Conservatives Hate Tenure (Except for Clarence Thomas)Roundup
tags: Republican Party, academia, Clarence Thomas
Conservatives, in general, hate the idea of academic tenure. I say this not only as an impression after 35 years in academia (most of them while I was a Republican), but also because conservative officials are taking concrete action against tenure now in states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. (Republicans have engaged in similar attempts over the past several years in North Dakota, Tennessee, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and several other states.)
Decades ago, when conservatives were more consistent in their views, their position on tenure proceeded from their worship of markets. They argued that no other business would protect employees from the consequences of poor performance or even misconduct with an unbreakable contract. A coherent position, perhaps, but one rife with incorrect assumptions, as I’ll explain below.
Full disclosure: I have been denied tenure twice, and granted tenure twice. I’ve chaired a tenure committee, and been on both sides of the tenure process. Often, it’s not a pretty business, but it is essential to higher education.
With some variations between small colleges and big professional schools, the tenure process mostly looks like this: A new teacher with a Ph.D. holds the rank of assistant professor for three years, at which time they face a contract renewal for another three years. During that next contract, they will “come up for tenure,” an up-or-out decision, much like the cut the U.S. military makes after certain ranks, or when a professional firm makes decisions about partnerships.
The applicant submits a package of accumulated work, and his or her department will also ask senior faculty at other institutions to review the entire file and submit letters with their recommendations. (I have been asked to write such letters myself.) The entire package then gets a recommendation from the department and is sent up to a higher body, drawn from other departments and usually convened by an academic dean. A final recommendation is then sent to the school president. At any point in this process, the candidate’s application can fail.
There are multiple layers of review here, and sure, there are many opportunities for mischief. (A classic move, for example, is for committee members to solicit letters from reviewers they know will either support or torpedo a candidate’s application.) Candidates who succeed become an associate professor; the title of full “professor” comes years later and requires another complete review in most places. After tenure, faculty are insulated from firing for just about anything except gross misconduct or financial exigencies—say, if a department is eliminated or cut back.
But “misconduct” covers a lot of ground, and tenured faculty are far from unfireable. Falsifying research, engaging in sex with with students (at least, at those schools where such relationships are forbidden), nonperformance of duties (like not showing up for class), and criminal behavior can all count. My first tenure contract was with a Catholic school that had a “moral turpitude” clause, which as you could imagine can mean many things.
Tenured faculty, however, cannot be fired for having unorthodox or unpopular views, for being liberals or conservatives, for failing your kid no matter how smart you think Poopsie really is, or for being jerks in general. This is as it should be: Some opinions will always be controversial; some teaching styles rub people the wrong way; some classes are harder than others. There are, to be sure, cases where professors are so wildly offensive that they functionally destroy the classroom environment—but such cases are rare and should be adjudicated by the institution, not by the state.