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Randall Balmer: The War on Tenure

Sunday, July 05, 2015
Having crippled Wisconsin’s public employee unions and survived a recall effort, Scott Walker, the state’s governor and a presumptive presidential candidate, has now set his eyes on curtailing tenure at the state’s universities. Because it is so widely misunderstood, tenure is a broad and tempting target, one ripe for the kind of demagoguery that has made Walker a darling of the far right and, reportedly, a favorite of the Koch brothers. Doing away with academic tenure, however, is a colossally bad idea.

Tenure is a system akin to an apprenticeship or the process by which an attorney becomes partner in a law firm. Typically, someone newly out of graduate school is hired on a “tenure-track” line and given the title assistant professor. Over the ensuing six years, that assistant professor seeks to make herself indispensable to the institution that hired her — not unlike an associate in a law firm. The assistant professor does so by demonstrating competence in the classroom, by service to the department and the institution (committees and the like) and, most important, by dint of research and scholarship as evidenced by peer-reviewed publications and participation in conferences.

It’s a tall order, especially for those with children. The academic “apprenticeship” often occurs at a time when young scholars are starting families.

In the run-up to the sixth year, the assistant professor compiles a dossier of publications, teaching evaluations and testimonials to both his scholarship and, very often, his character. Departmental colleagues solicit the judgment of others in the field and then decide whether or not to recommend the scholar for tenure.

If the recommendation is positive, the case proceeds to some judicatory body within the institution (this varies somewhat from school to school). That decision then goes to the dean, provost and/or president for a final decision that then is ratified by the board of trustees.

If the case falters at any stage of this process, the assistant professor is given one more year at the institution and then he or she must leave. If, on the other hand, the assistant professor is granted tenure, he or she is promoted to associate professor and effectively enjoys a lifetime contract. Only under extreme and unusual circumstances — the institution’s financial stringency or a grievous moral lapse — can tenure be revoked.

Some institutions are more stringent and demanding than others, of course, and having been tenured at two Ivy League institutions, having prepared tenure cases and having sat on tenure committees, I can attest that it’s an exhaustive and exhausting process. The bar for tenure is high, as it should be.

But the payoff is the holy grail of academic freedom. Tenure frees a professor to pursue the life of the mind, to ask any question, to follow any line of inquiry wherever it may lead. Being tenured means that I cannot lose my job over something I say or write. No one dictates to me the subject of my next book. With the security of tenure and in the spirit of academic freedom, I am free to pursue any research agenda, to advocate for any cause, to take any political position or to criticize anyone without fear of losing my job. The president of Dartmouth may not like me or my opinions, but he would be hard pressed to fire me. (I have no idea, by the way, if he does or doesn’t.)

After tenure, the expected trajectory is that the scholar will continue to be productive. On the basis of further scholarship, she will earn promotion to full professor and then, in exceptional cases, be appointed to an endowed chair.

Do some professors abuse tenure? Absolutely, and that is why Scott Walker’s proposal is likely to be popular. Many people revile academics as lazy, out of touch or hopelessly liberal; there may be a smidgen of truth to these charges, but in my experience that is more caricature than reality, and we should always be wary of generalizations. Not every law enforcement officer is a racist, for example, nor is every immigrant a rapist (as Donald Trump recently suggested) or every evangelical a homophobe. Some academics invite popular obloquy by their imperious deportment, and many refuse to communicate beyond a very tight circle of colleagues — and do so in jargon so recondite as to be incomprehensible.

My observation over the past 30-plus years, however, is that more often than not the abuse of tenure lies in the realm of omission rather than commission. Sadly, too many of my colleagues (at Dartmouth and elsewhere) regard tenure as a sinecure, a destination rather than a way station on a professional career marked by intellectual inquiry and continuing, robust scholarship.

Why is tenure important? In 19th-century America, when most institutions of higher education were still religiously based, professors lost their jobs if they challenged the school’s regnant “orthodoxy.” Donors at times also tried to dictate the hiring or firing of professors, thereby making scholarship and education susceptible to the whims of special interests. Academic tenure, which emerged early in the 20th century, protected against those impediments to academic independence, and most institutions have strict rules that prohibit donors from dictating the incumbent of the professorship — a restriction, by the way, that the Koch brothers are reportedly trying to circumvent by funding endowed, narrowly defined professorships at various schools.

Tenure is the system that Scott Walker seeks to dismantle at the 26 campuses of the state university system in Wisconsin. He wants to remove tenure from state law and vest tenure decisions with the 18-member board of regents, 16 of whom are gubernatorial appointments. The proposal would also make it easier to revoke tenure, including “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

Walker’s proposal is all the more insulting because the University of Wisconsin was a pivotal, early battleground for academic independence. In 1894, Richard T. Ely, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was brought before the regents and charged with teaching socialism. Ely, an Episcopalian, was one of the founders of the Christian Social Union and was associated with the Social Gospel, a Protestant religious movement closely allied with progressivism, which sought the passage of child labor laws and advocated the rights of workers to organize.

The Wisconsin board of regents, however, turned aside the charges and affirmed Ely’s freedom to write and advocate as he pleased without fear of censorship or termination. That case is considered one of the key precedents for academic freedom. Ely went on to build the university’s economics department into one of the most important in the nation. He was greatly influential in the passage of the Social Security Act of 1937, and the Episcopal Church honors Ely and his work for economic justice with a feast day, Oct. 8, on its liturgical calendar.

Without job security, Ely’s voice for justice would have been muted. Without tenure, a researcher’s hypothesis might never be tested or a critical review never published for fear of reprisal. A scientist’s findings on primate behavior or climate change might never see the light of day if those conclusions anger a donor or an administrator.

In this age of ideological polarization and corporate-dominated media, free inquiry and independent voices are more important than ever. Tenure provides a modest, albeit imperfect, guarantee of such independence. A tenured professor need not trim his sails to tack with the political winds or placate powerful interests.

That, I suspect, is what is behind Walker’s efforts to devitalize the tenure system at the University of Wisconsin. Independent, critical inquiry is crucial to a free society. It’s also what Walker and his allies fear most.

Randall Balmer was recently named the John Phillips Professor in Religion, the oldest endowed chair at Dartmouth College.

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