What academic tenure can, and cannot, do for colleges

December 03, 1996|By Ted Hendricks

THE ADOPTION, by the trustees of Baltimore County's community colleges, of guidelines abolishing tenure for new faculty is sure to be applauded by those in, and chiefly out of, higher education who have been long argued that academic tenure is an unnecessary and outmoded benefit.

These critics claim that granting faculty members ''lifetime contracts'' burden colleges with redundant and expensive personnel and protect the lazy, the senile and the incompetent.

These criticisms are the result of a widespread misunderstanding of what tenure does and does not do and of the reasons colleges offer it.

An award of tenure is not a ''lifetime contract;'' it does not prevent schools from setting a mandatory retirement age. (Federal law does, and that is part of the colleges' problem.) Tenure does not guarantee rank, salary level or promotion. Nor does it guarantee working conditions: colleges may increase their faculty's work load and change an individual instructor's course assignments and hours. Tenured faculty may be disciplined and dismissed for incompetence and for misconduct.

Tenure does not protect faculty members whose programs or department are eliminated, as happened at Essex Community College last year and Goucher College some years ago. Finally, tenure does not protect faculty members if the school goes out of business altogether. When the state took over the Community College of Baltimore, the entire faculty had to reapply for their jobs to the newly-constituted Baltimore City Community College.

Like civil servants

In fact, tenured faculty have no more job security than classified civil servants -- probably less, since government agencies seldom shut down entirely. Tenure is also harder to obtain. In addition to the stiff educational requirements for the particular position, colleges require applicants for tenure to teach on a probationary basis for up to seven years. Then the application for tenure must be approved by vote of the other members of the applicant's department. All that tenure really does is protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal for personal or political reasons.

Critics who complain that tenure forces colleges to make long-term commitments to expensive employees don't realize that tenure actually keeps their labor costs down. Civil-service protection and academic tenure are granted for the same reasons: to keep a skilled, highly specialized work force in place at the lowest possible cost. The vast majority of college teachers, like civil servants, earn relatively modest salaries. Like civil servants, professors accept them in the expectation of having some job security.

Alternative to tenure

If colleges and universities did not offer tenure, they would have either to pay premium salaries or settle for a much lower caliber of faculty. Colleges that have tried to hire faculty without promising to offer tenure have found it difficult to attract talented teachers, while those that have recruited prominent scholars have found themselves paying salaries that might make professional athletes envious.

Tenure benefits the school by encouraging faculty members to contribute to campus life. Because they are not preoccupied with lining up their next job, tenured teachers can support the extra-curricular activities that are such an important part of the educational experience. Tenure also allows faculty members to take a responsible part in the governance of the school by taking administrative responsibilities that transient instructors would shun.

Finally, it is largely because of the tenure system that American colleges and universities are the most innovative, diverse and independent in the world. There is no evidence that tenured faculty turn into ''dead wood,'' that they become fossilized or unproductive. The security of tenure allows faculty members to take chances with new methods and ideas. Tenure makes college teaching attractive to young people from a broad segment of society, not just a financially privileged class.

Protects independence

Above all, tenure protects the independence of our colleges and universities. It protects freedom of speech and opinion throughout the campus. And by making it virtually impossible for trustees and public officials to use faculty appointments to reward their relatives and supporters, tenure keeps our colleges from becoming partisan or ideological bastions.

Abolishing tenure will not solve the Baltimore County community-college system's financial troubles; it will only discourage faculty members from helping to solve them. The drop in enrollment due to the economic recovery is a cyclical problem for all community colleges. It should be dealt with by cyclical belt-tightening. The loss of income from federal tuition reimbursements won't be offset by denying tenure to future hires.

The real problem is the community colleges' over-dependence on job-training programs. The original mission of Maryland's community colleges was not to train caterers and heavy-equipment operators, but to prepare students to enter bachelor's programs at four-year colleges. Baltimore County's community colleges should return to the business of providing the basics in math, science and the humanities. That is where their tenured faculty can help.

Ted Hendricks is a former staff member and adjunct instructor at Anne Arundel Community College.

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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