Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Tenure satire

Inside Higher Ed today has brilliant satire on the problems of tenure, with the Swiftian alternate university having granted tenure to its food service workers at the behest of an alumn donor who harboured grudges against the school.
As the story goes, she told me, we had an alumnus who, through some smart investing in a California tech firm, had accumulated an enormous fortune. But then, being in California and all, this fellow, whose name was Edgar H. Carson, converted to Buddhism and decided to give it all away. Since Stovetop was apparently near and dear to his heart, he offered a gift -- $75 million up front, and another million a year in perpetuity, to do whatever the college wanted. The endowment at the time was around $20 million, so this was pretty unbelievable.

Carson attached one string. It seems that when he was a student here in the ‘60s, he was keenly disappointed in one particular professor who often missed class, showed up drunk, and harassed the women in the class -- the whole nine yards. When Carson, who at the time was just a sophomore, approached the department chair to complain, he was told, “There’s really nothing I can do. He has tenure.”

So Carson vowed that, if given the chance, he would rid Stovetop of tenure and, in doing so, assure future students that such faculty would not be able to make them miserable.

Of course, in 1985, when he offered the gift with the stipulation that tenure be abolished, the president told him we could never do such a thing. But $75 million! Imagine turning that down! Carson offered a compromise, which the president, without a second thought as to the consequences, accepted: tenure food services employees in addition to faculty.

Why? It turned out Carson had worked in the dining hall for three years, and felt that our food services employees, of whom he had grown very fond, were treated quite badly by the institution. One particular dishwasher, an older woman who occasionally invited Carson to join her family for Sunday dinner, was fired in an effort to appease an unhappy student who also worked there -- itself a long story.


I used to believe that Edgar H. Carson had never really understood the ins and outs of higher education, academic life, “guaranteed lifetime employment,” and all the nuanced subterfuge of faculty politics, and that it was out of naiveté that he had offered his compromise.

But now I realize that Carson understood more than any of us exactly what a system of tenure could render in an otherwise humble organization like food services. I realize now that back in 1985, Carson still harbored a 20-year old grudge against a professor and the institution that was powerless to hold that instructor accountable, and that Carson’s very clever form of revenge was to subject us to more misery than any college, even a small, private, wealthy liberal arts college, deserves.
The description of the Food Services Tenure Review Committee is wonderful....

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