The Magical Mystery Tour of Tenure in the Land of Oz

A playful reading yields an academic allegory.
By Robert T. Jerome, Robert N. Horn, and David Cavazos

The Wizard of Oz has long been a part of American culture, although more people are familiar now with the 1939 movie interpretation than with L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 book. Not only did the movie create several milestones in cinema, but it also generated widespread exposure to the Oz story over the decades as film became popular. To most moviegoers, The Wizard of Oz is a delightful children’s story about the travels of Dorothy to the enchanted land of the Munchkins and the somewhat scarier world of the Emerald City. Readers of the original work are subjected to a much darker satirical account of life in the late nineteenth century. Like many other popular literary works—including Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and Alice in Wonderland, as well as works in other media, such as Star TrekThe Wizard of Oz has attracted allegorical interpretation, whether the author intended such readings or not.

The Oz story has inspired social, political, and economic interpretations. One well-known example is H. Rockford’s 1990 article, “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory,” in the Journal of Political Economy, which considered the debates over bimetallic monetary systems in the late 1800s. In Rockford’s reading of the book, the yellow brick road represented gold-backed currency while the silver slippers (they were ruby red in the movie) were a symbol of the Populist push for a silver-backed currency. Rockford even argued that “Oz” alluded to the ounce as a measure of gold’s weight.

Another popular interpretation is that the story is a feminist allegory. All of the powerful characters, from Dorothy to the witches, are women. Baum, regarded as a supporter of woman’s suffrage, might have been influenced by his feminist mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Cage, a colleague of Susan B. Anthony.

The universal appeal of the story is evident in two diametrically opposed interpretations: one interpretation considers it a religious allegory about encountering sin and its oppression on the way to an Emerald City heaven while killing the sinful witch with the waters of baptism; another considers it an atheistic allegory about finding a human as the spurious “supreme-being” Wizard, obfuscated by the smoke and mirrors of organized religion.

Adding to all of these interpretations, we read The Wizard of Oz as an allegory of the tenure process in American higher education. As the story opens, we first meet Dorothy Gale, an innocent young woman living on a farm in Kansas. In our view, Dorothy is like a graduate student doing final work on her thesis— in an academic environment yet isolated from the competitive pressures and politicking of university faculty and administration. Her arrival in Oz and the ensuing adventures are akin to a new faculty member beginning the process that eventually leads to a (hopefully) favorable tenure decision. The Wizard of Oz presumably has the power to return her to Kansas but Dorothy must contend with a host of nefarious characters on her journey down the Yellow Brick Road toward tenure. Although this interpretation is anachronistic—Baum wrote the book before the modern tenure system had come into existence—academics may discover from our reading that the land of Oz is more familiar than they thought.

Kansas: The Graduate Student

The drab and predictable environment of Dorothy’s farm in Kansas reflects the routine but stressful life of a graduate student. High levels of self-generated student stress concerning academic achievement are evident in Dorothy’s panic over threats by Miss Gulch (an agent outside the university structure who has been offended—that is, “bitten”—by some aspect of the search for truth) against her dog, Toto, whom she cares for and protects much as a new faculty member would guard her academic integrity. Dorothy’s aunt and uncle (lower-level administrators) chide her for not being more sensitive to the counting of the chicks and running of the farm (administrative initiatives), and they initially ignore Dorothy’s pleas. Dorothy discusses her plight with the farmhands (junior faculty), but the administration retains the ultimate control, reminding the others of possible unemployment as a consequence of colluding with Dorothy. Finally, as a result of Miss Gulch’s complaint, the Gales insist on giving up Toto to save the farm abandoning academic integrity in favor of meeting administrative goals.

Oz: The Probationary Period

Dorothy gets Toto back and returns to the farm just in time to be hurled away by a tornado, a representation of the turmoil of the job market that separates graduates from their graduate programs and delivers them into an environment different from what they experienced as graduate students. Upon landing in Oz, Dorothy meets Glinda (an administrator) before being introduced to the Munchkins (students), while the Witch of the West, another administrator, appears soon thereafter. Whether the new job involves dealing with students or research assistants, the new assistant professor first encounters various administrators, both from the interviewing process and in orientation programs. The relationship between the witches seems conflicted, much as relationships among administrators often appear, which is especially confusing to a new faculty member, and Dorothy reveals some degree of confusion over the relationship between the witches in the administrative hierarchy. What is unambiguous, however, is the intense political intrigue between these two administrators. Specifically, it is not clear whether personal self-advantage, the good of the institution, or the benefit of the new faculty member is motivating either administrator.

Even within this uncertainty, the job begins, and Dorothy, a new faculty member, travels along the yellow brick road (the progression toward tenure) and along the way meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, whose deficiencies represent figuratively some flaws faculty members may find in their colleagues. Dorothy notices her colleagues are more narrowly focused than her training on the “farm” (which our allegory equates with graduate training) taught her to expect. The Scarecrow, who admits to having no brain, represents faculty who have given up creative thought and the broad perspective, treating some narrow aspect of their discipline as the only viable truth-generating method. These colleagues identify one method or model and use that approach exclusively and repeatedly. Scarecrows tend to apply discipline-specific models and methods holistically to situations that violate the underlying assumptions of the approach while making no provision for the specific conditions of the case. Behaviorists who eschew the use of models altogether might also be found in the scarecrow ranks.

The Tin Man has no heart and consequently represents faculty who have no compassion for their research or students. The Tin Man blames the tinsmith for his inability to care, in the same way faculty often blame others, such as the administration, for their own shortcomings. Determined to process data without consideration of the way in which the results can benefit humankind, these academics seek to measure anything, often using large data banks to prove empirical results—which may be statistically questionable but nevertheless are touted as true. The Tin Man’s lack of compassion extends to the students, manifested in lectures without relevance, lack of availability, and surly attitudes.

Finally, Dorothy meets the Lion, a representation of colleagues who rely on bullying their peers and students to accept their positions. Lions have no courage to pursue new ideas or even question the prevailing trends. Even if creative and competent, these academicians accept poor research techniques and obviously flawed interpretations without question. For example, some economists conflate correlation with causality, inferring motivation when it’s impossible to measure. They also passively condone poorly specified models and symbiotically coexist with the scarecrows and the tin men. Lions present themselves in committee meetings and in class as omniscient but they lack both the skill and inclination necessary to convey their “truths,” omitting any justification or defense.

Confronted with various examples of academicians, each of whom has a serious identifiable deficiency, Dorothy must reconcile probable career outcomes and her value system. Similarly, throughout this informal indoctrination period, the untenured faculty member tries to understand the values and relationships within the university. When the Witch of the West threatens the Scarecrow with “firing” and the Tin Man with obsolescence (“I’ll make a beehive out of you”), Dorothy observes firsthand evidence of the witch’s (administrator’s) harshness toward her colleagues that attempts to threaten and divide the faculty. But concurrent with the administrative threats, collegiality among the faculty increases, and Dorothy’s friends seem to be willing to help her arrive in the Emerald City (that is, to prepare for tenure review).

On the way through Oz, Dorothy and her colleagues pass through a field of poppies. The numbing effect of the poppies is similar to the effect of the time that passes between submitting an article for publication and getting a response from journal editors. Dorothy and her colleagues fall asleep (become unproductive), and it is the role of Glinda, through an annual evaluation or some other spell breaker, to help the somnambulant faculty members get back on track.

The Emerald City: Tenure Review

Eventually the group reaches the Emerald City (tenure review itself), where Dorothy glimpses the promise of a tenured position but has to prove herself worthy to the Wizard of Oz (the tenure-review committee). The position of wizard reflects the mystery, unnaturalness, and ambiguity associated with the tenure decision process. As expected, the demands for achieving a favorable decision are based in part on past performance but also on how the faculty member fits into the administrator’s “plans” for the future. Dorothy is asked to capture the Witch of the West’s broomstick (calling to mind the nearly impossible hurdles set out by the tenure evaluators), which has little to do with her ability to reside in Kansas. Nevertheless, the Wizard has the power to demand that all sorts of unrelated tasks be performed; during tenure review, such demands may range from verifying that students have learned something useful to them ten years in the future to measuring the quality of ideas presented in committee meetings. In the process, flying monkeys—like faculty members from the department and across campus who have been directed or are otherwise motivated to complicate or obstruct the tenure approval process—join the fray to prevent Dorothy from successfully meeting the newly specified demands. Throughout the process, the witches (various administrators), the palace guards (administrative pawns), and the monkeys (hostile faculty members) may be motivated by their own individual agendas to manipulate Dorothy (use the tenure candidate to further their own goals).

Epilogue

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is successful in satisfying the bizarre and taxing requests of the Wizard, and she returns to Kansas. It is not clear whether she will be able to return to the “purity” of teaching and scholarship or will end up more like one of the incomplete scholars she leaves behind. It is a matter of some interest whether her traveling partners remain in academe to repeat the process with new hires, become administrators, or leave academia for other pursuits.

Our allegorical reading establishes parallels between the story of The Wizard of Oz and the early career of a typical faculty member. Perceptions of a graduate student vary significantly from those of a new faculty member, and the required adjustment is sometimes difficult. Part of that adjustment may involve the transition from the pursuit of truth and knowledge to the adaptation of a professional survival model, much of which is specific to the department and institution in which the new faculty member finds herself. There are many distractions, poor role models to emulate, and a political environment that is legendarily difficult to maneuver. Nevertheless, just as Dorothy survives, so do many new faculty members, and the academic profession continues to exact often unreasonable demands in exchange for the increasingly rare and elusive reward of tenure.

Robert T. Jerome is professor of economics at James Madison University. He has served in various positions in administration and in the faculty senate. His email address is jeromert@jmu.edu. Robert N. Horn is professor of economics at James Madison University. He has served as director of the JMU Studies Abroad Program in Paris. David Cavazos is associate professor of management at James Madison University. He has extensively researched business firm self-regulation and proactivity.

 

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