Retrenchment, Day 43

Had a meeting Wednesday noon with the Provost and my Dean. This was the first interaction I've had with the Provost since I was retrenched. He expressed his regret that I had been one of the people on the list and said I am an "icon" of creativity and innovation and exactly the type of faculty BSU needs more of. This is quite true, and I appreciate the acknowledgement. I also understand that the administration had no choice in the matter. Once they decided they had to cut faculty, there were very few options open to them on how to do those cuts.

The limitations that required my retrenchment are part of the contract that has been negotiated between my union, the Interfaculty Organization (IFO), and the system. By the terms of the contract, tenured and tenure-track faculty can only be let go if their positions are eliminated. That's what retrenchment actually is. But the positions have to be eliminated based on seniority. I was on the bottom of my "roster", so I and the person one rung up from me were the ones who were cut.

The purpose of tenure in theory is that it provides some measure of academic freedom, if a professor can't be fired for taking an unpopular position. Or if their teaching, research, or service is on the wrong side of a controversy. There are probably some heroic stories of people who took a stand on an issue or wrote a book that defied authority, and tenure saved their jobs. However, I don't think that has ever happened at Bemidji State. For BSU faculty, it's more about rewarding longevity.

Now I'm not going to say that older faculty are necessarily less active or less innovative or less amenable to change. But I will suggest that
some senior faculty are less open and more stuck in their ways. And, same as newer faculty, some are just ineffective. The difference is, if they have managed to achieve tenure, they can't be penalized. I'm not certain anyone would be let go for being a lousy professor. As I've mentioned several times in this series, BSU is a bit of a consequence-free environment. But it does seem to me like tenure undermines a set of incentives that might result in more responsiveness to student needs. That type of thing is certainly part of the criteria used to decide who gets tenure. It's just a bit weird that once a professor has demonstrated that in year five or so, they're set for life.

I've been getting emails all day from the president of the IFO, noticing that I haven't yet voted on the new contract and urging me to do so before the poll closes this evening. I responded to her that I'm retrenched, so I really have no interest in the 2023-25 contract. Maybe that's short-sighted. But I don't think my vote would really do anything other than swell the "participation" number the union wants to show management. I don't feel an urge to do that, since the contract hasn't really done anything for me except guaranteeing I'll be the one to lose my job.

The Provost and Dean also urged me to do my tenure and promotion application this year. Even though it won't save my job, they said, it would look good on my CV and would give me both "bump" privileges at other universities in the system and "claiming" rights at BSU if they decided in the next three years that they once again need another history professor. This is a bit strange, though. If they decide in 2025 or ‘26, for example, that they need another historian and I'm still living in Bemidji, why wouldn't they hire me anyway? I suppose someone who had been retrenched at another school in the system could "bump" in. Or BSU could decide they'd rather hire an adjunct or Fixed Term instructor. All this zero-sum calculating is a bit depressing. Do I even want to be part of this game of musical deck-chairs on the sinking ship?

And as I think about it, I'm getting the feeling that that's a real question. Do I
want a chance to reclaim a job teaching history at BSU, after they've retrenched me once? Is there a chance that this current situation is really temporary and that in a couple of years the university will recover and put itself on a path of sustainable growth? Or is the universe trying to tell me that it's time to close the book on this type of work and move on to something else. Advocating for Open Ed? Teaching freelance online? It's only day 43. I guess I can devote a few more to thinking it over.

Link to YouTube: