Does Tenure for IT Staff Solve a Problem?

A couple of weeks ago there was an essay in Inside HigherEd arguing that we should tenure IT professionals.  To say I had a strong negative reaction to the article would be something of an understatement.  With a little time between me and the article, I wanted to see if I could better articulate my thoughts outside the 140 character restraints of Twitter.

I’d like to start with things I believe regarding the appropriate support and environment for IT staff (or any staff really):

  • I believe that every person should get a living wage for their work.
  • I believe that every person should be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace (really anywhere, but since this is a post about the workplace…)
  • I believe that the only way to have a truly healthy work environment is through diversity (gender, racial, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, point of view, etc.).
  • I believe IT staff should be properly supported with resources and professional development appropriate to their interests and the institution’s needs
  • I believe there should be an agreed upon method of providing regular feedback regarding performance and ample opportunities for employees to become more than who they are right now
  • I believe that decisions should be made at the lowest possible appropriate level in an organization (this is one of the tenets of Marianist administration that I find most compelling)
  • I believe I, as a leader, need to provide an environment and space where there can be productive conflict about important topics.
  • I believe in surrounding myself with incredibly smart and talented people and then listening to them, especially when they disagree with me.
  • I believe very strongly in shared governance and think that IT staff should play an active role in that process.
  • I believe that, for the good of the organization, at some point decisions do need to get made.  Whenever possible consensus is desirable but not necessary as long as there has been open dialog about the issue that leads up to the decision.

I’m not saying that all of these things happen all of the time in organizations, or even organizations for which I’ve worked.  I’m not even saying I manage every one of these every single day.  But this list is the context for much of the rest of this post, and I thought it was important to start with up front.

What Is Tenure?

First, this isn’t going to be a fully referenced section with citations.  This is my sense of what tenure is and what it’s meant to provide (to the individual and the institution).  If you’d like, you can think of it as more context.  Tenure is something granted by an institution to a scholar, with the recommendation of a scholar’s peers, that provides the scholar with the protections necessary to allow them to pursue research in their field that they feel will help advance the knowledge in their discipline and to share that knowledge and insight with students (through formal and informal learning opportunities) and others (through publication, conference presentations, workshops, speeches, etc.).  Current practice in US institutions is that tenure is only be granted to someone with a terminal degree in their field who has met a set of documented standards set out by the institution.  Despite some misunderstandings from the public, tenure is not a “job for life” and it does not allow a faculty member the freedom to say whatever they want about whatever they want (although academics generally have a great deal of latitude under the purview of academic freedom to speak on any number of topics of concern).  Tenure also doesn’t specifically provide a mechanism for faculty to actively participate in the governing of the institution.  That, rather, is a matter of shared governance.  Shared governance is an incredibly important (and complicated) facet of higher education, that probably deserves more page time than I’m going to give it here.  For the purposes of this post I simply want to acknowledge that shared governance does not flow directly from the act of tenuring people.

What Problem are We Trying to Solve?

When responding to the question of tenuring IT staff, I have (somewhat flippantly) said I was fine with that as long as they go through the same process as faculty and are held to the same standards.  Operationally, what does that mean?  That an IT staff member would be in a role defined as tenure track; have a terminal degree in their field of expertise; have a track record of publication, teaching, and service to the community; and have been evaluated and recommended by their peers for tenure.  To what purpose? Honestly, I don’t know.  To me this sounds like we’re trying to create an IT discipline within higher education to somehow validate our importance in the organization.  That seems duplicative to me, as there are many institutions that have IT programs (under a variety of names) and even educational technology programs in which people can already get tenure (in theory anyway, let’s not get into the endangered species that is tenure track faculty).  This idea of new disciplines for technology professionals has come up recently, and rather than having an in depth discussion here, I’d encourage you to see Audrey Water’s piece, Disciplining Education Technology, for an eloquent and thoughtful take on that idea.

Drs. Poritz and Rees, in the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post, do outline, to some extent, the problem they say they are trying to solve by tenuring IT staff:

…people who make decisions about ed-tech infrastructure need to hear from experts who have the freedom to speak on behalf of what’s best for education, not just what’s best for a university’s bottom line. After all, if ed tech really is the future of education, these colleagues of ours will play a vital role in determining what that future will look like. That means they need the protections of academic freedom, which means they need to be able to earn tenure.

They continue, saying:

It is unclear to us whether a change in perspective is at all possible with such IT professionals located where they now are on most campus organization charts. That’s the main reason why we think the decision makers in IT merit tenure and the academic freedom that comes with it. Giving them protection and stability would co-opt them to work on behalf of scholarship and research, making of them allies of the rest of the faculty and not enforcers of a particular IT regime.

This seems to be more a statement of a cultural and/or leadership problem at specific institutions than a well defined systemic issue.  If, as they imply, IT is disconnected from the needs of academic enterprise (and here I would include students as well as faculty) that is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.  But it is unclear to me how granting tenure to IT staff will do that.  From all of this the problem I can discern they’re trying to solve is one where IT staff have no voice at some particular institutions.

How Else Might We Solve This Problem?

While the concept of IT staff having a voice about and input into IT decisions is important, Ports and Rees seem to be trying to recreate the same power dynamic we currently see in the faculty ranks between tenured and adjunct faculty, and by proposing to tenure only some IT staff, they are forwarding something that will make things worse, not better.  In their own words:

Of course, not all IT staff do the kind of work that justifies the possibility of tenure. The IT professionals who do hardware and network installation, repair work, and other support tasks shouldn’t be faculty members. But other IT workers who choose and set up complex systems, work with students and faculty members on pedagogy and research, have advanced and highly specialized training, and who are expected to research and develop new systems for their universities should be faculty and should therefore be eligible to earn tenure.

They propose a solution where only the “important” people get tenure and the people who do “support tasks” aren’t that deserving.  I am not willing to live in a dystopian world where some of my staff get the status and protections of tenure because of some arbitrary line we draw between what is complex work and what isn’t.

If I’m going to disagree with their solution, it seems only fair that I should forward one of my own.  Let’s look back to a few of my belief statements from the beginning of the post:

  • I believe that decisions should be made at the lowest possible appropriate level in an organization
  • I believe I, as a leader, need to provide an environment and space where there can be productive conflict about important topics.
  • I believe in surrounding myself with incredibly smart and talented people and then listening to them, especially when they disagree with me.
  • I believe very strongly in shared governance and think that IT staff should play an active role in that process.
  • I believe that, for the good of the organization, at some point decisions do need to get made.  Whenever possible consensus is desirable but not necessary as long as there has been open dialog about the issue that leads up to the decision.

At its simplest, my proposal is for every IT leader to do these things (really, do all the things I mentioned at the beginning, but for the purposes of this post, do these five), for every senior institutional leader to help create the environment and culture where these things can be done, and for every IT staff member to participate fully when this kind of organizational culture exists.  Is this hard?  You betcha.  I’ll argue though, that striving for these things will have a much more meaningful impact on the culture of an organization, and it will actually be easier than figuring out how to tenure to IT staff.

Man standing with arms raised, girl tied to chair behind him, group next to him looking at him with adoration

A scene from “Urinetown.”

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