Do Tenured Theologians Have a Duty to Focus More on Academic Labor in Higher Education?

When people find out that I am a college professor, one of the first questions they ask with increasing frequency and directness over the past year is “Do you have tenure?” My answer of “yes” is often met by a response along the lines of “you’d better be grateful for that,” especially when so many others in our society are suffering the daily humiliations and deprivations of unemployment and underemployment. And I do feel very grateful. There is not a day at Fordham that I do not feel hopeful about the liberative potential of Jesuit education (however mundane that might look on any given day), challenged and inspired by colleagues and students, and consoled by the privilege of practicing a theological life in New York City. But I have been thinking, under the pressure of our society’s deep financial crisis, that gratitude is not enough, theologically speaking. Or rather, I want to know how to better make of this gratitude a spiritual exercise in service of those who do not have the equivalent of tenure in their own jobs.

To speak of a theological comprehension of work is something that has some mild traction, in some quarters, on Catholic campuses, usually under the banner of policies that exemplify Catholic social teaching, or under the aegis of special seminars for staff and faculty on relating their work to Catholic ideals or spirituality.


But to speak of a theology of tenure in particular, or of academic labor in general (including the now prevalent but “silent” culture of adjunct faculty, or of contracts, or reappointment, tenure, promotion or search processes), is to speak somewhat “out of turn.” It feels like bad form.

I have found that academic labor, like other kinds of labor in contemporary higher education – cooks, custodians, security, maintenance – with which academic laborers ought to be in solidarity, is typically dealt with as an administrative decision, with primary official emphasis given to policies, norms, and bureaucratic procedures. To speak of a robust theology of academic labor, especially a theology built from a realistic appraisal of institutional practice, resides somewhere in the higher education instincts between “quaint” and “disloyal.”

But can Catholic higher education afford to have little deep and public investment in an effective theology of academic labor, especially in a time like this, when academic workers face such a tenuous job market and whose families are more fully subject to the threatening currents of the economy than at any time in recent memory?

It is hard to bring this up without people feeling judged, especially people who say that higher education is doing all it can to support its laborers. And financial crises are the worst times to think out loud about issues like this, because it can seem like piling on to an already vexing situation. And yet these hard financial times can also bring us to a deep consideration of the kinds of issues that are present and real but less severe at other times, and can be an occasion for creative rethinking in the midst of and beyond the crisis.

Professional societies in which I have been active for many years, such as the American Academy of Religion and the Catholic Theological Society of America, do not seem to have linked their identity to critical religious or theological analyses of the way higher education operates in general, or to the ways academic labor operates in particular. Perhaps it is not appropriate that they should, but I am also surprised at how absent the contemporary research on academic labor is from almost the entire conversation at our professional conferences. Certainly the stuff of who did or did not get hired/retained/tenured/promoted, of who is languishing in adjunct-land, of who is giving up the search for secure academic employment, of who cannot pay their student loans, of who can or cannot get something published and how important that is in one's local academic economy of career advancement, of how the culture of academic labor breaks according to gender, ethnicity and race, and theological orientation (but almost never, note, social-class background), of how lay, religious and ordained differently experience their academic labor – all these topics are not absent from religion conferences; they are only confined to spaces off the main program, in taxis, bars, restaurants, banquets. There are already operative theologies of academic labor today. One need only listen in the hallways.

And through it all I find that I cannot stop asking myself why it is that the great minority of us who have tenure and training in religion or theology are not organized more intently on how the system of academic labor gets structured and why. Or in other words: What is the duty of those with relative security to those with relative insecurity?

Tom Beaudoin, New York City

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Vince Killoran
9 years ago
A thoughtful posting on a very important important matter. Some professional associations have tried to address this in recent years (e.g., American Historical Association) but the results are pretty thin.
I'm a tenured faculty member at a secular, liberal arts college. Since we have a fairly large endowment and we can afford to brag that we don't have too many short-term faculty appointments it's not a huge problem here (although it is creeping up).  Nevertheless, many of our hourly service workers (food, cleaning, etc.) are outsourced labor and they do not earn anything near a living wage.  It seems like this comes back to Catholic social teachings on labor and economic justice. Didn't Georgetown U. get called on this a year or so ago?
This is a long winded way of sayting, "Support union organizing on campus"! Graduate student unions across the country have been dealing with the economic security and exploitation issue for years.  One of my biggest disappointments as a graduate student and union organizer was to discover that many well-respected, full professors were hostile to our efforts. We prevailed anyways and graduate students have a living wage and a modicum of security and workplace rights.
Jim McCrea
9 years ago
From those to whom much is given, much is expected.
The concept of tenure has never ceased to baffle me.  I've heard all of the reasons, most of which are not compelling.  Those who pay the tuition bills that fund tenured salaries must live in a regular atmosphere of change and uncertainty.  What that is not true for academis is beyond me.
Vince Killoran
9 years ago
I can't resist offering my defense of tenure: I have been in non-tenured academic positions where I was unable to offer what I thought was the best policy recommendations for students and the curriculum for fear of angering administrations. I shudder to think what our campuses would be like with administrators having a carte blanche over intellectual and academic matters.
Every few years the tenure system comes under fire by conservative politicians but on campuses, especially in the Humanities where liberals dominate,  conservatives are some of its stauchest supporters.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years ago
Although it seems to me that tenure is somewhat like the American Congressmen who have the best healthcare plan in America while most Americans wonder how high our premiums for minimal coverage will go, I'm still grateful for tenure.  Dr. Daniel Maguire, at Marquette University, makes it all worth it.  Like Tom Beaudoin at Fordham, he has the guts to question why Catholic universities don't have more to say about the inecquities of job security in their institutions.
Meanwhile, the rest of us out here who are battling unemployment and no pensions whatsoever are learning a lot about "trust".


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