Tenure Plays an Important Role in the Academic Mission

Representative Curtis Oda’s bill allowing me to club or shoot cats I deem feral is a good idea, unless you think about it.

Similarly, Representative Christopher Herrod’s bill that would end academic tenure at public universities in Utah in the service of accountability and competition is a no brainer, unless you think about it.
The words Mr. Herrod features -- accountability, competition, and taxpayer -- are potent. So are the words I would highlight: accountability, competition, and citizen.

If we’re nothing but taxpayers, the only relevant questions about education are whether our money is being spent in ways we want it spent.

If we are citizens, however, we’re engaged in the common exercise of figuring out how best to meet the needs of commerce, science, law, education, and so on. For the most part, we leave educational accountability to disciplinary experts, just as philosophers and linguists leave lawmaking to the lawyers and politicians and the business investments to those skilled in business. Where needed, of course, we also offer our reasoned critiques of one another. That’s exactly what I’m doing here.

Representative Herrod’s bill is a critique of another sort. It joins Senator Howard Stephenson’s “degrees to nowhere” speech as unsubstantiated politicking. If tenure is a problem, if a history degree is worthless, the persons making the claims ought to back them up with facts and with good arguments. It is a serious business to show disrespect to fellow citizens engaged in professions that we all depend on.

Academic respect is earned in part as professors hold themselves accountable. For six years, disciplinary colleagues test an assistant professor against the scholarly, teaching, and service standards that tenure requires.  Some years later, associate professors who convince colleagues that they are even more productive scholars and teachers than when they achieved tenure are promoted to the rank of Professor. It’s a long, rigorous, thoughtful and ongoing process.

Why is Representative Herrod opposed to professors with tenure? He must have in mind a mostly incompetent teacher/scholar whose job is guaranteed for life, a welfare professor of sorts who lives unproductively but comfortably off our taxes. I’ve seen a wide range of professors, some better than others, for sure. I have also seen a good many denials of tenure. Department reputations are built on the quality of their professors. Students are drawn to fine departments. Awarding tenure to someone whose work would lessen that quality is so deeply problematic for any program that it is unlikely. Deans and Vice Presidents and Presidents and Boards of Trustees provide additional quality checks. Competition? Accountability? Indeed.

Tenure exists primarily as a bulwark against attempts to apply political pressure on professors as they go about their research and teaching. Tenure also allows members of the faculty a wide range of options as they take part in the shared governance that is a hallmark of university excellence.

John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy organized the American Association of University Professors early in the twentieth century to develop standards of academic freedom, due process, and shared governance. All American universities now base their academic policies on those standards.

The AAUP “Statement of Principles” argues that “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. . . . The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” Tenure plays an important role in that free search and exposition. Let’s not tinker with a principle that is serving us well.

Scott Abbott
President of the UVU Chapter of the AAUP, Professor of Integrated Studies

[appeared Saturday, 19 February, 2011 on the Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Page]


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