Grumpy Old Men (& Women): When Tenured Academics Lose Their Edge

And a Digression to Sir Winston Churchill

Roland’s latest post on Terry Eagleton (former socialist turned Christian left liberal) expressed some sentiments I have been contemplating lately, especially when it comes to theologians and a-theologians in the academy.  I see a pattern, and one can see it in the work of Karl Barth, for example, that when one is an outsider to the establishment, she tends to make “more noise” so to speak.  The critique of the culture seems so much more fundamental to a scholar struggling to survive than it is for one, who say, perhaps has just earned tenure. For some, it may ring true the words of Winston Churchill, which some Christians may take as gospel, “Show me a young conservative and I will show you someone with no heart.  Show me an old liberal and I will show you someone with no brains.” With all due respect, Churchill is of course wrong on both counts, or at least this quote cannot be taken universally.  In fact to be liberal is literally to be generous in Scripture, so one would think with Christian maturity at least on an individual, personal level, one would grow more liberal with age, sort of like evangelist Billy Graham.

Roland is right, about the tenure, process; that it is inherently conformist and pro-establishment. I know I am risking my words being used against me someday, and it is my hope they are.  Especially when it comes to academic guilds, some establishment professors, seeing the lack of space in a discipline may, for example, have calls for papers for one particular session only for the students to find out the session is really an advertisement, I mean, forum, for a book written by established, tenured scholars.

I think that when scholars are at their best and brightest, just right out of finishing their dissertations, setting the world on fire with a certain hostile, almost Manichean (absolute good/absolute evil) polemic versus the status quo, it is primarily because literally, their livelihoods are at stake. The desire to exist in a terra nova (the scholar’s dream becoming accomplished) may be perhaps the driving force for this early radicalism.  However, once settled in, complacency often sets in.

Like Roland, I can only hope this does not happen to me.

0 thoughts on “Grumpy Old Men (& Women): When Tenured Academics Lose Their Edge

  1. stalinsmoustache

    Caouldn’t agree more, Rod. For some reason I’m thankful I’ve never had tenure (by choice, I guess) and probably never will. Then again, we don’t really have tenure in Australia.

      1. David

        A couple of thoughts Rod:
        -I totally agree with you on this
        -Also I agree that the tenure can breed pro-establishment company people, however coming from an undergraduate program that did not have tenure. Not having tenure can be even worse. My professors had their contracts reviewed each year and renegotiated and anyone who ever said anything against the university magically didn’t get renewed. So getting rid of tenure isn’t the answer either. The chronicle recently ran a series on does tenure work and I think it is relevant here as well. link:
        -Still I don’t want it to go un-noticed that Tenure has always been open to abuse.
        -However I believe that untenured faculty are much more likely to be let go bceause of criticism of the administration or because they seek to be prophetic in their pedagogy. For example Peter McLaren would he still be at the same school and be able to write and speak like he does now without tenure?
        -I think that renewable contracs would be an interesting approach for US colleges and universities because they could provide some measure of job security and they could also state the specific circumstances under which the contract would not be renewed and ensure that if one is thinking/writing and speaking in a way that is a critical/prophetic engagement with the world around you then you can and should be retained as faculty.
        -the university I attended for undergrad there was a real sense of fear and resentment towards the administration because the system felt so capricious and whimsical.

        -For a variety of reason I think that we are losing prophets in higher ed in the us. I think some of the responsibility falls on the faculty members themselves for getting complacent with tenure and winding up “loving big brother.” The other part of it is I think some people are afraid to speak out and be prophetic because they have families and lives and don’t want to be uprooted and want some level of job security. Another piece of it I believe is that institutions aren’t being held accountable for their hiring and firing in any sort of constructive and helpful way.

        -in conclusion: As Bill Leonard at Wake Forest Divinity School says “If you are going to be prophetic you have to have a working relationship with U-haul.”* this is not an exact quote but a ballpark.

    1. Rod of Alexandria

      I just had a new thought. In the US it is possible to be free from establishment norms and the conformity of tenure. One could become a research professor or research fellow for their livelihood; only problem would be securing the funds but there would be more freedom and less faculty politics.

  2. David

    J.R. Daniel Kirk mentions the following on his blog and I am interested to see if you and Roland agree or disagree with the following:

    It has come to my attention that the following motion is going to be proposed for consideration at SBL this year, a response to recent dust-ups over what constitutes appropriate standards of scholarly activity in a religious-studies oriented context.

    As I understand it, this is going to be recommended as one 4-part motion.

    1. That the mission statement of SBL be emended to read “fostering critical biblical scholarship.”

    2. That only students who have been admitted to a doctoral program be permitted to read papers at the annual meeting, and that those students should have the approval of their doctoral advisers.

    3. That the “core values” of SBL be emended to include the following statement: “Public discourse in SBL should not be based on confessional norms, but we welcome the participation of people of all persuasions.”

    4. That groups that have doctrinal requirements shall not be eligible for Affiliate status, but may participate in the “Additional Meetings” category of the Annual Meeting.

    As I understand it, there is a growing list of endorsers, some of whom with positions such as President or Former President of the Society.

      1. David

        well there is section two about establishing rules for student participation and paper submission. I was wondering if you thought that rule number two perhaps proves your point because it is people who got to present in a master’s program or in a PhD program w/o professorial approval now requiring students to have them as their gate keepers. To me this plays directly into what you were talking about.

        1. Rod of Alexandria

          Yes, to some extent. I think it is a little more complex than that. I think the process should be secret like AAR’s personally. That’s the fairest way to do it.

          Oh and the SBL process proposal excludes independent scholars who may be in an in-between phase.


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