Attacks on higher education, and especially the issues of tenure for faculty are puzzling. Given the enormous growth that theUnited Statesexperienced post-WWII, driven in large part by the opening of access to higher education for ranks of returning service members, why the persistence in attacking practices in higher education as not producing desired outcomes?
Consider a recent (2007) United Nations report, which reveals that Americans stay in the office, the factory or the farm, longer than workers in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more per person over the year. American workers also produce more per hour than all workers worldwide, except Norwegians. In short, even in tumultuous 2007, theUnited States”leads the world in labor productivity”. (Klapper, 2007) Unlike other nations, our college graduates remain in theUnited States, working in organizations that contribute to the productivity measurement of the national gross domestic product, which as noted, remains one of the worlds highest. While not proof that higher education is more than meeting its mission expectations, it certainly raises questions as to whether the need for drastic reform in areas such as tenure is real or imagined.
Beyond basic economic questions that might support intense inquiry of higher education practices, other evidence of the contributions tenure has made to the quality of lie in the United States are highlighted by Allen (2000) who reminds the reader that the “academic careers of many professors whose sociological research exposed the prejudicial attitudes of racist leaders in the South during the Civil Rights era could not have been sustained without the link between tenure and academic freedom.” He goes on to state that “Tenure shields the academic profession from jingoistic pressures to compromise the pursuit of truth on the altars of ideological, political, social, and economic expediency” Sadly, we need only to look back a few short years to see how powerful political pressure can be on decision-making as politicians (admittedly not academics) who may have had doubts about the United States preemptive actions in Iraq were quickly labeled ‘unpatriotic’ by the sitting administration. While politicians will almost always be able to be silenced by name-calling and threats to poll numbers, academics should never fear speaking the truth, on one side of an aisle or another. What happens to research in medicine if faculty investigating a drug targeted at treating the latest high-profile disease are constrained by a lack of tenure, and pressure from administration to find in favor of the test drug, due to political alliances or financial incentives offered by the sponsoring drug company? Research is not generally a high-paid profession. Do we really want a system where faculty must choose between finding the truth or continuing to feed their family?
Clearly, the two previous examples – racism and medical research – are at the extreme end of tenure examples, but the academy has already allowed financial and political pressure to erode the practice of tenure. Practices of hiring non-tenure stream faculty are on the rise. According to a December 2006 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The sweeping shift toward non-tenure-track academic labor has been one of the most worried-over trends in American higher education.” This article, and others, continues to sound the alarm at the erosion of tenure, but with seeming limited success. It is difficult to defend the shift from tenure to contract employment as anything other than a financial tool for administration, as contracts serve primarily to “protect the employer from the obligation to continue employment regardless of economic conditions.” (Bess, 1998) This addresses nothing around quality, productivity, or other issues that are oft decried as the reason for eliminating tenure, and is a poorly-disguised escape button for administrators who fail to plan for the cyclical contingencies of programming in higher education. That said, examples do exist where the awarding of tenure amounts to little more than surviving a set number of years at an institution without incurring any major infractions. It is not doficult to find tenure processed decidedly lacking in any formal review process, such as the following excerpt from an institution of higher learning:
1. Teaching employees who have completed five (5) years of active service at “The Institution” shall be awarded the status of tenure.
2. Teaching employees will not be granted tenure unless such person has achieved a rank higher than instructor.
3. Non-continuance of a tenured faculty member shall be only on the basis of incompetence, incapacity (physical or mental) which renders them unable to perform their assignments, or in the case of a consistent failure to fulfill the responsibilities of the assigned position.
Having experienced this process up close, and personal, I can testify that tenure automatically attaches to faculty who reach their fourth year. To date, I have never seen a FT faculty member (the only faculty eligible for tenure) hired in below the rank of Assistant Professor, thereby nullifying item B-2. Incompetence is next to impossible to prove as the Union tends to “circle the wagons” and bury the administration in paperwork that is irrelevant to the issue of teacher competency, so that the dean or other administrator spends all their time answering questions about the letterhead used to communicate with the faculty member, the hairstyle of the persons reporting negative behaviors of the faculty member and the color of the suit I wore the day I approached the faculty member to discuss the issue at hand. Tenure policies like this one give fuel to the complaints that business and industry lodge against the academy and besmirch the real intent of tenure protection, making a mockery of it. The answer, however, is for other institutions within academia to pressure institutions who give away tenure – not for legislators and businesses to pressure all institutions to abandon tenure as a practice.
In closing, the sign that hung in the office of Albert Einstein at Princeton sums up the issue of productivity nicely: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
The lesson of Albert Einstein and tenure extends beyond his Nobel prize. It is little known that Dr Einstein was a frequent and vocal advocate for civil rights in a time period that was not friendly to the ideas that all men – especially those of African descent – are created equal. In this country in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond, speaking out to support equal treatment of the Black American was highly unpopular and in many cases, dangerous. Interestingly though many of Einstein’s accomplishments and opinions post-Nobel were followed closely by the press, his fervent support of civil rights was often ignored. Few people realize that in 1946, he visited Lincoln University (PA) – the first school in America to grant college degrees to blacks, and spoke of the “disease of white people” (racism) asserting boldly that he did not “intend to be quiet about it.” He went on support causes associated with equitable democracy and civil rights through the 1950s – the infamous era of McCarthy Communist witch hunts. It was a dangerous era to be outspoken against the senator from Wisconsin, but as a tenured professor, Einstein had more protection than the average citizen. In 1951, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the NAACP founders, was indicted in federal court for failing to register as a “foreign agent”. DuBois was 83 at the time, and Einstein, true to his convictions, stepped up and volunteered to provide a character witness for DuBois. His prominence eventually convinced the judge to drop all charges. (Gewertz, 2007) Again, without the protection of tenure, even with his fame as a Nobel Prize winner, Einstein may not have been able to as freely support important causes, that in hindsight, we know were crucial to our society’s moral advancement.
Tenure, as controversial as it is, should remain as one of the guardians of our fragile democracy. For all its alleged abuses within the ivory towers, our society has realized logarithmically more benefit from the free speech and activism that tenure has protected than could ever be measured by productivity analyses.
Allen, H.L. (2000, Fall). Tenure: why faculty, and the nation need it. Thought and Action, The NEA Higher Education Journal, 75-88.
Gewertz, K (2007, April 12). Albert Einstein, Civil Rights activist: Little-known aspect of physicist’s life revealed. Harvard University Gazette Online, Retrieved from http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2007/04.12/01- einstein.html
Klapper, B. S. (2007 September 3). U.S.workers lead world in productivity. The Albuqueruqe Tribune.