Misconceptions about tenure.

14 02 2010

I really don’t want to discuss the murders at the University of Alabama – Huntsville, but this paragraph about tenure in the latest AP story on that subject deserves unpacking because it’s designed to make professors look like the elitists that most people think they are:

Tenure, which makes firing and other discipline difficult if not impossible, can seem generous to outsiders. But the job protection gives professors the freedom to express ideas and conduct studies without fear of reprisal. The system typically emphasizes research over teaching, and tenured professors typically are paid more.

Let’s handle this in pieces:

which makes firing and other discipline difficult if not impossible

Actually, it’s not that hard to fire someone with tenure if they do something awful; commit a crime, sexually harass people, dereliction of duty, etc. Granted, most professors don’t do that so I’ll grant that part of the sentence.

It’s the part about other discipline that makes me upset. This makes it sound as if tenure is just a license to be a jerk to anyone. It’s not, of course. Every school I know of has disciplinary procedures that still apply to tenured faculty. The argument would be over whether the reason for a disciplinary action has anything to do with academic freedom, but being a jerk certainly isn’t. Otherwise, more tenured professors would act that way all the time.

More importantly, the scope of activity protected under tenure is eroding all the time. Here’s the AAUP discussing the latest court precedent in this direction:

The foundation of the project is a comprehensive report by an AAUP subcommittee that examines the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos that determined government can restrict the speech of public employees when they comment on issues related to their “official duties.”

Although the decision specifically set aside academic speech, recognizing that additional constitutional interests were at stake, several lower courts have ruled recently that faculty members who speak out on matters affecting their institutions are not protected under the First Amendment.

If faculty can be disciplined for speaking out on “matters affecting their institutions,” whether or not they’re being a jerk about it, then they have no more protections than any other employee even if they do have tenure.

And back to that first quote:

“But the job protection gives professors the freedom to express ideas and conduct studies without fear of reprisal.”

Of course that’s right, but there’s been a shift here. The first sentence deals with jobs only, this one deals with why those job protections exist. Tenured faculty don’t get job protection for reasons other than to protect their speech and research. It’s easy to bypass academic freedom if your university is broke. I wonder if any tenured faculty at Antioch College thought they couldn’t be fired?

The system typically emphasizes research over teaching, and tenured professors typically are paid more.

While the AWARDING of tenure “typically emphasizes research over teaching,” the reasons for tenure make no such distinction whatsoever. Nevertheless, the reporter just had to throw this line in there in order to make professors seem more elitist. And tenured professors are paid more because they’ve been employed at their institutions longer than people who don’t have it.* Why is that relevant here at all?

I think I’m starting to understand how Al Gore felt during the 2000 campaign.

* OK, I’ll write one thing about Bishop. This AP story says that she was hired as an associate professor in 2003. I’ve heard of people being tenured and not promoted, but how can you be hired at that level and not have tenure? Was that a typo or are the sciences a whole different ballgame than the humanities on this front?


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