WASHINGTON -- A former graduate student at Yale writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that she has purged her shelves of certain professors' books because she can no longer read them "without literally becoming nauseated." What sickens her is that the professors resisted recognition of a graduate-students' union. That is just one form of the strife that is depressing the quality of increasingly expensive college educations.

Last year, to protest what they consider "exploitation," Yale graduate students who are teaching assistants conducted a "grade strike," refusing to turn in grades for the undergraduates they had taught. Now the National Labor Relations Board may be reversing its view that graduate students are not employees and therefore their organizing and negotiating activities do not come under the protection of federal labor laws.

Yale argues that teaching assistants' classroom experience is part of their apprenticeship; that educational values would suffer from any institutionalizing of an adversarial economic relationship between graduate students and their mentors; and talk of exploitation is hyperbolic, given that 90 percent of Yale's graduate students pay no tuition and that doctoral candidates receive approximately $130,000 worth of tuition waivers and stipends.

However, intensifying talk about "the crisis of academic labor" and the need for "class awareness" by the academic proletariat involves more than just the familiar self-dramatization of the academic left. A two-tier faculty system -- tenured or tenure-track professors, and everyone else -- is increasingly common. Criticism of the tenure system reflects current tensions and illustrates this: Academics' resistance to changes in fundamental arrangements and privileges is as intense as their advocacy of changes for the rest of society.

The shriveling of the academic job market reflects budgetary problems related to public finances, and a pool of potential students inadequate to the enrollment needs of tuition-hungry institutions.

There is a crisis of overproduction of Ph.D.s and underconsumption of scholarship. To save money, schools rely on "gypsy scholars" drawn from the reserve army of unemployed Ph.D.s. They are hired on short-term contracts but are not on the tenure track and are denied benefits.

Twenty years ago, 25 percent of all faculty members were part-time. Today 42 percent are. Such reliance on insecure educators exacerbates grade inflation because renewal of their contracts often depends heavily on favorable assessments by students.

However, one form of academic security -- tenure, usually decided on after about six years -- is increasingly criticized as the source of both scholarship inflation and class conflict on campuses. Combined with the ending of mandatory retirement ages, tenure convinces many younger scholars that upward mobility is blocked.

The principal path to tenure is through publishing, usually articles in academic journals. This "publish or perish" pressure is producing a silly proliferation of journals to carry articles, almost none of which will ever be cited in any scholarly work.

Tenure is a virtually unassailable form of job security. The University of Texas at Austin currently has 1,371 tenured professors and in the last 25 years only two have been terminated.

Tenure is usually defended as essential for the preservation of academic freedom -- as one scholar puts it, for "the protection of the university as a place where inconvenient questions can be asked." Conservatives will be forgiven for thinking that tenure serves not the protection of valuable diversity and dissent but rather the self-perpetuation of an intellectually homogenous class that considers conservatism inconvenient.

Actually, tenure may chill the academic freedom of younger faculty who become risk-averse because of fear of offending senior faculty who have tenure to give. Thus a case can be made for giving tenure not to senior faculty, who have had time to demonstrate that they either do not need it or do not deserve it, but to junior faculty for, say, a dozen years, and terminating tenure when the rank of full professor is reached.

Re-examination of tenure is part of the largely wholesome turbulence coming to campuses as the public experiences "sticker shock" about the price of the product and dismay about its quality.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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