Tenure Remains Vital to Academic Freedom

By James E. Perley We have seen major social and economic changes in all sectors of our lives in the past 20 years, and it is very clear that those of us who have devoted our professional lives to academic teaching and research are not immune from the pressures caused by these changes. The earth is shifting beneath our feet, eroding our job security and our role in shared governance of our institutions. Faculty members like me are being asked to cooperate as our institutions are changed for us by a growing number of professional deans and presidents, leagues of academic legal experts, and scores of consultants. It surely would be convenient for trustees and academic administrators if they had to deal with faculty members who were agreeable and compliant at every turn. It does make sense that we should be called on to help contain costs and sponsor new programs, and, in fact, most of us have done so during the past decade. If higher education has done anything for this country, it has been to consistently produce education of the highest quality through cooperation among teachers, administrators, and boards of trustees. In the last several years, though, this tradition of cooperation has been forgotten -- even actively rejected -- in a series of published "studies" of higher education, often financed by foundations, which increasingly are influencing the directions of academic policy. The American Association for Higher Education has commissioned a series of position papers that proclaim the advantages of "other pathways" -- outside of tenure -- to careers in colleges and universities. These studies convey the notion that academic freedom can flourish without tenure, that the growing hordes of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members in the professoriate are "satisfied" with their status, that younger aspirants for tenure would be glad to have it eliminated, and that institutional flexibility can survive only in a free-market employment structure. Then last fall, the Association of Governing Boards published a blue-ribbon study called "Renewing the Academic Presidency," which complained that including the faculty in shared governance had been the source of many ills in the modern university. Flowing from the reports I've described has been a flood of attacks on tenure -- almost in hopes that if the "sacred cow" is wounded, it may be time for the kill. The assault on tenure has developed in stages, though, over the past four or five years. First, we saw some moves to eliminate tenure altogether. The most notable was at Bennington College (which had only "presumptive tenure" to begin with). There, the move to fire many long-term faculty members was hidden behind a proclaimed need to achieve structural and programmatic reform. The faculty was told that the president and board had new visions for the institution and that they were frustrated by the complexity of consultation with faculty members. These leaders expressed concern about principle, but found basic fairness to their faculty to be dispensable. The remarkable thing about this case and others in which tenured faculty members have been fired in the name of "flexibility" is that they have been accepted by some as a brave new model for managing the faculty. Richard P. Chait -- a consultant who has found fame and a tenured position at the Harvard School of Education based on his views on alternatives to tenure ("A Scholar Provides an Intellectual Framework for Plans to End or Revamp Tenure Systems," The Chronicle, February 14) struck the motto in his unfortunate statement, "Let Bennington be Bennington." It also is significant that the sternest critics of faculty tenure and shared governance have become the heroic models in a new style of academic management. We see their presence in the latest phase of the onslaught against the tenured faculty -- the emergence of demands for "post-tenure review." Proponents seem to assume that faculty members are lazy and unproductive, never reviewed, and extremely complacent. Even those who should know better -- proclaimed friends of higher education such as C. Peter McGrath, a former university president and now president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges -- have taken up the call. He attacked tenure in The Chronicle recently ("Eliminating Tenure Without Destroying Academic Freedom," Point of View, February 28), writing as if he didn't know about the careful reviews given faculty members every year by their peers in the process of setting raises and promotions. He and other critics fail to acknowledge that we have always had post-tenure reviews, although we have tried to emphasize improvement over punishment in them. But those of us who are evaluated both by students and by our peers know that our annual reviews can bite pretty deeply into our income over time. Faculty members, however, cannot accept a kind of post-tenure review that gives administrators a unilateral right to terminate tenured faculty members without respect for due process. Many professors believe that trustees and administrators would like the freedom to change programs at will, without attention to standards of collegial governance. And they also suspect a desire to convert most of our positions to part time, producing a compliant and disenfranchised faculty. Consultants are very important in these moves against tenure, because they are thought to understand how to manage in a new "age of management." Highly paid, they are ferried from one institution to another to condemn or bless the schemes that emerge from boards and administration buildings. They tell impatient business people on boards of regents what they want to hear, using the language of the market. If I write with some anger here, it is because these trends are dividing an academic community that has valued collegiality in the past. Suddenly my colleagues and I feel that we have become villains. Why? Because we want to prevent the conversion of stable positions to temporary ones, and we insist that faculty members not surrender their mandate to question the new orthodoxies laid upon them. Not satisfied that increasing numbers of faculty members now hold positions in which they will never be eligible for tenure (22.7 per cent of those held by men and 36.4 per cent held by women), the new managers in academe seem to want more. Why shouldn't we suspect that they want us all to be disposable? What kind of intellectual community would that produce on our campuses? What kind of courage to instill a suitable skepticism in students? My guess is that Richard Chait will want the very best education for his daughter who is about to go off to college. Surely he would prefer to have her taught by full-time faculty members who will be available to answer her questions, not by teachers who must hurry off campus to teach at some other institution. The most recent justification that we have heard for eliminating tenure is an ingenious but seriously flawed proposition: One can separate academic freedom from tenure. Tell that to Joycelyn Elders, who was almost denied the right to return to her tenured medical-school position because of comments she made as Surgeon General about such forbidden topics as masturbation, condoms, and the decriminalization of drugs. Tell that to the teacher of introductory biology who is threatened with dismissal by a politicized school board for criticizing creationism. And tell that to the part-time faculty member who knows that getting a contract to teach next semester depends on satisfying the needs of the "consumers" in the classroom this semester. Academic freedom and tenure are inseparable because you can't be free if you're afraid of losing your job. If we faculty members are guilty of anything, it is our failure, to date, to rise as one and assert that essential link. The argument is being made that we no longer need tenure because our speech in the classroom is protected by the First Amendment. Perhaps, but I remain a skeptic. The First Amendment forbids the state to infringe upon free-speech rights. Thus it reaches state colleges and universities, but not private institutions like the College of Wooster, where I teach biology. Further, many activities that academic freedom covers may not fall into the legal category of speech. Curriculum design, textbook selection, syllabus preparation, and grading are everyday faculty activities that the courts may not equate with speech. The new economic realities reinforce faculty members' need for guaranteed academic freedom. Professors know that administrators do not want them to flunk students; they know that administrators tend to intervene in grading disputes to mollify students who feel that once they have paid for their credits, they deserve a grade just for working hard. If not protected by tenure, what faculty member would dare say that the child of a trustee had not earned a passing grade? The best lesson one of my sons learned in college came when his institution asked him to leave for a semester because his work was less than satisfactory. The lesson has returned great benefit to him in the years since his graduation. Finally, the argument that other workers in society are suffering and faculty members should not be immune from similar hardship is macabre. Why should we accept serenely the misfortune of others in an increasingly fractured economy? Despite the assaults against faculty members, I do see some encouraging recent developments. Faculty members have begun to defend their stake in higher education. The faculty at the University of Minnesota publicly voiced its deep concerns about the erosion of collegial governance that would have resulted from policies developed by its Board of Regents without faculty input. And the heroic efforts of the faculty at Adelphi to save the university from the mistakes of a dictatorial president and his supportive Board of Regents have sent principled warnings to trustees about their roles as guardians of a precious resource. These faculty members have added to their "proper" work enormous responsibilities as academic citizens. Committed faculty members want to be allies in running colleges and universities for the greater good of our society. Yes, there have been changes in the culture of higher education in the past few years. But tenure and collegial governance, linked firmly to academic freedom, have served us all, creating a model structure for the rest of the world. Abandoning those concepts threatens to bring the structure down. *Copyright (c) 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. http://chronicle.com [April 1997]