Speaking at a forum on tenure April 17 at Tennessee Technological University, Henry, who is chairman of the TBR, charged that tenure has veered away from its goal of protecting academic freedom and today is "more a system for a lifetime security for a well-paying job," one that "threatens to kill the public school systems of higher learning.
"I am convinced that this large disjuncture between an increasingly flexible private sector and a tenured public sector is the primary reason for the public being upset with the political system," Henry said. "People realize that they have moved their own lives into a modern age and are now furious that they have to keep sending tax payments to public institutions that fight off change."
Academic leaders at Tennessee Tech who spoke for tenure in the debate countered the system is responsive to change, provides only limited job assurances and is vital to faculty's ability to teach, express opinion and measure student performance without fear of administrative or political interference.
Tenure is granted to professors, who having completed a tenure-track probationary period of up several years, are judged competent enough by peers and administrators to receive status that carries strong job and economic security in higher education. While critics of the system often link tenure to job security, most academicians tie tenure directly to the issue of academic freedom, the ability to question ideas, challenge thought and formulate theories.
Ties to Academic Freedom
William Schrader, professor of history who served as a panelist in the forum, which was co-sponsored by the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, traced the development of the concept of academic freedom from its 15th century roots and offered a timeline of instances in which faculty were fired or threatened for using that freedom to express unpopular views.
In the 1830s, faculty were dismissed for speaking out about abolition and slavery. The 1860s saw termination for views about Darwinism and evolution, issues Tennessee's legislature revisited earlier this year. In the 1890s, some faculty lost jobs for voicing opinions about the economic issue of "free silver," which was under debate. These and other instances spawned a movement to establish a system that guarded faculty from dismissal for exercising their academic freedom. That system was introduced in 1925 and widely adopted by American universities, yet the problems that sparked tenure's creation continue today, Schrader said, as demonstrated by an incident in 1983 in which an engineering professor at Tennessee State University was twice instructed by his dean to alter student grades.
"Academic freedom today is continually, constantly under threat, and we need tenure to protect it," Schrader said.
In addressing the forum's question "Is tenure obsolete?" Allen McCampbell, vice president of American General Life & Accident of Nashville, a Tennessee Tech alumnus and father of two TTU graduates, took the audience of 100 faculty and students through a functional analysis of tenure and the concept of obsolescence.
"Tenure has served us well for many, many years. I would never argue that. My question is how is it serving us today in the environment we're in? Can it be improved upon? Can it actually bring a better delivery system to us because if it can be then it probably is obsolete: there's something out there better.
Breakdowns are a signal of obsolescence, McCampbell said. "I think the breakdown in the system is where we are today and it's the tyranny of change. And I'll put it under one umbrella and it's called scarce resources ... that is manpower, as well as money, methods and materials and machines. That is the area in which I think you see the breakdown starting to occur."
The Need for Fluid Change
Joe Albrecht, president of the Cookeville-based Albrecht Newspapers and former publisher of The Herald-Citizen, said universities must be able to make changes quickly. "If enrollment drops in a specific course. If enrollment drops in a school or college. If the customers needs change. If the faculty member's quality of work deteriorates. If the university has a financial crisis. Tenure prohibits the university from making changes that impact on tenured faculty members in a timely way. Higher education is in a global competitive environment just as their customers in business and industry are. Our education system must be fluid, must be able to change quickly and without obstruction to accommodate new technology and rapidly changing markets. Tenure is an impediment."
Several panelists admitted tenure has weaknesses, chiefly that some individuals use it as a shield to perform below their abilities, yet those arguing for tenure said forms of evaluation and discipline can be brought to bear in most instances and they questioned if it was reasonable to discard an entire system because of flaws that individually might be remedied.
"Perhaps another system of hiring, evaluating and firing faculty could be devised, but the goal of such a system -- protecting the integrity of products of the university: education, scholarship, service -- would have to be the same, so why throw out what we have and start over? If there are improvements needed, why don't we just do that," asked Marie Ventrice, associate dean of the College of Engineering.
"The process we have now prevents inappropriate people from becoming long-term or tenured faculty members," Ventrice said. "Administrators, politicians and donors have a difficult time railroading their favorites into position. It allows those tenured faculty who develop problems to be helped or if this fails to be terminated. It facilitates responsible academic freedom and enhances the possibility that students will attain a good education. It hinders people (administrators, politicians, whomever) from forcing faculty to give specially selected students better grades than they deserve. It prevents faculty from being fired if they teach evolution in a politically incorrect manner.
"There are people who think of tenure as some sort of complicated hiring process that results in a guaranteed lifetime job," she added. "This, from my perspective, simply does not characterize what tenure is all about. Tenure is a process that ensures to the maximum extent possible protection of the integrity of the products of the university.... The tenure system has resulted in the United States having an exceptional system of colleges and universities, a system admired throughout the world. We need to think carefully before taking action. We must not kill the system that has been so successful at educating so many people from so many diverse backgrounds so well."
Critical to Open Dialogue
Jack Armistead, dean of Tennessee Tech's College of Arts and Sciences, offered a summary of what tenure is not, stressing the system is not a means of encouraging stagnation, guaranteeing overall job security or avoiding evaluation nor is it a license to push agendas or misrepresent theories. Instead, "it protects freedom of inquiry and discussion in university research and in a college-level dialogue that goes on between teachers and students. And experiences show that such protection is still needed. This dialogue between teachers and students has to remain open, has to remain unfettered if we are to develop the kind of leadership, the kind of citizenship that we actually have to have in this democracy."
Henry, who stressed the views he expressed in the forum are his own and do not represent the Tennessee Board of Regents, has joined with several other regent members to ask TBR Chancellor Charles Smith to review how tenure is used in the state university and community college system, which the TBR oversees. The system consists of six universities, 14 community colleges and 26 area technology centers that stretch across Tennessee. Slightly more than 2,871 faculty in the system, 68 percent of the 4,168 educators eligible for it, hold tenure.
Tenure is endorsed by more than 158 academic organizations and used at most U.S. universities. The system has come under increased scrutiny and debate in many states as publicly-funded universities and colleges have dealt with funding reductions, challenges of funding models and demands for greater accountability and control. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), at least two dozen state legislatures have recently delved into issues related to tenure.
Wednesday's colloquium at Tennessee Tech was presented by the university's Committee for Instructional Improvement and Faculty Development and its chapter of the AAUP.