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Tenure

December 13, 2009

We all live in a world of myths and illusions.  Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize this, and they believe that their myths and illusions are actually truths.  The ramifications of interacting groups holding different beliefs can be found in any newspaper on any given day.  They range from local debates about “controversial” books in  school libraries between social liberals and conservatives, to never-ending debates between evolution deniers and biologists about what should be included in high school biology curricula, and it culminates in deadly serious debates (wars) between fundamentalist religious groups (Jews vs. Muslims in the Middle East, Hindus vs. Muslims in India,  Protestants vs. Catholics in Northern Ireland, etc.) or between groups with different political philosophies (communists vs. capitalists).  In short, it is not hard to offend  some group, by making factual statements that threaten or contradict their beliefs.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts” is a common modus operandi.

Universities are places were people study all kinds of movements, phenomena, ideas, people, and events.  Although university faculty have their own myths and illusions, their training is designed to enable them to recognize their beliefs for what they are and to rise above them.  The goal of their research is to discover the facts – to strip away myths and illusions in order to reveal the truth.  How successful they are at this is much debated, even among university faculty.

As noted, the problem for university faculty is that most people don’t want to hear the truth. Hence university faculty who make statements that offend some group in society are routinely threatened with dismissal by politicians who are trying to appease their irate constituents.  What saves us from dismissal, of course, is tenure.  Tenured faculty cannot be dismissed, except for a just cause.  Tenure is the foundation of academic freedom.

Although university administrators routinely state that they consider tenure to be essential and that they will do everything in their power to defend it, during a financial crisis, tenure becomes a problem for them.  The majority of a university’s budget is tied up in faculty and staff salaries.  Not being able to fire tenured faculty greatly constrains what an administrator can do to reduce expenditures.  Trying to circumvent or curtail tenure becomes a great temptation, and administrators sometimes succumb to this temptation.

Some of our administrators are clearly being tempted.  Specifically, some of them are claiming that faculty are tenured within a given department.  This strikes the faculty as completely nonsensical (ludicrous, ridiculous, inane, etc.).  A faculty member does not get tenure as a result of a departmental action.  Nor is this position supported by any historic precedents.  Lots of reorganizations of departments, and even colleges, have occurred over the years, and in no case did anyone lose tenure because a department or college was eliminated.   I have been involved in two different departmental reorganizations, and the department in which I was originally hired no longer exists.  I did not lose tenure, nor was it even suggested that this could happen.  If a faculty member could lose tenure as a result of an administrative reorganization, the university would never be able to restructure administrative units again.

Why do some administrators want to push this absurd position?  Why are they scouring the faculty handbook for any sentence or phrase that can be  misconstrued to support it?  Desperation?  Ignorance?  Hubris — the illusion that they know best?  Who knows?  In any case, the long history of attempts by university administrators to circumvent tenure typically results in lawsuits and lots of embarrassing publicity for the university.  It would become very difficult for the university to hire new faculty if the institution was to be censured by the AAUP for trying to fire tenured faculty without just cause.

In the literature on how to deal with university budget cuts, administrators are routinely warned not to tamper with or threaten tenure in any way.   For example, the American Council on Education’s publication, Faculty in Times of Financial Distress, has a section appropriately titled “Ideas That Can Backfire.”  One of these is eliminating tenure:  “…stripping tenure from current faculty members may lead to breach of contract litigation, difficulty in future faculty recruiting, declines in student and alumni loyalty, and possible accreditation problems.”

The belief of some administrators that they can selectively terminate tenured faculty by closing departments is a dangerous illusion.  If they act on it, it can have only negative consequences for them and for the future of the university.  The sooner they recognize this, the better.  If they don’t, then conflict between the faculty and administration becomes inevitable.  This will make dealing with the university’s budget problems much more complicated and difficult, and this is in no one’s best interests.

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