Blogs > Cliopatria > Tenure and Courage

Jul 6, 2004 2:04 pm

Tenure and Courage

CNN today has a brief piece on tenure today. It's about the tenure system for K-12 teachers, not for those of us at the college level. Still, the article reflects much of the reality for community college professors in California today. In most states, two-year public colleges are governed the way other public schools are: by locally elected boards who hire and fire the administration. In that respect, we in the so-called"junior college" system have more in common with our brethren who teach high school than we do with our colleagues who teach at the likes of Berkeley or UCLA. (Hence, my loyal -- and expensive -- membership in the California Teachers Association. I pay $978 annually in union dues to be joined in solidarity with kindergarten teachers in Yreka and seventh-grade social studies teachers in Salinas.) But I was born and raised to be a union man, and no matter what the shortcomings or the cost of that union may be, the idea of not"paying my fair share" is anathema.)

I hear constantly how"tenure protects bad teachers." I hear constantly how"the union protects incompetence." Well, in my experience, for every bad teacher tenure protects, it enables several bright and brave teachers to teach fearlessly. If it weren't for tenure, I would never dare teach Lesbian and Gay American history on what is still a relatively conservative college campus. I would never dare teach a course on Men and Masculinity. From what I've seen, fear leads to timidity -- job security leads to daring and innovation. That's the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom of the marketplace. But as the child of two retired college professors, and as someone who has spent his life to date within academia, I am absolutely convinced that the merits of tenure infinitely outweigh its costs. This is from the CNN article:

Michael Kramer, who represents teachers as general counsel for the Georgia Association of Educators, says tenure can help the educational mission by protecting strong, outspoken teachers.

"It's the brightest, the risk-taking teachers," he said,"who are most at risk for arbitrary dismissal."

I don't know how my fellow Cliopatriarchs feel, but if I weren't tenured, I would feel much more pressure to inflate grades and"pander" to my students in the hopes of receiving high evaluations. I would confine my areas of interest to the safe and to the familiar, making certain that I, in the words of a part-time adjunct lecturer I know,"was just good enough to get by but not so good as to arouse enmity from other faculty." Every change to my syllabus, every new lecture prepared, would only be done after I had asked myself:"Will this help or hurt my chances of getting rehired?" I wish to note, however, that I have seen part-time faculty do astonishingly innovative and courageous things in the classroom. I am amazed by that! Frankly, they are braver than I would be in their position.

When I first started teaching Lesbian and Gay American History in 2001, I did receive considerable criticism. A few complaints were made to the administration. (One anonymous soul was upset, not that the course was being taught, but that it was being taught by a straight man; the other complaints were more typically homophobic.) I only received one angry phone call from a member of the community, an anguished woman who worried that I was"teaching immorality." She was reasonably polite, and I gave her the names and numbers of our local board members, suggesting that she direct her complaints to them. But because I had tenure, I was able to continue to teach this course without fear of retaliation from the administration or the board. I also knew that even if my course content offended certain members of the community, I could continue to teach without reprisal. Tenure gave me that.

I do think the reward of"lifetime employment" should be given only after a period of evaluation and discernment. (For those of us in the community college system in California, it's a four-year process that takes into account student, peer, and administrative evaluations.) I have no doubt that there are a few isolated instances of lazy or incompetent faculty members who are protected by tenure. But when I look around my department and my college, I see a high number of dedicated, gutsy professors doing exciting things in their classrooms. I am glad that they (and I) are protected by tenure. After all, many of us could have had far more lucrative careers in the private sector. We chose teaching and public service instead; in the face of that sacrifice, job security is hardly an unmerited luxury. Rather, tenure is both compensation for what we have all given up as well as an incentive to take the kind of necessary risks that make teaching and learning so damn exciting.

Yes, I've been damned lucky. Yes, I know this sounds like union propaganda. But it is also my deep conviction, rooted in two decades in higher education as a student, a teaching assistant, a tenure-track instructor, and now a tenured professor.

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mark safranski - 7/7/2004

Dr. Johnson wrote:
"Yet in the vast majority of cases involving the denial of academic freedom in the contemporary academy, the perpetrators are tenured professors. As occurred in my own case--and as I discovered in probably 90% of the tenure controversies that I came across doing the legal research for my case--a small group of tenured faculty, usually a faction of the department in question, used tenure as a club, seeking to terminate an untenured colleague "

You won't get any argument from me here. You can quickly measure the moral level of any group on how it relates to vulnerable versus formidible individuals. I've worked at different levels and positions in the field for about fifteen years and as a class, educators have not always proven to be as admirable or courageous a profession as I'd have liked them to be.

Glad you prevailed though. You helped put a national spotlight on a widespread problem

Robert KC Johnson - 7/7/2004

I agree on this issue that there's a huge difference between the concept of tenure for K-12 teachers (both my parents are retired teachers) and the college level. As can be inferred from my previous comments, at the college level, I support a minimalist post-tenure review, something that ensures that tenured profs are still engaging in scholarship and/or creating new courses, etc. There's nothing in tenure that suggests that once people receive it, they can go through the motions for the next 35 years and collect a paycheck.

There are, of course, instances (this spring's case at Univ. of Southern Miss is a good example)where profs are fired for opposing their administration. And certainly K-12 teachers require protection from their administrations. Yet in the vast majority of cases involving the denial of academic freedom in the contemporary academy, the perpetrators are tenured professors. As occurred in my own case--and as I discovered in probably 90% of the tenure controversies that I came across doing the legal research for my case--a small group of tenured faculty, usually a faction of the department in question, used tenure as a club, seeking to terminate an untenured colleague with whom they had disagreed. Obviously, since all of these cases involved some sort of litigation, the administration eventually became involved, but the denial of academic freedom didn't initiate with the administration.

Academic freedom is not supposed to be a right only for tenured faculty--all college faculty are supposed to possess it. Ironically, however, the protection of tenure gives faculty who desire to do so the power to deny academic freedom to others--either untenured members in their departments or job candidates. That's a high price to pay.

mark safranski - 7/7/2004

Dr. Johnson,

Of course, tenure serves somewhat different purposes - or rather, the " bright risk-takers " who need it's protection are doing different things - at the university and primary-secondary public school levels.

Public school teachers have an ethical( and often-times legal requirement as a mandated reporter or child advocate)obligation to speak out for their minor students best interests in a way college professors do not with legal adults. Often times this involves conflict with administrative superiors who would rather not take the logical or educational " best interest " course of action.

University tenure systems could be tweaked to ensure productive scholarship continues after the granting of tenure...though it should be noted that effective and inspirational teaching of undergraduates tends to get short shrift as it is under the present system. College profs also face retaliation from administrators over departmental policy disputes - as your own case famously illustrated.

With tenure it's a parallel but not identical situation.

Hugo Schwyzer - 7/7/2004

Agreed. That's the point -- tenure does have a cost, but the benefits at all levels seem to outweigh the negative effects -- dramatically.

Robert KC Johnson - 7/7/2004

But, of course, it's not only the "brightest, the risk-taking teachers" that tenure protects--at the college level, it also protects those who receive it and, for all practical purposes, thereafter go through the motions. it might be that protecting the brightest and the risk-takers is worth the price--but it's folly to suggest that there is no price paid.

mark safranski - 7/6/2004

"It's the brightest, the risk-taking teachers," he said, "who are most at risk for arbitrary dismissal."

Bingo. It's little understood by the public that tenure only prevents an educator from being fired *without cause* or *without due process*.

If a teacher or presumably a professor repeatedly defies district or university policy they can be dismissed after a hearing, assuming the violations have been properly documented. Tenure is primarily an obstacle only to those who would prefer to be able to dismiss educators for arbitrary reasons of politics, personality conflict, P.R. damage control/scapegoating or intimidation.

Robert KC Johnson - 7/6/2004

My experience with academic unionization is quite different, in that my union (the Professional Staff Congress) is strongly political: to the PSC, academic freedom entails the freedom of academics to agree with the leadership of the PSC. So I don't see any correlation between academic freedom and unionization--it depends more on the attitudes of the particular union leadership and of the particular administration.

As to who tenure protects, it seems to me that (as with K-12 teachers) the academy needs to do something to ensure that tenure serves the purpose that it should--i.e., encouraging scholarly and curricular innovation--rather than serving as a ticket for professors to earn a paycheck for doing nothing.

Two years ago, our History Department contained seven tenured professors, each with at least 25 years as members of the Brooklyn faculty. Two (David Berger and Margaret King) are national leaders in their fields, and also have well-deserved reputations for using the freedom associated with tenure to speak out on controversial issues. In short, they seem like ideal examples of the type of people for whom tenure was designed. Three other senior professors, however, had never published a monograph (one had never even published a peer-reviewed journal article). I'm willing to admit that there might be no better system--i.e., to protect the "brightest, risk-taking teachers," colleges must also protect those who get tenure and, essentially, cease doing anything resembling research. But professors with non-existent records will, I have no doubt, be fodder for ambitious state legislators at some point in the future to start talking about the need for post-tenure review, and in ways that few of us like.