Okay, so I went to a presentation the other day with staff from the university counsel's office, outlining their role in the university. I left especially irritated.
One of the representatives kept contrasting the university with "the real world" (read: the capitalist corporate system). Of course, this is nothing new. Any faculty member with family who live and work outside of higher education knows that we often have to defend the actions and practices of the university. But to hear a university employee talk about our workplace as something other than the "real world"... well, that was a trip.
According to the illustrious counsel, one example of the ways in which the university fails the "real world" test is in our employment processes. In the real world, employers can fire people at will, thanks to the right-to-work legislation in most states. (Obviously, this lawyer had not worked with businesses where workers were represented by unions. That is not surprising--few workers are represented by unions these days, though word is that they are making a small resurgence, at least in the service industry.)
For lawyers, firing at will is a gift, a freebie. Unless the fired employee can claim some kind of discrimination (and only based on those protected categories like age, race, and gender, by the way, not sexual orientation or gender expression), there is little recourse for him or her in court. So, there is not much heavy lifting for the lawyer in these cases.
The university's bothersome tenure procedures and protections make life difficult for university lawyers, especially when tenure is denied or tenured folks cause trouble. One of the lawyers intimated, in what was clearly a personal opinion, that the process of reviewing a tenure case that has been denied was a waste of time. Why? Because so many "impartial" committees had reviewed a candidate's packet by the time of a denial. The candidate is unlikely to win, and the sheer expense of time and energy by all members of the grievance process is hard to justify.
I disagree. So strongly, in fact, that I had to speak out in the moment. I explained that I have seen some terrible travesties when it comes to tenure. I have friends whose tenure bids were tanked by colleagues who were threatened by them. I have heard stories about university-level committees where they made fun of journal names and research topics listed on candidates' vitae. Outside reviewers can be selected because they are friends of tenure review committee members, even if they are not the best or fairest judge of the candidate's area. There has to be recourse to the inappropriate or unfair denial of tenure, because it just isn't as rare as it could be.
Futher, and underlying this whole argument and the claim that the university is somehow not the "real world," the lawyer was basically misunderstanding and dismissing the intrinsic role of tenure in the success of the university. As I noted before, tenure is not just an issue of job security for (relatively) economically privileged elites. Tenure guarantees the chance for the best of education and research, uninhibited (or at least only marginally inhibited) by political, economic, and social pressures within and outside of the university.
I wanted to note that in the "real world" the counsel spoke of outside academe, workers are exploited, fired for being gay or lesbian, not hired due to race and ethnicity, not promoted because they have the wrong (family) values, and pressured to work longer than federal law allows. Workers in the real world organize in unions, protest, and challenge the rights of employers to dictate the terms of their employment. The EEOC deals with numerous claims of discrimination in the real world, discrimination based on protected categories such as age, ability, race, gender, and veteran's status. Do we want to support that world as somehow better than academe? Or is it just better for institutional counsel?
Universities constitute a growing segment of employers. According to the 2005 Census, there are over 4,000 colleges, universities, professional schools, and junior colleges, employing over 1,290,000 instructional staff. These are real jobs in the real world. Calling it something else is disrespectful and dismissive.