by J J Cohen
... allow me to state, here and for the record, that this essay by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is just silly. SJT is the former president of my university. Despite his line "Does, for example, an English department with 30 members really need three medievalists?" the English Department at GW has never had three medievalists -- in fact so far as I can tell, for 150 years it had only one, and last year we got number two. The History Department here went a very long time with no medievalists at all.
Yes, I know that he is using medievalists as a lazy shorthand for "scholars without much purpose." That doesn't surprise me. Trachtenberg was never a friend to the humanities. He did great things for GW's reputation, student body, and real esate holdings. He didn't do a lot for our intellectual climate. Luckily, tenure prevented him from doing much harm to the faculty he seems to have felt were mostly getting in his way.
Yuch. It's pretty clear to me that Trachtenberg had the bulk of his modest proposal already written and then just jammed a, as it turns out, wholly irrelevant reference to the "current economic climate." If the "climate" is "current" rather than "everlasting," why should it justify radical, everlasting changed to the tenure system? The only reason he stuffed that reference in is to create a sense of doom. He might as well have invoked SARS, or, better yet, global climate change, since rising sea levels might well wipe out GWU altogether. And then what about tenure?
Of course, this all sounds all too familiar to me, since CUNY is being cut back terrifically with just such excuses (even while our chancellor gets, what, a 14% raise...while we just managed to secure a 9% raise or so...over 3 years). Why our state doesn't trim back its budget by repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws, I can only guess, but poena has always sold better than pedagogy (especially when one can combine the two: see J. Enders).
I know this is entering fish in a barrel territory, but it's notable to me that Trachtenberg gives us no actual numbers, neither polling figures (what are the attitudes of department chairs and junior colleagues about senior people?) nor employment stats (what is the average age of a tenured prof?). The absence of any hard justification is pretty clear evidence that this is just an assault on tenure. Basically, when I hear the word 'flexible' I hear 'adjunct.'
A keen reader you are, Karl. Had not tenure been such an annoying obstacle, I suspect that SJT would have eradicated longterm commitments to the humanities and staffed the place solely with underpaid adjuncts (GW's adjunct wage when SJT was king: $2700 per course). He spent much of his time here annoyed by the faculty, whom he seemed to think were impediments to better financial yield rather than partners in some intellectual mission.
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