Abolish RTP! Visions of Transformative Justice
October 29, 2021
By Christine Rosales, Assistant Professor of Psychology
I want to share something that my body has been so kind enough to make me aware of, the heavy weight of “RTP.” Retention. Tenure. Promotion. I want to position my body for a moment. I am a twenty-something-year-old, I identify as a queer cis-woman of Central American Indigenous and European ancestry, as well as someone with white privilege who finds themselves moving freely in certain places unquestioned. Among some of my other embodied identities, I am the first in my family to go to college and I grew up working-class. Graduating from college was a dream come true, so was getting into grad school, graduating grad school, and becoming a professor. Despite all these accomplishments, I constantly feel disposable, my worth as a living being always hanging in the balance.
In a capitalist society, the weight of one’s disposability is so viscerally felt. We are to be in a constant state of production, and these states of production are so clearly delineated. Resting, taking care of our bodies, our homes, our families, our communities, embracing days of doing nothing but dreaming -- none are considered productive. In our work: responding to emails within 24-72 hours, always writing, publishing, serving organizations or institutions -- considered productive. This is not to say that any of these activities in the “productive” category are without value, but they limit what it means to be alive. I want us to boldly ask ourselves, what has the RTP process cost us?
I have a friend who works at another institution as an assistant professor. She writes about how social justice begins with building meaningful relationships. Something happened that affected me and challenged our friendship, so I asked if we could do a brief check-in. Her email: “given the demands of the tenure-track I cannot meet with you.” She never indicated when she could meet with me. It has been almost 2 years since she wrote me this email. I suppose maybe she meant that when she got tenure in 5 years, she could spare 20 minutes to chat with me and attend to our relationship. I find it ironic that she writes about relationships, but in real life she does not have time for them, or at least for ours.
I have compassion for her. Now that I am on the tenure-track I find myself neglecting relationships all the time, including my relationship with myself. Why? Because I do not want to be disposed of. I did not climb this nearly impossible mountain only to be pushed off. There is no plan B, no safety net. That I made it this far as the first in my family was much more than about pride, it was about survival. It was about evading domestic violence, being able to afford basic necessities, not having to see my mother and younger sister suffer, and having self-determination. Looming over me, RTP is a heavy, painful weight propped up by my body daily.
To be sure, I love my work. I do it because it brings me joy, but I do it pushing myself to my limits, because more than joy, I am motivated by the fear of failure. This is why we must have honest conversations about understanding privilege, intersecting identities, white supremacy, and settler coloniality as they pertain to who gets to thrive in these institutions and who does not. This is not a merit-based society. The early bird may get the worm, but for some birds the worm is poisoned and keeps them from flying.
Sidenote: I learned something about Sea lions that I would like to share. “Sea lions stake their claims on strips of beach and fight each other over them. [...] The guidebooks say their threats are “ritualized postures,” a particular form repeated. The guidebooks have a name for this territorial behavior. They call it “tenure.” (Gumbs, 2020, p. 84, emphasis added). I am reflecting on how the RTP process forces us to engage in “ritualized postures” in order to prove that we deserve job security, that we deserve to stay here, that we are more deserving than someone else who did not reach the acceptable marks. The RTP process is a deeply entrenched and compelling technology of settler colonialism in institutions of higher education.
Whose interests does the RTP process actually serve? Is the idea that if we did not have the pressures of RTP we would fail to desire our growth or accountability? I want to invoke a few scholars who have been recently denied tenure or fired at other universities: Drs. Nikole-Hannah Jones, Cornel West, and Garret Felber. Something they all have in common is that they vehemently spoke out against white supremacy. Lack of desire for growth was not the issue here. Yes, they were at other institutions, however, it does not change that the RTP process here at CSUMB is still invested in a particular logic (e.g., worthiness/deservingness defined by white supremacy) that is toxic to our personal and collective well-being. I want us to envision something different.
The work of transformative justice scholars-activists such as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and adrienne maree brown theorize on systems of disposability, such as prisons. Disposability is the idea that if people make mistakes, fail to conform to society’s standards, or commit crimes, they should be thrown away from society. These scholar-activists are invested in envisioning new systems, new ways of addressing conflict and helping to cultivate well-being in our society. These visions come hand in hand with abolition. Abolition is about dismantling systems that given their ideological core, are not reformable. One cannot reform prisons, for example, and call it a day because prisons are based on a logic of disposability. Further, abolition is not destructive, it is about building the world we all deeply want and deserve to have. It beckons us to have courage and faith, and to let our visions lead the way: “yes” to job security and livable salaries for all, “yes” to healthy relationships, “yes” to mental and physical well-being, “yes” to greater equity and justice… Can we abolish RTP? Yes, I know we can, and I believe we can build a system of faculty accountability that is more humane and equitable. These are my “yesses,” my visions of transformative justice deeply felt in my body.