Tenure is for Wimps: An Untenured Professor (re)Contemplates Life

I need to get this off my chest fast. I don't have much time. At the moment I am teaching eight simultaneous classes in the Detroit area at two colleges. I need to keep moving at all times. Walk along side me -- I can't stop to talk to you. I am the brunt of the public education system. I am the go-to man. I bring in over $275,000 revenue for my two colleges in these next 16 weeks -- $600,000 in the year. I turned down teaching four more classes at another university. The madness needs to end somewhere. I have so many names and assignments swirling around in my head it's not even funny.

Although I am paid well, I work for my money. My salary is comparable to a tenure track professor. That is where the similarity ends. I am not making easy cash teaching two or three classes. I am an actor. I tell the same story at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., and 1:20 p.m., while in the back of my head I am thinking of what I will teaching in my evening class at 5:30 p.m. Could you please send me a reminder e-mail if you want me to do that, because I sure as hell won't remember to do that myself. I can't even remember if I am coming or going. Most days I leave the house at 6:30 a.m. and get home at 10:30 p.m.

For the last several years I was a staunch opponent of tenure. "Tenure is for slackers" was my thought. I wanted to make a real difference. Engage my classes. Teach lots of people. Create leaders to help guide my Rust Belt economy for the future. I knew someone of my personality couldn't do that if I was attending mundane departmental meetings, teaching two upper level classes to the most privileged in society -- or accepting a tenure track position in Nevada. I also knew that I wanted to be on the front lines. Protection wasn't important in my first iteration as an academic because in the back of my mind Detroit tool and die makers don't have tenure and they have a much rougher go at life behind their honing machine than I do. The only vital trait I knew I needed was being an outstanding professor.

Regardless of my scattered, over-burdened life, my philosophy held true. I have more work than I can handle due to my teaching abilities. I have been getting dirty in the front line ditches for several years now, but it is not enough to make the difference I desperately seek. And I think a piece of shrapnel may have made its way to my core because I can't help but think this system in which I play -- of higher education -- is misaligned.

I need more fingers than I currently possess to count the number of tenured professors that I have encountered in my years of taking college classes that were unengaging, uninspiring, and lacked any ambition to stay relevant. I have read some of the most stupid (published and peer-reviewed) research in some of the most off-the-wall journals that no one in their right mind would ever read. I have both as a student and as a faculty witnessed the privileging of academics for the most mundane tasks and the awarding of tenure (one of the most privileged awards possible in an information society since that guarantees these individuals will be interacting with up-and-coming leaders for decades) to individuals who have done nothing engaging or insightful for the educational system for which they work. I knew not to bring up these views at my universities as I am the low man on the totem pole and an expendable quantity. I thought I was alone in my assumptions.

In Detroit, an innovation organization called Model D Media organized a lecture at Detroit's famous Book Cadillac Hotel by Dr. Kevin Stolarick, research director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Dr. Stolarick also closely works with Richard Florida, the author of Creative Class, the premiere text on addressing some of the main tenets for innovative cities. Three hundred people came to listen to the lecture, yet I was the only faculty member I saw. Although there was a glaring lack of academic interest, Stolarick was on track and spoke to the need of cultivating a more creative fostering city-state and directed it prominently at higher education. He spoke of the universities as the starting point for society's ideological switch between industrialized age mentalities and the information age.

Stolaric said, "Universities need to recognize a larger range of faculty work. As of now most innovative ideas and strong creative community engagement goes unnoticed," and he went on to say, "publishing in journals that no one reads is the stream for tenure review."

It was a breath of fresh air to hear someone with his academic pedigree say what I have been thinking for years. He enunciated that universities need to broadcast in the same frequency as the local community and that means forging connections with those communities. Stolarick continued to speak to the fact that often the universities and the cities that house the campuses are looked at as two distinctly separate entities -- and that is a major flaw. For colleges to work and be relevant in the future, there needs to be a true collaboration between locale and college. Colleges need to broadcast in the frequency of the region.

Enter the faculty search committee:

It is my belief that the job search criteria, and the privileging of certain tasks over others, is one of the main factors directing some academic fields away from the local community relevance Stolarick sought out. I have turned down two good offers for assistant professor positions out-of-state because I am rooted in Detroit. I wanted to stay legit to my region. By being "legit," I believe that I relate better to my students. By being "legit," my student's community/businesses/leaders are my community/businesses/leaders, and I can use the relationships I have forged throughout my life to open doors for my students and broadcast in their frequencies.

This local angle has been neglected in nearly every tenure track position filled in Michigan for the last two years in my field of Communication Studies. These positions have been filled with taking an applicant from another locale. I am sure that those hired were among the most qualified on paper, but this mentality does subtly underscore the idea of colleges broadcasting in the same frequency as the larger communities.

From my regional contacts, I constructed a social media website for the 2010 Michigan Gubernatorial Election which provides a student forum, articles and personal interviews from key business leaders such as philanthropist Alfred Taubman and businessman Dan Gilbert -- and allows these leaders to talk directly to the thousands of Michigan students accessing the site. From my regional contacts, I have personally interviewed over 40 key leaders, such as Alice Cooper, Geoffrey Fieger, Kid Rock, Tom Wilson, and John Sinclair, and incorporated the findings into my course structure for increased relevance. Due to my regional contacts, I have started a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on reclaiming venison from car accidents so that it can be donated to local food pantries which are desperately seeking nourishment. And, due to my regional contacts, my research on Detroit's creativity peaked the UK government's interest and they are flying me to Scotland to talk at the University of St. Andrews. None of the prior would exist if I accepted a much easier existence from a tenure track position in Nevada.

It takes decades to build the contacts and local credibility I am leveraging for my students. If I uproot for the job, since I loose the "connections," my energy would have to be redirected toward writing in main field specific academic journals, such as Communication Education. I can confidently say I feel my academic accomplishments are far greater away from the peer reviewed journal path, but are just as rigorous and merit-worthy.

Teresa Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford scholar at the Harvard Business School, has been studying what makes creativity and big ideas come to fruition. In both instances, she points to intrinsic desire (personal drive) always trumping external (doing it for the cash) reasoning. Plain and simple: If I stay rooted to my region, I am educating due to intrinsic desire, however if I take a job as an assistant professor position in Nevada, I am signing on the dotted line of external reasoning.

I love having the ability to interact with my region -- but I can't do it for much longer. It is not physically possible to do what I do (to get a real livable salary) without a tenure track job. So yesterday, for the first time, I sent out an application to a college 3,500 miles away.

I don't have to worry about you telling anyone. The Huffington Post, with its 40 million readers a month, doesn't count as an approved source for academic writing -- so no one in my academic pond will see this. But if I was writing in the journal Applied Ontology An Interdisciplinary Journal of Ontological Analysis and Conceptual Modeling, with a readership of 90 a quarter, I would have to watch my Ps and Qs.