Monday, August 30, 2010


My friend and colleague William Bedford Clark has a delightful poem called “Tenure Deliberations” in his new volume Blue Norther (Texas Review Press, $14.95):

Today the dossiers sit at the head
Of the long table where the Chair convenes
Our meeting.
What we say must not be said
Outside this room. We adopt this strict means
Against litigation. Bile and rumor
Move among us as silent witnesses,
While we debate journals, imprints, ardor
In the classroom, what a reviewer says.

Six years, up or out! Nothing personal . . .
But the grim stakes are higher still, for we
Are in the dock; each candidate’s record
Serves as rebuke or vindication. All
Here must judge themselves too and secretly
Cower in what peace tenure may afford.
Exactly so. The decision whether to award tenure is as much a depart­ment’s judgment on itself as anything else. So much is code for whether a candidate is, like Count Mippipopolous, “quite one of us.” Questions of status and connections crowd out evaluations of merit and originality. What the department is looking for are the right signs, the reassurance that the candidate shares the interests of the tenured faculty, and in the future will vote accordingly.

In Grand Strategies, which I will be reviewing for Commentary, the long­time diplomat Charles Hill says that the line dividing “precivilization” from civilization is crossed when justice replaces status. Status is related to family or clan; justice is one of the foundations of the state:The state focuses on the public good; the clan cares most for its own private cause. The state is committed to administer justice; the clan is sensitive to its honor. The state recognizes and enforces contracts; the clan may deal in something akin to contract, but hierarchy or status counts for more.Many university departments, especially in the humanities, are organized like clans. Their “silent witnesses” are “bile and rumor,” the stock ticker of reputation among members of a clan. Their tenure deliberations are not an exercise of disinterested and impersonal justice, despite the claim that their decisions are nothing personal. They are the formal means of recog­nizing and enforcing a commitment to a department’s private cause, its honor, and its hierarchy.


A.J. said...

Every academic department is clannish. And you should try a medical school faculty sometime.

The point is much larger--any group of people with access to true knowledge will be clannish and elitist and look down on everyone else.

Jerry said...

AJ's seems to excuse the practice because "everyone does it". While it's origins in academia may have been well intentioned to protect speech it has morphed into the "clannish" state you describe leaving those of us on the outside seething with contempt, albeit not justifiable in all cases. This is not healthy. My opinion: Scrap the tenure system altogether and see what happens. If the evils it was deigned to prevent resurrect then do something then.