Harvard Conference Offers No New Insights
Tenure, an institution as hallowed as
universities themselves, has been subject to a torrent of criticism in
recent years, forcing academics to decide whether it is a college’s
hallmark of academic excellence or the bane of its existence.
That’s how administrators and observers of university life saw it
at a day-long conference at Harvard University on October 9, where
defenders of tenure espoused its virtues as the seat and the symbol of
true academic freedom.
But its detractors criticized the current forms of tenure for being
not only costly to increasingly expensive institutions of higher
learning but also for fostering intellectual laziness among faculty.
Lifetime employment, they say, robs schools of much needed discretion
and prevents them from ejecting dead weight.
The truth may lie somewhere between the poles.
“We have a system that is not perfect, without question, a system
that is subject to challenge,” said Irwin Polishook, a defender of
tenure who is president of the Professional Staff Congress at the City
University of New York.
The conference — sponsored by the Project on Faculty Appointments
at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a three-year initiative
supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts — was designed to inform
journalists, primarily, about tenure and some of the pressing
employment-related issues in the academy. It opened with a lively
debate between two defenders and two detractors of tenure.
The morning debate, titled “What’s at Stake?: The Current and
Future Role of Tenure in the Academy,” was moderated by Margaret
Warner, chief Washington correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim
Lehrer. The panelists included Polishook; Lamson Rheinfrank, a former
trustee of Williams College in Massachusetts; Ken Arnold, a state
senator in Colorado: and John Duff, president of Columbia College in
University managers around the country have been debating whether
tenure has outlived its usefulness. At the University of Central
Arkansas, professors next fall will be asked to choose between having
tenure or more money and a three-year renewable contract.
Administrators at the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution,
claim they offer high quality instruction without bogging the school
down with the administrative and financial costs of providing tenure to
Polishook, a purist among the panelists, said tenure should be
preserved at all costs. Besides, he said, the academic environments
that educate best and produce the kind of research that improves
society by leaps and bounds tend to have tenure.
“Academic freedom has existed with tenure in all the ages of the
academic institution,” he said, responding to Arnold’s assertion that
academic freedom cannot be absolute.
“I have a problem with faculty when they don’t stick to curriculum and bring in their personal biases,” Arnold said.
He also said that tenure would impede a university from dismissing
professors who, for example, would defend sexual relations between
professors and students. Arnold noted that college students are in
their formative years, when they are most impressionable and vulnerable.
“If we don’t protect them, who is going to do it for them?” he asked, rhetorically.
Academic freedom should exist up to a point, he said, adding that
the line is crossed when an instructor’s material “affects the morals
and the mores of our country.”
Those mores and morals, Polishook argued, are subject to scrutiny
by thinkers who can only do their best work if they arc free from
governmental meddling and fear of losing their posts for unpopular
positions they hold. As examples, he pointed to anti-war sentiments and
advocating for labor unions as positions that were once attacked by
government or college officials.
His concern about totalitarianism-like repression is supported, he
said, by the fact that a government official is openly espousing
censorship in academia. This is precisely why academic freedom should
be protected with vigor, he said.
“Professors have to be free in order to teach students,” Polishook
declared. “We have to insulate the academy to do what it’s supposed to
do. People have to have freedom, and tenure and academic freedom have
to be connected.”
John Duff, of Columbia College, took a more moderate view, saying
that academic freedom can exist without tenure. However, he said that
the reasons tenure must be sustained are evidenced “almost monthly.”
According to Duff, the frequent denial of sabbaticals, merit pay,
and other privileges for professors who do or say the wrong thing in
the view of administrators or senior faculty make the strongest case
Duff predicted that innovative research topics could be killed
arbitrarily if a professor’s superiors do not agree with either the
professor or the topic. This, he maintained, would stifle ideas and
intellectual growth. Additionally, the college president said that
speech codes at places such as the University of Wisconsin have moved
higher learning institutions closer to imposing gag orders on its
“It is an increasing problem in many ways,” Duff said. “There are professors who are afraid to speak out.”
Rheinfrank, grasping onto Duff’s statement that academic freedom
can exist without tenure, said colleges are becoming unwieldy, spending
more and more money but receiving fewer hours from professors in the
“You can’t manage [school finances] with lifetime employment,” he
said, adding that abolishing tenure would substantially reduce the
costs of running colleges.
Citing statistics challenged by Polishook, Rheinfrank said that the
productivity of instructors in American colleges has dropped 67 percent
since 1965. He also asserted that professors, particularly those with
tenure, now spend an average of one-and-a-half hours a day teaching,
compared to four hours a day in 1965.
Rheinfrank said that professors at schools without tenure tend to teach about three hours each day.
He also lambasted the practice of shared governance, where tenured
professors have a say in how things are done at the school, in favor of
a top-down system with a corporate feel.
Calling for “post-tenure review” to inspire lazy professors,
Rheinfrank also said that future universities will be tenure-free.
“The incubation period on tenure has been reached,” Rheinfrank said. “It will be phased out.”
But Polishook said American education should “stick to what works.” And Duff insisted, “Tenure is not breaking the bank.”
The conference also featured a parallel panel discussion on
alternative faculty employment arrangements such as the one at the
University of Central Arkansas.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com