Don't Eliminate Tenure Just to Trim Deadwood

Article excerpt

UNIVERSITIES and major league baseball have one thing in common: It's tough to fire bums. Guarantee someone lifetime employment, and the result is a nonproductive, outdated snob who shows up for class two days a week to lecture from yellowed, tattered notes.

In eight states, discussions are taking place about professors and their unique employment. Deadwood is the key term in these discussions.

Tenure is an appalling concept to those who survive solely on the basis of performance. That's because discussions about tenure's elimination are based on free-market notions, such as "If you're good, you can always find a job," and "Tenure doesn't matter if you're doing your job."

Yet within tenure's genesis lies the justification for its continuation. Tenure exists because of religion. Education was originally an extension of religion in its ecclesiastical focus. Even academic regalia has its roots in priests' robes. Scholarly work challenging that religious base was grounds for termination. The Puritans, for example, ousted the first president of Harvard College for his heretical beliefs.

German universities first recognized the need for an educational environment that fostered freedom of thought - lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and lernfreiheit (freedom to learn). Tenure provided these freedoms. Research and discussions that might pierce the veil of religious thought were protected.

The concepts of academic freedom and tenure emerged in the United States when Darwinism could not find a research or teaching home in higher education. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) became the proponent of tenure in the US in 1915. Without tenure, research would have been controlled and limited by the insecurity of faculty, who frequently were fired for challenging the Good Book.

American courts embraced the connection between the freedom and ability to speak candidly and the need for stability of employment. Justice Felix Frankfurter described professors as "professors of democracy" who fulfilled a unique role of seeking information and expounding on it.

Critics point out that, unlike the Darwinesque era, antidiscrimination protections as well as limitations on employment-at-will now exist. Yet, tenure and the freedom to speak remain inextricably intertwined. Socrates's life might have been different if he'd had tenure. Tenure protected free-market thinkers such as Milton Friedman during the Keynesian era, just as it protected regulatory advocates during the roaring 1920s.

Most schools today are government sponsored or, at a minimum, government beneficiaries. The insertion of religious views and morality in lectures outside of religion courses is risky business. …