The faculty tenure war: vital shield or gravy train?

The Argument

The debate over lifetime teaching guarantees poses surly laziness against intellectual integrity.


March 24, 2002|By Stephen Vicchio | Stephen Vicchio,Special to the Sun

Since the development of a hybrid German / English University model in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century, the debate over the question of tenure has largely been a story of accusation and invective. If the combatants are to be believed, it has been a tale of boogey men and sacred cows, or shall I say, boogey men or sacred cows.

On the one side of the issue, the affirmative side, professors argue, with all the fervor of the prophet Jeremiah, that the very existence of academic freedom and the ability to attract and retain new faculty are at stake in any contemplation of significantly revising or eliminating academic tenure. (Thus, these folks see the other side as boogey men ready to steal away a hard-earned perk.)

On the other side of the question -- often populated by the presidents and members of the boards of economically struggling colleges and universities -- the argument usually goes something like this: The granting of tenure is an antiquated practice, a wrong-headed nod to a time when professors had little or no accountability to their students or their institutions. Tenure makes professors lazy and surly, and places them in the first-class compartment of a gravy train, where the throttle and breaks are in the hands of established and self-interested faculty. Chief administrators and trustees sometimes argue that tenure is a sacred cow that needs to be killed because it has out-lived its usefulness.

For members of the general public this, indeed, must seem like a strange debate. Boogey men vs. sacred cows, Godzilla squaring off with Chicken Little, and the ring located in an ivory tower, somewhere outside the experience of even the best educated Americans.

Although this battle over tenure seems largely to be an intramural sport, it has societal implications. Indeed, the question of tenure is perhaps most importantly seen as part of a larger complex of issues, related to the nature of the university in the beginning of the 21st century, what counts as work in this culture, and who has power in the arena of higher education, particularly in the public sector.

In the best of this country's public universities, a professor's progress and abilities are measured, at least in principle, by three separate yardsticks: teaching, scholarship and contributions to the college and larger communities.

In practice, the first and third of these evaluative tools are irrelevant in many top-tier public institutions. The sheer, unvarnished nature of the attitudes toward teaching in these universities can be seen by the fact that they often call their time in the classroom their "teaching load," while working on research and writing projects is dubbed "research opportunities."

Indeed, while high school teachers regularly teach six to eight courses a day, and public community college instructors typically spend 12 to 16 hours a week in the classroom, in the best of our public universities, a top professor may spend three to six hours a week teaching. In general, professors do not make that time up by giving back to the community in significant ways, rather they write books, often specialized tomes that have little or nothing to do with what we would even very broadly think of as the interests and concerns of the general community.

Surprisingly, outcries from regents and trustees about the tenure track being the rails of the gravy train are often not heard at the best of public and private universities. The scrutiny often comes from the board rooms of second- and third-tier schools, where professors are often better teachers with more classroom responsibilities and more community service than their counterparts. In the big schools, money talks, and its language is government grants and large contributions to already large endowments.

In the midst of this complex and often contradictory set of facts comes The Questions of Tenure (Harvard University Press, 334 pages, $35), edited by Richard P.Chait. Over the past two decades Professor Chait, himself, has become a human lightening rod of sorts for both the specific question of tenure and some of the larger issues about the nature and meaning of faculty work.

From the faculty side, Dr. Chait has been called an "academic hypocrite," and a "snake oil salesman." (He has tenure at the Harvard School of Education.) Trustees regularly praise Professor Chait for his even-handedness and his understanding of the economic factors that often come into play in modern higher education.

Indeed, in at least one case, at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Chait's economic comments were embraced by the regents, while his recommendations about preserving a slightly modified version of tenure, were not. Thus, Professor Chait has become over the last 20 years a walking, breathing invitation for ad hominem invective or for partial and often overdone praise.

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