Is academic tenure a relic of the past or a necessity for today? Posted by: McQ
on Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Today's Atlanta-Journal Constitution brought a guest op/ed which attempts to make a case for university tenure in the face of a decision by a newly opened college which has plans not to offer it to its professors.
Hugh Hudson, who is a professor of history at Ga. State Univ. and executive secretary of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors is aghast at the idea and, in so many words, likens the decision to the end of civilization as we know it. His argument is a classic of emotionally laden language and specious argument. Hudson begins by asking if tenure matters:
It matters for our children; it matters for our democracy. Do we desire our children in college to learn to be obedient, to yield in matters of the mind to the powers and prejudices of the moment, or do we desire our children to learn to think for themselves, to analyze a claim, and to articulate the truth as best they understand it, without fear or favor?
We're barely 3 paragraphs into this and it's already "for the children", and if that's not enough, for heaven sake, our very democracy is at stake.
The real question here is why is tenure necessary to teach children how to learn to think for themselves? Or to analyze a claim? Or articulate a truth as best they understand it, without fear or favor? Hudson's argument is they can't unless professors have tenure. However the vast majority of the "children" will be doing all of those things, if they are taught how to do them, without the protection of tenure ... you know, actually risking something to do so.
An academic environment wherein faculty and students do not have due process protections to permit the challenging of both the power of received wisdom and of administrative force is not one in which students can be prepared to succeed in the competitive world arena in which Georgians must now make their way.
Faculty who fear reprisal for arguing inconvenient truths and challenging dogma cannot teach our students to demand proof for assertions, to require that claims be justified by evidence, to demand, as citizens, that power serve people, not the other way round.
First tenure does not provide 'students' with due process. Nor is tenure a requirement for an academic environment which provides due process. Said another way, due process does not require tenure to exist. And it is certainly something which can exist as a process outside of tenure.
However tenure, in many way, thwarts due process by granting guarantees which in many cases prevent universities from taking what any person would consider reasonable action against misbehaving faculty who have the guarantee. It isn't just about arguing "inconvenient truths and challenging dogma", but the fact that many tenured professors can be found arguing dogma and refusing to address "inconvenient truths".
If Hudson is so concerned about due process, how would he address that?
Hudson then claims:
Tenure exists to protect society from the tyranny of the majority, to allow the minority to argue its case and submit its ideas for debate within the marketplace of ideas without fear of punishment from those temporarily exercising academic or political power. Tenure simply demands that dismissal be for cause and that due process be followed. Our founding fathers understood that necessity of free academic inquiry and justice for democracy. We appear to have forgotten.
Funny, it could be argued that tenure subjects society to the tyranny of the minority in that it allows the minority to argue its case without penalty and it also allows that same minority to refuse to allow the other side to be heard.
The decision to strip faculty of the right to a hearing for cause before dismissal at Georgia Gwinnett College was quoted as being justified by needs of "flexibility." Board of Regents policy currently provides a mechanism for dismissing tenured faculty in bona fide cases of program discontinuance or severe program modification.
Here Hudson makes his only valid point in the entire article. And it should be addressed although "dismissal for cause", any cause, is how the rest of us in the real world operate everyday, and we are rarely treated to a "hearing" should our employer decide it is time for us to go.
Hudson ends with a paragraph which should, frankly, make anyone who wrote it while claiming to be a history professor cringe:
Tenure is accorded for the common good of the academy and society. Tenured faculty members, to the benefit of society as a whole, are free to teach, do research, publish and participate fully in civic and institutional life. When necessary, and often it is, they are free to rise to the defense of the outspoken or in defense of academic freedom. Without that freedom, we would all still be required to argue that the world was flat. Neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany had tenure. There was a reason.
First we get the common good argument. Then the claim that only through tenure are faculty members "free" to do what Hudson believes they must do - academic freedom, apparently, cannot survive without it, or so he claims. He ends with a blatant and tendentious claim that we risk becoming Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union if we do away with tenure.
This of course is an obvious attempt to manipulate opinion with a false equivalence. Tenure, even if it existed, would not have saved any professor in either place. If Hudson thinks the Nazis or Soviets would have been turned aside from arresting a professor just because he was tenured, I'd have to laugh. He knows full well that's not the case, but it certainly didn't stop him from trying to pass it off as an "inconvenient truth" did it?
Tenure grants a special status which has come to be seen as a right of the profession. It forms an elite unanswerable to anyone. And among the radical-egalitarian crowd, which I would guess includes the vast majority of tenured professors, this sort of thing should be anathema. Obviously, however, its a matter of "what is good for thee, not me."
Like unions, tenure, at one time, may have been necessary in the absence of work place procedures and systems that provide due process. For the most part that's no longer a problem, and society is realizing this relic is more apt to be abused by those who hold it than it is worth.
OK, Shark, I’ll weigh in. First to Robb: Right now I’m teaching a "Summer Experience" week of classes for first year students. We have given them a very strong message: do not be afraid to think for yourself, be willing to disagree with your professors, and seek your own analysis, do not look for us to give you the "right" answer (unless you’re doing something objectively verifiable — you can’t have the opinion 2+2=5). Believe it or not, most college professors I know hate the idea of "indoctrination" and I’m just as proud of students who are active in the College Republicans as the College Democrats, or who are pro-war or anti-war. Indoctrination is anti-academic.
Shark, I have mixed feelings on tenure. It’s purpose is to defend the right for professors to research and advocate positions that may be politically incorrect. It’s to make sure that, for instance, political pressure on a university to remove a professor who took an unpopular stand can’t work. Or, if, for instance, a climitologist undertakes research that goes against the global warming consensus, there aren’t internal or external attempts to remove that person for the nature of his or her research. I’ve seen and heard of times that protection is needed, both from the "left" and the "right."
However, it does allow for professors who do choose not to engage in research or slack off on teaching to know there is little that can be done to force them to improve their performance. It also decreases flexibility when programs need to change. Ultimately I come down on the fence on this one. If there are contractual provisions that assure that job removal can only be under certain conditions that are performance related (research, teaching, service, etc.) that could well be superior to a blanket tenure. (Usually even tenured professors aren’t protected in the case of major progam change, like closing down an academic program). If protections are in place that political opinions or research agendas will not be the reason for dismissal, something more flexible than tenure makes sense. Tenure is in part a relic of when university teaching was an elite profession. Now it’s part of mass education; universities are no longer elite institutions — at least half of high school students go on to college. We need to protect academics from political and social pressure so they are free to explore ideas and question society/authority, but we have to have ways to hold people accountable if they don’t teach well or stop working.
Billy, I’m pretty sure there are a number of places already which do not have tenure. People tenured in the past are grandfathered, but I think (I haven’t actually looked into this, I’m going by what I’ve heard from colleagues) many universities are moving away from tenure. So the experiment has begun.
As far as I know, people who "come down on the fence" get whacked in the nuts by the top rail of the fence.
As a lowly adjunct, I oppose tenure. People get paid a hell of a lot more than I do to do the same job I do because they have tenure and I don’t. (I’m not talking about research universities here— I’m talking about community colleges.) Plus, because I’m just a lowly adjunct, I effectively get fired and re-hired by the same institution two or three times a year, so when I go to apply for a mortgage, my income doesn’t count, only my husband’s does because he has a salaried job. I haven’t had a raise in 8 years, and the institution I currently work for cancels my classes half the time so I get to choose between being unexpectedly without work or suddenly overburdened with work. I had to go teach for a second institution that pays half what the first one pays, just to see that I get work every semester.
It’d be a very different world if the high and mighty professors had to deal with the same pressures I’m dealing with. Whether it’d be a better world, I don’t know, but I’d sure like to catch a glimpse.
Sorry Scott, but that made me laugh. You wrote one and a half paragraphs to say ’can’t decide’. Thanks for the snicker.
If I had more time I’d have cut it down. That’s the curse of being able to type really fast — writing drafts means writing a lot, and then to get something of quality I have to cut, cut, cut. Alas, I didn’t have time today so I just zipped something out and sent it.
Wacky Hermit: you raise a really good point. Hiring adjuncts is a way to get around tenuring people. That creates two classes — the tenured, safe and secure, regardless of job performance, and the adjuncts, subject to termination first if budgets demand, regardless of teaching ability. That’s not fair.
Scott Erb: Thanks for your input. I have never once heard an answer to the tenure question from a tenured academic that lands "on the fence". In fact I have never even heard a dissenting position on the topic from a tenured individual. It was refreshing to hear a neutral position.