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Utah to do away with professor tenure?

From the Leiter report: Lawmaker's bill would end tenure for Utah profs

This deserves a long scree, but it's late and I have a reading list quota still to meet. So I'll limit myself to two points:

  • One of the main reasons for tenure is to protect faculty who express unpopular opinions. Academia at its best should be about the free exchange of ideas. Recently a Brooklyn College adjunct had his contract threatened because of his views. Ultimately he was allowed to teach there, but only because of pressure put on the university administration. Adjuncts lack the kind of protection tenured professors get. I have no problem with bad teachers losing their jobs, but taking away tenure full-stop is going too far.

  • Tenure takes years to reach. All over Utah there are people who have been doing the things academics are supposed to do - teaching, writing papers, supporting their universities - in the expectation that if they met benchmarks they could reasonably expect tenure. It's not a hard-and-fast promise, true, but still it's an expectation agreed to by both sides. Which makes this monumentally uncool.

So much for the non-interference of government in private business, I guess...



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 16th, 2011 05:09 am (UTC)
It's not interfering in private business if they're state schools (which is what the laws would apply to). Doesn't make this any less troubling, though.
Feb. 16th, 2011 06:09 am (UTC)
Yeah, I thought of that. I'm not so sure what the legal status is. Yes, they get government money but they also get sizable private moneys. Where is the line, legally? We wouldn't think a corn manufacturer who got govt subsidies was a govt institution?

I don't know the answer legally. Ideologically it seems perfectly okay if a university employee criticizes a govt policy, where I might not say the same for a govt bureaucrat. So whatever the legal situation, I would think the general principle behind that idea would apply. But maybe not.
Feb. 16th, 2011 06:26 am (UTC)
Subsidies always blur the line between public and private, but I think the idea that these colleges have been historically state colleges, funded before subsidies became big, and that "public" is a part of their identity, makes them more open to state regulation than a private business receiving a subsidy that doesn't advertise that fact.

I should add that all private colleges get government money indirectly, if you count student aid as government money, and that the feds have used that to enforce compliance with affirmative action laws. (Two schools refused, the government pulled federal aid, and they've gotten their aid privately, as conservative cause celebres, ever since.) I guess my point is that it could be much worse? I hope that the academic outcry over the idea is loud enough to kill the bill.
Feb. 16th, 2011 06:42 am (UTC)
Yeah, I thought of that. I'm not so sure what the legal status is. Yes, they get government money but they also get sizable private moneys. Where is the line, legally? We wouldn't think a corn manufacturer who got govt subsidies was a govt institution?

Actually, public universities get FAR more in state and federal funds than they do in private monies and endowments. They are not just state-subsidized institutions, they are state-funded institutions. Their allocations come directly from the state's annual budget and most state legislatures have elected representatives who are specifically appointed to oversee university funding and budge allocations.

The private monies are relatively small at most state schools. It's one of the reasons scholarships at state schools are so stingily given relative to private institutions; the money is simply not there.

Also, in most states, every employee of a public university is a state employee and enjoys significant subsidies with respect to health care costs and discounted state services relative to those who work in the private sector. So a public university is VERY different than a corn manufacturer with a subsidy.

Idealogically it seems perfectly okay if a university employee criticizes a govt policy

Naturally. The whole point of the First Amendment is to allow criticism of the government, and employees of public universities have the same constitutional rights as anyone else.

But employment is generally at will (i.e. you can be let go at any time, just as you're free to leave at any time) and although tenure creates an expectation of continued employment, it creates no requirement that employment continue indefinitely. Also, employers routinely let employees go for expressing opinions that reflect poorly on the institution, even if employees are within their rights to express those opinions. Just ask any college football coach who said something asinine at a press conference how quickly they can be fired, lol.

As an aside, the university where my husband works (he's tenured) had a similar proposal on the table about a decade ago. The idea was to eliminate tenure and have all faculty appointed to 3-year terms which were then subject to review and renewal. In response, the faculty voted to unionize, and as this is a hardcore labor/pro-union state, this would have been a huge headache for the university, so the school caved and decided to keep the current tenure system in place.
Feb. 19th, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC)
You make some good practical points about where the money is coming from, and about the fact that professors at state schools are legally state employees As a child of public education (through my M.A.) I should have known more of that. You're right, my implication that state schools were like private businesses was misplaced.

You mention the football coach who is fired for expressing an opinion his employers disapprove of. Maybe this is because I'm an academic and not a coach, but I don't really have a problem with that. A coach's job isn't to express opinions of any kind, but to win ball games and nurture a program that is important to alumni and students. A professor's job is to help students learn a new subject and to further develop human knowledge in some specific area - both of which necessarily involve asking challenging questions. (In the first case, those questions can be pedagogical; I routinely ask my students why a certain position is wrong to get them thinking about their reasons behind an assumption, without really believing the position I'm having them question is right...)

This goes both ways, btw. My M.A. program had a psychology prof who was quite controversial for her gender views. She thought the best road to happy (heterosexual) relationships was for women to submit to men, both because of cultural expectations and innate human nature. In Cleveland this didn't go over in a big way, but just having her around and arguing for that view led to some really interesting (and useful!) dialogue. This was a good thing, in my view. In a big way she was fulfilling the role of the university and of education generally. It just seems like that's something that should be protected.
Feb. 16th, 2011 08:22 pm (UTC)
Lots of money gets spent on Education
So there's a big drive from investors looking for the next pot of gold to mine to privitize Education. Not because they can do things better, but because there's profit in it. (& they'll skimp on expenses to get more profit). Tenure & unions mess up the plan. Pfft.
Feb. 19th, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Lots of money gets spent on Education
I suspect as much. Look at the current debate over what's been dubbed the "sub-prime education lending market" - those for-profit colleges that accept unqualified students, get them federal loans, and then when the students don't make it the student or the state ends up footing their bill.

I do think there are some people who dislike professors on principle and think tenure is a bad thing. But I also suspect they're not the movers and shakers behind this move.
Feb. 19th, 2011 08:08 am (UTC)
I agree with julifolio: measures like these seem to aim at running higher education like a capitalist corporation, which is complete bullshit, since academia just doesn't work like that. The cynic in me is wondering how long it will take for some politician over here in Germany to catch wind of this and think it's a great idea to make our universities more competitive.
Feb. 19th, 2011 10:19 pm (UTC)
Academia shouldn't work like that but (at least in America) there is a real drive toward that. It's really quite sad... (And of course beyond frustrating.)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )



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