The latest viral protest thread making the rounds is the campaign to register disapproval at the recent decision to deny tenure to Andrea Smith at the University of Michigan. As the gears of the online posts, remarks, petitions, and even a group on Facebook (!) slowly move forward and gather speed, there is for me one part familiarity and one part curiosity. The familiarity of course consists in the overheated speech one now associates with such actions, the endless outrage, the high-flying yet strangely naïve rhetoric, the easy slippage into épater le bourgeois whilst simultaneously declaring ownership over one of its primary symbols.
This we are used to, and for some of us, form a scrim of white noise so intense that sometimes it is hard to listen to the important beats beneath the screeching. Connected to this mild revulsion at polemic excess, ironically, is the concomitant curiosity, natürlich, which lives, for me at least, in the question of just how and why the Women’s Studies department faculty could have voted against Smith’s candidacy.
For those unfamiliar, relevant journalistic details can be found here and here. Smith is lucky enough to be sufficiently well placed and networked to actually engender a campaign in the first place (not to mention a story in the CHE). As I have observed before, most of us denied the brass ring of tenure or mid-career renewal slink into the shadows: mortified, depressed, and alone. And which lucky institution will snap Smith up still remains to be seen. For all the digital sturm-und-drang, the simple fact of the matter is that, regardless of whatever troubling dimensions of the case, Smith has enough capital to easily move into another position. However devastating or disappointing the outcome of this decision may be for her, and not to undermine the power of these processes on the academic self, I doubt there will be many nights of nail-biting anxiety over future prospects in the profession, unlike the faceless, nameless others whose limbs litter the dreaming spires.
That said, there are elements of the case that seem strange. For someone so accomplished, at least on paper, to not receive tenure begs the question of where the bar is for the rest of us. I suspect, however, that this might be a case of being too brilliant, too fabulous, too accomplished, remembering the egghead axiom— "The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's ME, baby, remember!" Getting to the bottom of any tenure case, even when you’re inside of it, is folly, of course. Suffice it to say, tenure and decisions surrounding tenure are the academic equivalent of the Immaculate Conception: just one of those mysteries in which one does not question so much as believe. But, if it is true, as La Vicks and Love Buckets recently remarked in a delicious blasphemy, that the cult of Christianity is grounded in a 15-year old Jewess “in trouble” from an illicit liaison with a Roman soldier, than there is always more to the story than meets the eye, in spite of belief, hope, and yes, inspiration.
All of which is to say that in spite of all the efforts to empiricise, measure, and delineate tenure, to “understand” the process, a large part of it will always be mysterious, the final hazing, the culminating movement of neophyte to acolyte. I feel ambivalent about such an interpretation, obviously, only insofar as such belief systems can blind us to the real inequities in tenuring processes. Similar to other rigorous, mystical institutions, like the military, Roman Catholicism, Hollywood, Broadway, and the dark arts of Wall Street and the City, the university also has its blood sacraments, which include ritualistic purging. Part of the problem with tenure being wrapped in mystery, ceremony, and hocus-pocus worthy of a Skull and Bones initiation, is that in the dark all cats are gray, and it becomes hard to discern legitimate concern (and yes, indeed, outrage) from hucksterism and carpet bagger self-aggrandisement. This has led a sizable portion of the profession to shrug their shoulders when tenure scandals emerge, or worse, reach for the easy answer of dismissal (“activist-scholar”).
Of course, there are good reasons why someone, even with Smith’s impressive record, could be denied tenure. This is the snake in the Garden: meritocracy is the usually the least of it. Someone like me, on the margins of the university metropole, knows relatively little of the inside details, other than what I’ve heard on the telephone and read online. But there is enough out there to begin to question the dynamics of the decision at Michigan in important and crucial ways. And I don’t mean via the mechanism of performed outrage, but rather how and why a tenure committee would turn down a Nobel Prize nominee?
Tenure is a bar, but is also very much about a bar, if that makes sense. It is about who really counts in the Business. Aside from the talk of abolishing it, tenure remains important for all of the usual reasons (primarily academic freedom), but for others perhaps more important, especially faculty governance. Without the job security of tenure, the professoriate is reduced to the role of a paid workforce serving at the whim of various bottom lines. More importantly, ending tenure would mean throwing the whole sadistic and ritualistic system into disarray: it means, oddly enough, removing the mystery, and replacing Christ on a Cross with a test tube, or worse, a torn glossy photo of the latest talentless starlet from Vanity Fair. That guild model upon which tenure is based is dead as a doornail, yet we dwell in its ashes, rubbing them on our faces like barbarians, in the mistaken belief that they still connote magic. We still believe in tenure because it is linked to the mysteries of the profession, and like all dead systems, that faith is much more dangerous in decline, like a drowning swimmer.
The most salient aspect of this case, from what I can see, is not whether Smith was a good colleague, whatever that means, or even a pleasant person, but rather the simple fact, as my colleague La Gamine recently observed, that Smith would not be in the unenviable position of denied tenure if not for the very fact that she was a Native American feminist “activist-scholar.” In other words, her socio-corporeal identity and the direction of her work that that identity has influenced are the problem. To paraphrase Geraldine Ferraro, if Smith were a white woman, much less a white man, she would most likely have not been denied tenure.
Her public record, from what we can see, is exemplary, by most casual standards at par or indeed above her tenure cohort. Rather, it is apparent that other issues are exerting influence here: personality clashes, professional intimidation and jealousy, slippery and inchoate racism and sexism potentially masquerading under “fit,” questions over politics, intellectual work, and which work "counts." In any event, I certainly hope the legal team at Michigan has instructed their overseers to start saving their pennies.
We will never know the real story, or even an approximation of the "real," although we will get shrill versions. Interestingly, the forces arrayed against Smith are seemingly also not the usual suspects: it was, after all, the Women’s Studies faculty that voted against her candidacy. There are also apparently factions of Native American Studies that find her work anathema. Yet, as much of a critique as might be mustered against Smith or her supporters more broadly, I am troubled by the implications of a decision seemingly grounded, in whole or part, on who one is, what one is, and the denial, not only of tenure, but of picturing that “one,” in whatever valence, within the precincts of the university. Again, this concern is not necessarily for Smith herself, at the centre of the metropole, but for the rest of us in the academic outré-mer, without support committees and networked friends and Facebook group pages, who struggle everyday within the occasionally oxymoronic of the intellectual of color.
Yet, to veer off the distressingly scripted pathway we have been following here, perhaps this oxymoron, like tenure, is itself another one of the mysteries of the profession, and that the martyr is as much an aspect of our rituals as anything else. Therefore, there exists the possibility that the drama unfolding at Michigan is itself part and parcel of the Business, central to its power, a coup de théâtre in which we are all playing our roles, perhaps a little too perfectly.