Tenure critic to receive Towson U. honor

Professor says action is `like inviting wolf to chicken coop'

January 08, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Faculty at Towson University might be forgiven a double take when they see Richard P. Chait receive an honorary degree from their institution tomorrow afternoon. After all, some among them might be tempted to put a noose over Chait's head instead of the colorful hood that represents the honor.

That's because Chait is seen as a critic of the tenure system, the virtual lifetime job guarantee that some say ensures academic freedom, but that others say only allows early retirement at full pay.

"There will be many faculty members who will be nonplused at this guy getting an honorary degree, that it's like inviting the wolf to the chicken coop," says Jack Fruchtman, a Towson political science professor who chairs the school senate. "The irony is that tenure is designed to protect academic freedom and this guy is symbolic of the academic dissenter."

Timothy E. Sullivan heads the school's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, among tenure's most fervent proponents.

"It does seem a little odd," Sullivan, a professor of economics, says of the honor for Chait. "On the other hand, times change and institutions must change with them."

This is rather mild rhetoric for Chait, a professor of education at Harvard University who has endured some brutal verbal brickbats since he started studying tenure 20 years ago.

"I have previously likened tenure to the abortion issue," says Chait. "There are those who genuinely believe that abortion is the impermissible and immoral murder of a human being. If you believe that, there is not a lot of room for negotiation."

Academic protection

Chait says some in academia feel that strongly about tenure, the promotion system giving protected job status to those who have met often subjective standards of academic achievement after five to 10 years in the system.

"There are those who genuinely believe that just engaging in this line of research is heretical or traitorous," he says. "They use all kinds of terms. I have been forced to wear labels it is not always pleasant to wear. Those kinds of aspersions are cast by a relatively few people.

"What is more discouraging is the larger group of people who on the basis of limited information reach conclusions about our work," he says. "One would hope that academics would be a little more careful to read and understand people's positions before reflexively labeling them in a highly critical way. I guess it comes with the territory."

Sullivan says Chait should not fear such criticism at Towson. "It is appropriate to ask questions about where we are going," he says. "Being an absolutist is not intellectually stimulating."

But Sullivan defends the tenure system, saying that AAUP began after a Stanford University professor was fired in 1915 because his political views offended the wife of Leland Stanford. Stanford's money founded the school.

"The idea was that the views of a large donor should not decide who is on the faculty," Sullivan says. "Your work should be validated by other professionals.

"A lot of academic research requires that you take controversial opinions. People need to be encouraged to push boundaries to learn what we haven't known before," he says. "Sometimes you need protection to do that."

Towson President Hoke Smith says Chait is getting the degree in part because he has had the guts to wade into these treacherous waters.

"We are commending Dick Chait because during his distinguished career he has followed his quest to an enlightened discussion of sensitive issues on college campuses," Smith says. "We recognize his commitment to embrace controversy and seek reconciliation."

Chait, who has been tenured at three institutions, spent a decade at the University of Maryland, College Park before moving to Harvard in 1996. "Those were the happiest years of my life," he says of his time at College Park. He also served on the Goucher College board of trustees for nine years during that time.

Chait first started looking at tenure in the late 1970s. He co-authored a book on the subject in 1982, then turned his attention to university governance and boards of trustees before returning to the issue of tenure five years ago.

Only one system in place

Chait says he takes no position on tenure, other than to question the one-size-fits-all model that has virtually every higher education institution adopting the same tenure system.

"Like almost any other fundamental policy, it is not a panacea and it is not a poison," Chait says of tenure.

"The greatest difficulty is that we have roughly 3,700 colleges and universities, and we only have one basic model of a tenure system," he says. "There's not as much experimentation, variation and local flexibility as one would think might be necessary and useful."

"The same system that works for the Johns Hopkins medical school, for example, might not work for, say, the French department," he says.

He thinks that a change in the tenure system is inevitable.

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