Towards a Theory of the Tenured Class
Richard Kostelanetz

Author’s Bio

We don’t know who discovered water but are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.

Marshall McLuhan


The great insight of that academic discipline called sociology is that much of a person’s sensibility and activity is determined by his and her social situation, no matter how much they might imagine otherwise. Rich people look at the world differently from poor people, those with power differently from those lacking it (even if they have wealth or prestige), city dwellers differently from, say, farmers. However, even though most sociologists are academics and then most prominent sociologists are tenured, few are able to examine their immediate world. Tenure I should note is the procedure by which permanent (for-life) employment is bestowed upon an employee, theoretically to grant him or her “free speech” in the classroom, which is intellectually desirable to be sure. Socially, however, tenure creates two things less desirable-not only a privileged class within academic institutions but teachers lacking privilege. The political analogue is the British House of Lords, where appointments are made for life, in contrast to the House of Commons, its name signifying lesser class, whose members must be (re)elected.


One reason why tenured academics are reluctant to move from one university to another is that tenure might need to be awarded again–reconfirmation is not automatic. Indeed, it could be said that for the past few decades American university teachers are divided into two classes-those that have tenure and can’t move, and those who don’t have tenure and thus can only move from one employer to another until they leave academia entirely. I’ve always wondered why academic Marxists haven’t envisioned how the dialectic between these classes with radically disparate privileges will be resolved.


Writers before me have written about the deleterious costs of tenuring upon those who are denied tenure; but I’m not aware of any critique of the its effect upon those who benefit, the naîve assumption being that, like most good fortune, it is an unmixed blessing, enabling them to produce scholarship that would not otherwise happen. As an independent Manhattan writer keeping some social distance from academia, I find myself less able to write a definitive essay on the effects of tenure than miscellaneous observations. I couldn’t find any previous exposés on this subject; nor did colleagues reading drafts of this text recommend any to me. Some of these remarks are more applicable to some tenured academics than to others, though I doubt if any of these generalizations are completely askew.


Whereas untenured academics tend to be cautious to a fault, out of a fear of offending anyone who might be involved in awarding them tenure, the tenured have no fear-none at all. Indeed, they are fundamentally unaccountable. Unless the process of getting tenure destroys them intellectually, leaving them hopelessly dulled, the survivors of university tenuring believe they can say and write anything they want, no matter how fantastic, nonsensical, or simply stupid. What missing from their heads and mouths is the self-filter that Ernest Hemingway called a “shit-detector,” because they won’t be penalized with anything more dismissive than negative words or, at worse, an editorial rejection slip. One of the great tragedies of tenured cultural life is that fools are rarely fired for being fashionably stupid?


To tenured ideologues is thus granted a platform for disseminating all kinds of preposterous agendas at no financial cost to themselves-Ward Churchill, Sammy al-Arian, Leonard Jeffries, Angela Davis, Holocaust deniers, gender fanatics, religious millennialists, professors convicting the Duke lacrosse team on insufficient evidence, what have you. To professors with a taste not just for jargon incomprehensible to common people but also for otherwise unacceptable contradictions, tenure offers authoritarian leverage in mind-fucking. (I’d name more names were not their notoriety mostly local until someone else publicizes them, as happened with Churchill and al-Arian. David Horowitz identifies a few of these among his “101 Most Dangerous Academics in America,” most of whom are tenured, in his recent book The Professors (Regnery, 2006).)


Predisposed to pontificate, if not to bluster and bluff, they develop a resistance to doing first-hand research as beneath them, something strictly for the lower academic classes, much as those who become bosses become incapable of doing menial work. Indeed, especially if trained in philosophy, literature, and sociology, rather than history or economics, tenured profs are in my observation prone to making stuff up, often outrageously. When George Orwell once quipped that only intellectuals with a taste for peculiar ideas could be so stupid it was obvious that he didn’t know tenured profs, some of whom can be yet stupider at no cost to themselves, who are, in effect, a licensed jerks. The inspiration for this critique was a sociologist who seems to take particular glee in demonstrating how sociologically dumb an academic sociologist can be. A Victim of Tenure I rank him to be. Outrageous Stupidity becomes for the tenured the analogue of Conspicuous Consumption-an inexpensive privilege that Thorstein Veblen attributed to the “leisure class.”


Because of limitations on their university income, academics compete not for money but power within an institutional hierarchy. Power includes the disbursement of supplementary funds, say for professional travel or personal publishing and a greater role in hiring (and sometimes firing of the untenured), as well as awarding tenure. Those with greater academic power become a more privileged class within a larger group who often blame the former for depriving them not of basic income, which is secure, but from supplementary rewards they think due them. Not unlike others upon whom wealth and security is bestowed, they sometimes have difficulty accepting success that is earned mostly through individual effort, devoid of institutional security and support. The small-entrepreneur mentality lies beyond their imaginations. Academic society resembles Communist countries where people competed not for money but for privileges, perhaps incidentally accounting for why academics around the world found Communism less objectionable than, say, entrepreneurs.


As members of a privileged class, tenured academics prefer the company of those comparably privileged, by contrast condescending toward everyone less privileged, beginning with non-tenured academics, but also including others. Indeed, even common socializing with the non-tenured can be problematic for them. As a single gent with a taste for women with advanced degrees, I can testify that I have never dated for long a tenured professor (and that I didn’t recognize this fact until drafting this essay). Since I’ve known intimately women in a several professions, not to mention graduate students and junior professors who weren’t yet tenured, shouldn’t I assume that tenured royalty wouldn’t accept untenured me, elite literary recognitions notwithstanding? They sleep only with their kind, I’m told. Does this restrictive preference reflect a certain insecurity about their status not unusual in privileged people who recognize that others similarly competent could do as well were they not unfortunate because of disadvantages (of timing, gender, integrity, a lack of sponsors) and closed doors?


Few classes of people are more gratuitously mischievous, creating unnecessary problems for those around them. Yet even more dangerous are retired tenured profs, mostly because nothing else is as self-enhancing to them as gratuitous mischief. Whenever I’ve asked tenured profs whether job security had any negative effects upon themselves, as I have, none of them could think of a single thing, though some complained, often vehemently, about negative effects it had on certain other professors. Not even academic Marxists could deal seriously with the question of how differences in material conditions might affect consciousness. Likewise rare is the rich person who understands the negative effects, sometimes visible to outsiders, of having too much money. Indeed, when a Marxist told me that without university tenure he could not have written his books, I thought him implicitly self-deflating, measuring himself as inferior to those who write books without his secure advantages. (Many do it, including myself.) A Libertarian told that he doubted if academic colleagues of his political persuasion would survive without tenure, while another editor told me that, “there are no antiwar conservatives employed outside of academia, as the think tanks are pretty much run by neocons.” Thus does a similar anxiety in defense of certain privileges make uncomfortable bedfellows.


Another suggested that I wouldn’t have written this critique if I had tenure, implicitly criticizing politically inastute powerhouses for failing to buy me off. I advised him that, if he were serious, to tell them, not me, that they were fools. Academic operators don’t enjoy being told they are politically inastute, even if they know they might have been; but no one can’t beat people who are self-consciously stupid. Indeed, it is reasonable to ask whether Orwell, John Cage, or other independents (including myself) would have had their distinguished careers had they spent most of their lives as tenured professors? Indeed, though I’ve posed this question about my own career to a tenured academic more than once, never have I gotten an answer. Next question should be: And if not, why not?


In my observation, tenured profs indulge in self-defeating moves unavailable to those who are self-employed, precisely because stupidity costs them little-indeed, those similarly tenured regard such self-defeating moves by others as a privilege available exclusively to their aristocratic kind. Rare is the insulated human being who can be so smugly stupid. As tenure is granted for life, these people aren’t politicians with a justified fear of being voted out. What do you think of the House of Lords, I would ask defenders of tenure? Of monarchism? If it is objectionable to you, what else might also be? The more I think about the tenured class, the more dangerous I regard any process that institutionalizes elitism for life.


>Art: Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 3, 1995.

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  1. Mikel Parent
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    As a faithful reader of ‘The Symptom’ and a doctoral candidate in American literature, I was delighted by the title of Kostelanetz’s piece. Thus, upon reading the piece in full, I was that much more disappointed. Though the essay is often quite funny and make several pertinent observations about the so-called ‘tenured class’ it remains woefully annecdotal about just what it is that constitues this class.

    My 3 interventions:

    1. Class as a concept is not easily or finally measured by monetary/economic power.

    Kostelanetz claims that it isn’t money that constitutes this class, per se. That is, tenured academics don’t compete for money so much as they do for the accumulation of institutional power. Yet, this class is not merely constituted by the distance between what it thinks of itself and what the non-tenured class(es) think of it. Let’s not forget, that in good old fashioned Marxist terms, we are talking about the site for knowledge production. The production of knowledge requires the interlocking mechanisims of several classes, working across and within several contradictory moments in the institutional space of the university. By refocusing, not on class identity, but on the way the class itself collectively reproduces the university as a matrix of power, one can arrive at a much more rigourously theorized picture of the production of knowledge as it pertains to the modern university.

    For instance class struggle in the university is in no way limited to academics, tenured or otherwise. The vast institutional system of the university is itself constituted by many different classes (and again, in good old fashioned Marxist terms , one should never confuse class with mere monetary wealth-this idea is itself a figment of bourgeois fantasy). A graduate student makes far, far less than most entry level staff and often times less than custodial staff. Yet, the university system itself encourages young academics to adopt the strategy of accumulating ‘cultural capital’ in leu of capital–hence, the vast never ending cocktail party chatter that constitutes most everyday interactions between academics (especially graduate students). The fascinating thing about this interpollation is that, rather than advocating across class boundaries (say, graduate students organizing with custodial staff and administrative staff), one instead gets class fantasy. Thus, tenure is not just a licence to say things that are ‘stupid’ (to use Kostenlanetz’s phrase)- tenure is the process by which the academic class as a whole constitutes itself and brackets itself off from other classes. To be sure, my assertion is damnably under theorized, but I think it offers a way to avoid the trap of reading the academic class merely in itself, as I argue Kostenlanetz does.

    2. What we really need is a more sophisticated account of how tenue, at the university level, works in favor of existing systems of governance under a neo-liberal state.

    I am very much sympathetic to Kostenlanetz’s account of the state in his Lacan Ink article, but here I think he forgets the way in which the university refracts these larger structures of governance (refracts, not reflects). I think this is the source of his confusion over Churchill, Davis, and al-Arian. Rather than employing some very weak Cold War arguement about ideologues who don’t do in the field, rigourous, ‘concrete’ research, one should remember that the firing of these ‘tenured radicals’ presents a politically coded moment in the class struggle in the university. For what is at stake in the tenure process has much more to do with solidly and permanently integrating/colonizing the university into the corporate-capitialist state system of governance. This seems infinitely more important than the supposed stupidity/ignorance/willful obfuscation that happens at the ‘tenure’ level.

    3. Which brings me to my last point: Kostenlantz is absolutely right to expose tenure as a shell game, but we have to rigourously theorize it before we can move past it.

    The only way to stop desiring tenure for those of us in and around the university is to desire something different. Desiring differently, moving toward alternatives is an integral part of the struggle to engage and disrupt the entire class system of the university.

  2. Mark Lause
    Posted July 26, 2008 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    None of this straightforward and honest indictment of tenure is new, and it’s not really separable from the problems of academic hierarchy in general. The article seems to make the usual assumption that getting rid of what upsets you solves the problem. Tenure and all these related problems are symptoms and getting rid of them wouldn’t address the underlying problem

    Tenure and these related problems allow the protection and security of those who need it to accomplish often controversial intellectual work. That the tenured do not generally engage in that kind of work doesn’t answer the question of how those who do will be able to do so without tenure.

    Jumping through the academic hoops at various stages has been a major annoyance and, ultimately, a diversion from serious work. However, unlike the author of this piece, I never had the resources that would permit me to do what I now do without an academic job.

    I always defend people like Churchill because job security is essential to doing good work. The university hired and tenured him because it wanted a noisy showboat for public relations considerations, and the bosses shouldn’t be allowed to go back and redefine the terms of his–or anyone’s employment.

    In the present situation, getting rid of tenure will–like any modifications of the current hiring, retention, tenuring and promotion processes–be in the hands of either the tenured professors themselves or, far more likely, managers of the education biz eager to reconfigure it to suit “market forces.” Already most of the classes in most institutions are taught by faculty not on a tenure track.

    If you think academe is dominated by the assumptions of the rich today, wait until you turn it over entirely to a work force that can afford to dabble in something that doesn’t pay a living wage.

    There’s much to say and more to do on this, but what’s reasonable is to think about addressing the problem rather than its symptoms.

  3. Alex
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    What Kostelanetz calls “elitism for life” some people call “job security.” He seems to think that tenure would be okay if it involved a meritocracy adjudicated by Ayn Rand or some form of term limit and representative democracy like the one that so successfully ensures the quality of our government officials.

    I’m not defending the tenure system but the attempt to get rid of it by today’s universities suggests something much worse. The writer of this piece hasn’t a clue about how universities function. Nor can I see any reason why this right wing propaganda is published on The Symptom. Is this some perverse postmodern joke: “Lacan with David Horowitz”?

    According to Kostelanetz, independent scholars like himself have to pay for their smug stupidity. Let’s hope that’s the case.

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