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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...



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.



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