Q: Should Colleges and Universities Abolish Academic Tenure?

By Reiland, Ralph; Burgan, Mary | Insight on the News, November 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Q: Should Colleges and Universities Abolish Academic Tenure?


Reiland, Ralph, Burgan, Mary, Insight on the News


"Inside the academy, tenure is a bit like sex in the Victorian age - untouchable," observes Russell Edgerton, president of the American Association for Higher Education. Academic tenure - the guarantee of permanent employment at a college or university - has been a perk of senior pedagogues since the Middle Ages and still is widely regarded as the pedestal that upholds academic freedom.

That pedestal is being hammered by a cost-conscious board of regents at the University of Minnesota that wants to change the tenure code so that it can lay off faculty whose academic specialties are not needed due to changes in enrollment or the closing of campuses. The university's faculty senate rejected the proposed change by a vote of 121-1 on October 24, a move reflecting the so-called "civil war" between faculty and regents. The situation has gotten so hot that Gov. Arne Carlson has called upon both sides to cool off.

The flap over tenure in Minnesota is unusual chiefly because the regents are willing to publicly challenge an almost sacrosanct institution. Without tenure, defenders of the practice argue, professors in fear of academic deans or political bullies would fail to strike out toward new, diverse paradigms of knowledge. In theory, tenure allows schools to become islands of progress and tolerance. In practice, tenure creates the opposite - a community of like-minded individuals, insulated from change.

Witness the fruits of tenure at Stanford University: Not a single Stanford professor teaching African-American studies, psychology or feminist studies last year was a Republican, according to Aman Verjee, editor of the Stanford Review. Verjee surveyed the political affiliations of Stanford's faculty and found that in the departments of sociology and anthropology, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 26-to-2; in the department of English Democrats held a 33-to-2 edge; in the law school, it was a 23-to-4 Democratic landslide; in history and political science, it was 48-to-6. Overall, more than 80 percent of Stanford's professors were Democrats, making the faculty about as politically diverse as the editorial board of Mother Jones. "No one accuses departments of political discrimination. No committees are set up; no reviews of discrimination in the tenure track are conducted," reported Verjee to the Washington Times.

In this campus cocoon of political correctness and uniformity, one wonders how a monolithic and tenured faculty would judge a junior professor who deviated from the party line by publishing "The Argument for Lower Taxes" or "How Performance-Based Merit Pay in Education Benefits Students."

On top of promoting uniform thinking, tenure undermines the link between performance and job security, providing lifetime contracts based on a few years of good early performance. That's like guaranteeing a salesman at General Electric a job until 2030 if he hits his quota from 1996 to 1999. "Every department contains tenured people who did not live up to their early promise," concludes English professor James A. Winn, in a September 1992 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. "The time has come to think about alternatives to tenure," Winn suggests, possibly "a system of renewable appointments, perhaps for a period of six years, with a guaranteed sabbatical at the end."

Since 1993, a half-dozen institutions have eliminated tenure, including the College of the Ozarks and Lindenwood College in Missouri. Their actions did not go unnoticed by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, which last year put Lindenwood on a new blacklist of institutions said to have violated principles of academic governance.

Albert J. Simone, president of the Rochester Institute of Technology, advocates a post-tenure review to improve faculty performance. "To develop everyone's talent," argued Simone in the Chronicle, "you need evaluation." Post-tenure reviews are being implemented at the universities of Kentucky, Hawaii, Colorado and Wisconsin, as well as several other colleges and universities. …

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