers who have participated in a few tenure decisions may not recognise this function, since the tenure decision is not actually called upon to perform this function all that often. Academia is nothing if not a series of gate-keeping mechanisms that filter out the wrong people at every stage, meaning that it is uncommon for the “wrong people” to even get to the stage of a tenure decision.

    This dynamic was very stark in the case of Prof. Saderla at IIT Kanpur. He was the first dalit hire in over a decade, and the rest of the faculty fell into a hysterical trance of casteism, leaving no stone unturned in trying to discredit and malign him. Why is this casteist hysteria not seen more often? It is because the other gate-keeping mechanisms also function well.

We stop here, hoping that the reader has come away with a deeper appreciation and contextualisation of the role that tenure plays in academia. We summarise the discussion above in the following flowchart. In this, we visualise each of the characteristics of academia as exerting certain forces on academics, and tenure as providing counter-balancing forces to stabilise the lives of academics. This encounter of action and reaction stabilises the structure of academia as we know it. Part 2 will explore the consequences of this balance.

  1. Barath, H. (2019). India debates a nationwide tenure system. Nature. ↩︎

  2. The NEP can be found at Ministry of Human Resource Development. (2020). National Education Policy 2020. Ministry of Education. For an incisive dissection of its implications, see Collective. (2020, August 6). National Education Policy 2020: Notes on how to read a policy document. Ground Xero., NotA also wrote about the implications of the vocationalisation of education mandated by the NEP in The NotA Collectve. (2021, January 18). Vocational Training in the NEP: What Does It Have to Do With Me? Notes on the Academy. ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. Afonso, A. (2016, October 28). How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang. Alexandre Afonso. ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. We should note that while these characteristics are special to these fields, they are not unique to them; many jobs contain germinal versions of these characteristics, but few in as well-developed a form. Further, we should also note that we are comparing academia to other professions and similar jobs. Manual labour in our society is treated in criminally callous ways. ↩︎

  5. A Motivational Correspondance. (2012, October 8). The Detection of Interstellar Boron Sulfide. ↩︎

  6. In 1903, when the Ph.D. was first becoming a widespread requirement in academia, William James wrote of this emerging requirement as a PhD octopus, writing “Graduate schools still are something of a novelty, and higher diplomas something of a rarity. The latter, therefore, carry a vague sense of preciousness and honor, and have a particularly “up- to-date” appearance, and it is no wonder if smaller institutions, unable to attract professors already eminent, and forced usually to recruit their faculties from the relatively young, should hope to compensate for the obscurity of the names of their officers of instruction by the abundance of decorative titles by which those names are followed on the pages of the catalogues where they appear.” See James, W. (1903, March). The Ph.D. Octopus. Harvard Monthly. Available online at ↩︎

  7. Sundar, N., & Fazili, G. (2020, August 28). Academic Freedom In India. The India Forum. ↩︎

  8. Minocha, H. (2021, June 14). Contract faculty in Telangana varsities decry pay disparity. Deccan Chronicle. . Reddy, R. R. (2021, March 11). Contract assistant professors allege ‘same work, less pay.’ The Hindu. ↩︎

  9. With this reduction, the various qualities of an academic’s research are collapsed into a linear scale of “value,” thus allowing research to be commoditised and integrated into the wider economy. This was explored in The NotA Collective. (2021a, January 9). In Defence of Piracy, Part I: Knowledge and Access. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  10. Sridharan, E. (2014). India’s Watershed Vote: Behind Modi’s Victory. Journal of Democracy, (4), 20-33. ↩︎

  11. Most electoral bonds are bought in denominations of Rs. 10 lakh or 1 crore, and they predominantly go to the BJP. See e.g. Kancharla, B. (2019, November 28). Electoral Bonds: Here’s What the Numbers Say. The Wire. ↩︎

  12. In The Economist. (2020, October 8). For good and ill, India’s prime minister is hard at work. The Economist. we find the following: “The moves are understandably controversial. They take a sledgehammer to chunks of the patriarchal socialist state, erected in the early decades of India’s independence, that had escaped earlier bouts of liberalisation. Mr Modi’s numerous and noisy acolytes are proclaiming a great moment of transition. Even critics of his government concede that, whether or not the specific laws are well-considered, Mr Modi has at least shaken trees that needed shaking and at last shown the mettle to do what he had promised, but failed to deliver, in his first term.” ↩︎

  13. Krishnan, V., & Peri, D. (2016, April 2). Govt. tells labs: fund research by yourself. The Hindu. ↩︎

  14. Though we should note that the gig economy is not new in India. “Daily-wage labourers” are essentially gig workers in the sense of Uber. The only new part is that this is now happening in the formal sector as opposed to the informal sector. See Bala, S. (2021, May 14). Already under massive stress from the virus, more Indian workers turn to ‘gig economy’ livelihoods. CNBC. ↩︎

  15. For an overview of this process, see Laddha, A., & Venkat, T. (2018, May). Simmering Rage II: Fragmentation in the Industrial Working Class and the Crisis of the Trade Union Movement. Aspects of India’s Economy, 72 & 73. ↩︎

  16. Amit, & Nayanjyoti. (2018). Changes in Production and Labour Regimes And Challenges Before Collective Bargaining: A Study of the Gurgaon-Neemrana Industrial Belt (Background Paper for State of Working India 2018). Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University. ↩︎

  17. While upper-caste shudras, who are savarna and forward-caste but not dwija, do occupy a dominant position in the social and political-economic hierarchy relative to dalits, bahujans, and adivasis, they are also massively underrepresented in the intelligentsia that academia constitutes a part of. See Shepherd, K. I. (2018, September 30). Where are the Shudras? Caravan Magazine. ↩︎

  18. Sathe, U. (2019, April 8). An Academy of Chowkidars: Caste and Gatekeeping at IIT Kanpur. Ground Xero. ↩︎

  19. In the context of class, see e.g. Young, M. D. (1994). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Macmillan Publishers. In the context of caste, we would first like to point to all of history and the founding myths of Brahmanism that the reader is surely aware of. A more serious study can be found in Subramanian, A. (2019). The Caste of Merit : Engineering Education in India. Harvard University Press. See our invitation to this latter book at The NotA Collective. (2021c, July 19). Storming The Ivory Tower: An Invitation to The Caste of Merit. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  20. Schmidt, J. (2001). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ↩︎

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