TENURE IN COLLEGE POSITIONS


Tenure was initiated after WW I in a period of expansion of new ideas and much political turmoil around Communism, in order to ensure freedom of speech and thought for college and university teachers. This was to be an "in house" arrangement, since the courts had not yet faced such problems in academe.

But it offered little protection in the l950's, when witch-hunting overrode all notions of freedom. By the mid-l960's colleges like my own, which had only "presumptive tenure" for Full Professors, established tenure proceedings, but in those days of low-pay and small competition for jobs, no great attention was paid to the procedures for arriving at tenure. Here at my college everybody but one poor soul got tenure, and life continued much as before.

But with the national adoption of the Up-or-Out rule after half a dozen years as Assistant Prof., the whole situation changed. Many considered this a healthy move, why keep a person hanging in the scales, give the teacher a clear directive and let him/her go elsewhere for a job. But that was a time of relative expansion, good times for the economy, and those who left one place generally landed somewhere else, often to their advantage in view of their accrued experience.

But now, in tighter decades, this has taken on a sinister note. Tightening up the "standards" and using them as part of a revolving-door policy, an Administration faced with economic reality and/or a hard-headed Board of Trustees, can use Tenure decisions to ensure a high level of turnover. This in turn means a real saving in costs, something which business has been doing regularly since the downturn of the late l980's. So when we speak of "getting Tenure", we are probably not much concerned with freedom of speech and thought. (A New Hampshire English teacher fired for sexual remarks in class, won $230,000 costs and back pay through the courts recently. Freedom of speech is now a civil matter.) Although the Unions have generally downgraded in the last generation, Tenure still seem to represent a Union-style "job security" issue, probably that is now the main thrust of the term.

There is nothing wrong with this, one would be glad to have Tenure backing when opposing a Trustee who endorsed negative ethnic quotas. But the reverse of the coin is that for those who don't get Tenure, there may, nowadays, be no teaching position at all, and the fact that the handful of lost years goes on your CV as "failed"---- these were not the intentions of the original Tenure concept.

Many academicians think of the term University as embracing the world's knowledge in an encompassing educational venture, but the history of the term is different. Actually Lat. UNIVERSITAS is the regular term for a "corporation" under the Empire, often we forget that American colleges are based on a strict l9th c. pattern of the Corporation, with Trustees "owning" it, directing it, and overseeing it. Organized as a (non-profit) business, the Corporation hires a CEO (President) who hires Deans and adjuncts, then hires Professors along with service people and janitors, custodians....

So when a Department makes a recommendation to give Tenure to a tested faculty member, it is only proferring a suggestion to an Administration (which has Veto power itself) for possible referral to the Board of Trustees, which is the final source of authority for writing legally-enforceable contracts for promotion and Tenure. This is a long chain of authority, with the professors at the bottom end having small share in the final decisions. But who should know better what is best for a given department, the Trustees and Deans who "operate" the school, or the departmental teachers who "operate" the teaching program?

And remember that each department in a college or university has different needs at different times. A Classics Department may need the finest teachers available to rebuild a field that has been dragging, while the Department of Biology may need on the staff several researchers whose main function is to keep up with areas of research, comb the journals for new information and directions, attend conferences to compare their own new work with new work world-wide. (Years ago the Harvard course-guide noted that it might be worthwhile to take a certain basic Chemistry course if one wanted to be in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner, but you couldn't be able to hear him past the fourth row.) There are different functions for different Departments and fields, and of course the needs are liable to change generation to generation.

Which brings us back to the problem of who has the best knowledge of field and department needs. Clearly it must be the faculty of that Department, but since there exists, whether formally or invisibly, a Faculty Senate, the Department must air its views to the Faculty since it is the sum of the parts which conform the whole. Yet responsibility must be founded at the bottom, the ancient rule which is the basis of a democratic society.

Is this whistling in the air? Not at all. There is change in the air, and if a series of educational Departments in a given school decides that they are to write the Tenure Rules for their operation, and vote in a Faculty Meeting to change the Rules for Tenure, allowing the kind of local-government which we prize so tenaciously in our state and town self-government ---- it is conceivable that one school will make a significant change in its Tenure arrangements.

Such a change cannot be ignored, and I believe that after the first step, changes will spring up in many places. The resistance may be stronger than I am suggesting, there may be more of a fight. But it is worth fighting to ensure the honorable status of teachers qua teachers, as well as researchers as researchers. An academic world in which each teacher is automatically assigned (cloned) to be 50% this and 50% that is not only unachievable, and unreasonable, and unworkable educationally. It overrides all sense of the special talents of the individual teacher, as well as the needs of the program at that point in time.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris