The definition of sustainability implies a long term view that is caring of future generations. Are the practices within academia sustainable, in this sense? As the generations change over in academic departments within universities, it is interesting to think about how they are changing. Is the next generation being mentored and prepared for their future roles and responsibilities after tenure? Tenure still exists and we often hear about the new tenure track assistant professors wrestling for power with the old tenured guard. Understandably, the new professors would like opportunities to build on their careers. Is the old guard a set of mentors or oppressors? It is easy for them to be oppressors as they cannot be fired and they can threaten, with impunity, the younger generation with their livelihoods and careers. The next generation seems often to be in a state of quiet, submissive fear. On the other hand, perhaps many of the old guard simply do not care, and would just like to continue for a little while longer so as to have a large enough pension to support a decent retirement. Mentoring is exhausting and meaningless at such a stage in life. If they developed PhDs at any point, they are already satisfied that they have their prodigies in place.
In principal, tenure exists for the purpose of supporting academic freedom which is one of the underpinnings of a free democratic society. However, I am not sure that tenure is being used to support this very important goal. I see tenured professors using their privilege without any awareness of the principle or the related responsibilities. Tenure is perceived as a well deserved reward for having achieved certain publishing, teaching and service goals as set out for them by their organizations. Maybe, it even means that they can go into a state of semi-retirement. Alternatively, they become consultants or find additional ways to make income, at the university’s expense because now, it has dead wood on the payroll. In achieving tenure, perhaps they toed the line so, what kind of people has this left us with to defend the very important principle of academic freedom? In fact, the process of tenure may have eliminated the types who would have defended it. Those who spoke out and did not toe the line were not able to achieve tenure, precisely because they were challenging the old guard. So, in theory, it could be that it has been the oppressed and/or cowardly who achieved tenure.
Now, as we see the new crop of professors attempting to slowly fill what would have been a very large void, had many institutions not eliminated forced retirement by a certain age, a battle is ensuing. The tenured professors played all of the games and toed the line to get there. Do we have principled people in place to mentor the next generation? Not likely. Instead, we have a continuance of the abuse and twistedness. It is often said that the oppressed become the oppressors. The next generation has to play all of the same games and avoid rather than enact academic freedom.
So the question is, is tenure sustainable and does it make sense? It does not support academic freedom or mentorship of an improved next generation. Instead, it breeds the next generation of entitled oppressors and dead wood.
Note: This is written as one possible perspective. I could have easily written an argument in support of tenure and in favor of many of the great people who have achieved that status. What is presented is a discussion piece that may “stir the pot”. It is not necessarily what I actually believe.