The Gig Academy Part 2: Tenure’s Destiny of Failure

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.]

– Irtaza Nishat

The lack of incentive for tenured academics to perform at all is a gratingly obvious point to make, but it is true. It is hard to insulate a group of people from short-term incentives (functions 2 and 3 — academic freedom and insulation from market forces) without insulating it from all incentives. This contradiction is eased partly by a culture of internecine conflict among academics (so that status becomes an incentive), but more importantly by making them come up with their own funding (so that money becomes an incentive). These are alternative ways in which academics are kept competitive even without more conventional incentives, making academics less likely to relax and stop working. Of course, it only attacks the symptom of the problem rather than pulling it out by the roots.

This process has progressed further in the more neoliberal USA than in India, where academics have to slavishly follow either market forces or military agendas in picking their research topic, endlessly writing grants to keep the money flowing.2 Thus, we see that an institutional structure that tries to prevent academics from being manipulated by short-term incentives and insulate them from the market as played a role in a system in which academics have to chase short-term goals, adhere to market and state forces, and, as if this wasn’t enough, reduces the amount of time they have for research work.

Further, the rigid nature of academic tenure allows for no flexibility in following the needs of the economy at all. This is a problem, since he economy is a real thing with real needs and trends, and the academy cannot be completely insulated from it. The easing of this contradiction has again progressed to a much further stage in the US, where university administrations are cheerfully replacing tenured teachers with adjunct faculty. But don’t worry, India isn’t far behind! 40% of Delhi University’s academic workforce is on a contractual basis. These faculty have oppressively large teaching loads, fairly low compensation, and no job security whatsoever. Thus we see that the rigidity of tenure as resulted in the negation of its two important, politically correct functions: that of providing academic freedom and that of insulating academics from the whims of the market.

Finally, the rarefied nature of tenure compared to academic jobs as a whole creates an intensification of competition among the young academics aiming to get in to the few tenured positions, increasing the mount of time that needs to be spent in precarious work due to an arms race of achievement. This increases the fraction of each academic’s life spent chasing short-term goals and measurable achievements, and creates less space for young academics to learn the habits required to fully explore their abilities and initiate deep research projects of lasting relevance. Many of your ways are set at the age of 35. Thus, we see that we are giving tenure to a set of academics who have been pressured till early middle age to not chase long-term goals. And pretending that this is enough for them to be insulated from short-term incentives. Amazing job, tenure!

In part 1 of this piece, we summarised our understanding of tenure in a picture that showed how tenure provides counter-balancing forces that stabilise the lives of academics. We now add the understanding of this section to that picture:

Tenure v/s Tenure: Returning to the Original Question

Let us turn with this analysis to the original question of tenure (old) /s tenure (new) posed to us by the NEP. We must now notice a particular art of the pronouncement from our fascist overlords.

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.

This is just a part of the ongoing neo-liberalisation of academia, extending the duration of the young members’ instability for another 5 years (in a country where one cannot get an assistant faculty position after the age of 35!). The time before which one gets tenure, then, matters because it makes it that much harder to get the position of stability, and the academic gets ground down that much more.3

A quote from later in the article, pointing out that no one will hire academics fired at this stage, seems more significant than it previously did now. There is a process that such increasing precarity serves, and it is not a good process.

We must clearly resist this proposal, not because the current system is good but because the process of neoliberalisation is hurtling us into a worse one. That is the need of the moment, sad as it is.

We Must Tear Apart Academia

Is there no hope then? Are we inevitably consigned to an academia defined by unstable early-career work and unfree faculty destined to the pursuit of short-term goals? Can we do no more but fight to keep it from getting any worse? Is this all there is?

No! We must break this process of trying to paper over cracks only to channel the pressure into bigger and worse cracks of the same nature! We must instead try to get at their root and resolve them, by considering the system as a whole!

Let us then go back to our understanding of the academic system as a whole. We see that of the five essential characteristics, we have already explained one — the intensification of the hierarchical structure — in terms of the others; and it is clear that the fact of neo-liberalisation cannot be explained as the result of a process within academia. Thus, we are left with three — the hierarchical structure, publish or perish, and the social composition of academia.

Observe how two of these characteristics are intertwined in an interlocking embrace with the third. Publish or perish intensifies competition and bolsters the hierarchy, and the hierarchy intensifies he need for publish or perish. The social composition of the members bolsters the hierarchy, and the hierarchy serves as a gatekeeping mechanism to keep the “wrong people” out.

Without the hierarchy, the intensity of the need for publish or perish will be reduced, allowing us to experiment with better evaluation systems, so that we may reach a world in which every young scholar gets their Hans Bethe.

Without the hierarchy, there will be fewer institutionalised gatekeeping mechanisms asking for the souls of young academics, allowing progressive younger members to work together and overthrow the exclusionary aspect of academia and emphasise the collaborative and intellectually curious aspects.

So, at the centre of this all we find the hierarchical system, the pyramid of suffering. This hierarchy must be smashed! For, while it is not the sole root of the problems ailing the academy, it is a central component that ties it all together. And also, it is just horrible.

And it will not do to smash this hierarchy within academia and leave it be in the outside world. And not will it not do, it is not possible. The same processes that are making our lives more precarious are making the lives of the entire working class worse! We cannot see the increasing precarity of the academic workforce as a fact separate from that of taxi drivers and car manufacturers,4 all of whom are facing greater pressures in the workplace. Our enemy is capitalism, casteism, sexism, and all other oppressions; without addressing these we cannot equalise power relations within the academy and without addressing the power relations within our academy we cannot fight our true enemies!

Let us create an academia with less hierarchy! Let academia participate in forming the vanguard, in partnership with the rest of society, that works to reverse the dualisation between stable and unstable jobs that plagues the entirety of the economy!

We should stop grinding down and throwing out our young members; we should recognise that the superstars who win all the awards win it standing on the bones of the careers of young academics who were dispossessed of their chosen life-path; and we should create a world in which academics of all ages, of all castes and classes and genders, live in freedom!

Smash academia, so that we may build it up anew, not in the image of exclusion but in the image of inclusion!

  1. The following analysis is loosely inspired by so-called “materialist dialectics,” which attempts to be a way of studying the interconnections between things. We will try to avoid unnecessary jargon here, but readers who like this sort of analysis will find many riches in this method. One introduction is Ollman, B. (2003). Dance of the Dialectic. Amsterdam University Press. Another successful example of such a dialectical analysis is Ambedkar, B. R. (2004). Castes in India: Their mechanism, genesis and development. Readings in Indian Government And Politics Class, Caste, Gender, 131-53, ↩︎

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

  3. To be clear, we are not accusing either the academic quoted in the Nature article nor the writer of the article of having this intention. But there are many ways in which the public conversation is clouded so that each individual makes mistakes in their thinking favourable to the ruling classes. See for example the discussion in Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1994). Manufacturing Consent. Vintage for an incomplete list. ↩︎

  4. 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. ↩︎

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