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I turned down tenure; why other professors should, too.


In the autumn of 1981, I was informed that I would be promoted to a tenured professorship in the Department of Physics at Columbia University. I told the department chair I didn't want tenure.

University officials were bewildered. Why would anyone turn down permanent job security? Was that even allowed? It was the equivalent, one provost told me, of renouncing the liberties guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. After 18 months of negotiation, however, the university began to take my position seriously and agreed to my request for a five-year contract. Renewal of my contract for another five-year term depends on the outcome of a peer review, now under way, of my teaching, research, and "service contribution' to the university and to my profession. By agreeing to this contract, the university will find itself in violation of the guidelines of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Those guidelines state that full-time faculty cannot be employed more than seven years without being granted tenure.

I turned down tenure because I believe that the university tenure system should be abolished. Tenure is rooted in the premise that academic freedom and review of performance are somehow antithetical. It is, however, used more often to deprive young academics of freedom than to defend the senior faculty it is designed to protect. It can exclude productive, energetic scholars from the system, maintain unproductive, unmotivated teachers in our universities, and discourage our best young minds from pursuing academic careers. Finally, it attracts and protects faculty members more concerned about preserving their job security than in defending their convictions, a group carefully selected to nurture established norms rather than one committed to the vigorous pursuit of knowledge.

Protecting the protected

What is tenure? Columbia University uses a rather typical definition of tenure and its professed purpose--the preservation of academic freedom: "To protect their academic freedom, officers of instruction are granted . . . appointments with tenure [i.e. without stated term], in which case they cannot dismissed without cause except in extraordinary circumstances in case of Discontinuance of a Unit.' That is to say, after having been anointed by the requisite number of departmental, administrative, and ad hoc committees, and after receiving a letter stating that one's appointment "will continue during the pleasure of the Trustees,' a faculty member can be fired only for "gross inefficiency, habitual and intentional neglect of duty [habitual or intentional neglect is evidently considered acceptable] personal misconduct,' or the abolishment of his or her department. There follows a description of the tortuous procedure that must be used to prove "adequate cause,' including the establishment of no fewer than four faculty, administrative, and trustee committees to review the matter and an intricate, recursive review of these reviewers. No Columbia professors have been fired under the procedure in at least 20 years, according to the provost's office.

The formal notion of tenure has not always been entrenched. In fact, in the early twentieth century, Columbia's president Nicholas Murray Butler tried to fire professors at will. He successfully sought the dismissal of an irascible but respected psychology professor, J. McKeen Cattell, ostensibly on the grounds that he had signed a petition urging Congress not to allow American troops to be used in World War I. By World War II, though, sensitivity to academic freedom had grown, and in 1940 the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges signed a pact codifying the principles of tenure. Moreover, with so many GIs entering college, the demand for professors was tremendous, and universities not only became reluctant to demand that the right to fire be included in contracts, they began incorporating the doctrine of tenure into their by-laws.

The principal argument for tenure has been that it is essential to the preservation of academic freedom, that it alone can guard the special freedoms that a university must offer its instructors: freedom to teach the material they want to teach, freedom to conduct research and publish its results, and freedom to express opinions and form associations without fear of penalty.

There have been times when academic freedom was threatened from without by political or religious forces. Probably the most obvious example is the McCarthy era. But what happened? Professors--both tenured and untenured--were fired for their political views; but most were not. Both facts are important. First, tenure proved not to be absolute protection because it vests a board of trustees with the final power of dismissal. The Columbia by-laws, for example, still state that the trustees "shall make the final decision.' During the McCarthy era some ruling boards caved in to political pressure; at the University of Washington the Board of Regents dismissed two professors who were members of the Communist Party. Universities that resisted political pressure, however, did not do so out of divine respect for tenure. As a community of scholars, administrators, and trustees, they were defending a precious freedom. As Chancellor Hutchins of the University of Chicago wrote when his school was under pressure to purge its faculty of communists, "The policy of repression of ideas cannot work and never has worked. The alternative to it is the long and difficult road of education.' It is this shared belief in academic freedom that protects against external threat, not the rigid rules of the tenure system.

Some argue that tenure doesn't merely protect overtly political expression, it creates a general climate in which professors feel more comfortable experimenting--pedagogically, philosophically, and politically. Without tenure, the argument goes, cautious conformity would rule. But, I would ask these tenure proponents, of those you know who have recently gained tenure, how many suddenly have discovered latent feelings of courage and adventurousness? The only difference I have ever detected is that newly tenured faculty tend to turn down what they view as undesirable assignments, such as serving on faculty committees or acting as student advisors.

Finally, the courts increasingly have ruled that constitutional rights do protect professors--both tenured and untenured--from being dismissed on political grounds or because of discrimination. In 1978, for example, in Ofsevit v. Trustees of the State University of California and Colleges, California's highest court ruled that the First Amendment protects teachers from being fired for their political beliefs or activities. The U.S. Court of Appeals, in a case involving City University of New York, ruled that professors have the right to know the votes of their tenure committees so they have an opportunity to expose cases of discrimination. It is important to note that while in these cases the courts supported the professors, they did so not by affirming the sanctity of tenure but by applying constitutional principles afforded every citizen.

Taken for granted

Ironically, at the same time tenure does little to safeguard academic freedom for those who have it, it powerfully suppresses the academic freedom of those who don't. Junior faculty members worry less about offending the spites from Accuracy in Academia than about offending their department chairmen, who make the recommendations to the tenure panel. Alan Wolfe, the distinguished, and tenured, Marxist economist, writes, "I am convinced, the AAUP to the contrary, that tenure does irreparable harm to political dissidents. Younger radical scholars have been eliminated from academia because of the tenure of bitter old men. They vote against solid junior faculty who threaten their credentials as house radicals. Tenure is in the process of driving out perhaps the most creative group of young social scientists ever trained in America.' This pressure is not directed merely at the teacher's political views. When I was appointed to an assistant professorship at Columbia in 1978, the department chairman told me that spending more than a rather modest minimum of effort on my teaching assignments was "a waste of time if you want to stay at Columbia.' I appreciated the candor but not the sentiment; it was difficult, however, to completely ignore the advice. Later, when I served on my first tenure review panel, I learned that his counsel was astute. In the four-inch pile of documents on a candidate for tenure, there was one clause--not even a full sentence-- about teaching ability. This triggered my curiosity. I asked colleagues whether in all their experience on tenure panels (about 100 such experiences in total) there had been someone whose incompetence as a teacher led to a denial of tenure. They all said no.

When doing research I did things I was never overtly forced to do--writing grant proposals for the support of the research group, entertaining visiting scientists, scrambling to be invited to talk at professional meetings--but if I hadn't done them, I most likely would not be at Columbia today. Even in one's private scholarly work, there is pressure for visible results. One of the most important criteria for promotion, far more important than teaching ability or scholarly performance, is the number and quality of outside letters of recommendation one can attract. In the sciences your ability to generate plenty of federal grant dollars is another prerequisite. Every few months I'd find myself applying for another grant, often just out of habit and conditioning. This emphasis on grantsmanship has little to do with quality research: I have yet to start work on a totally uninspiring project under a $25,000 grant I was supposed to have spent by June 1.

The life of an untenured faculty member is not that of a scholar; it is the life of one whose priorities are set by others and whose opportunity to practice his or her profession is always in the balance.

Tenure also limits mobility and closes faculties to bright new professors. I am 35 years old. If I accept tenure I could stay in my current teaching slot until I am 70. Nationally, two-thirds of all full-time faculty slots are filled by tenured professors. At many top institutions, the proportion is even higher: Wisconsin 82 percent, Berkeley 81 percent, Stanford 77 percent, Duke 75 percent.

I joined the astronomy department in 1978 along with three other young professors. The department was praised in an internal university report for drawing in younger scholars instead of simply reaching for the academic stars. After a few years, the chairman of the department, having taken the praise to heart, ingenuously asked the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for tenure slots for the four of us. The dean gagged. The department had no money for one, let alone four, new slots, he told the chairman. So by 1983 I had shifted to the physics department, and the other three--all good teachers--had left, one for a full professorship at UCLA, another for a "tenured' job at Livermore labs, and another for a lucrative job at IBM.

Because of this tenure-caused rigidity, trends in the number of college-age students rather than a long-range vision of the balance among disciplines within a university have been determining hiring policies. In the late 1950s, as the baby boomers approached college age, universities and colleges expanded rapidly, forcing a scramble for professors that led to substantially relaxed standards in tenure promotions. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a flood of new Ph.D.s pouring into the academic job market, the number of permanent positions available plummeted. Remember, tenure for a 35-year-old professor in 1958 translates into a filled position through 1993. Soon universities will begin to hire en masse again, but the numbers of graduate students in the arts and sciences declined dramatically in the past decade. When the hiring frenzy resumes in the next decade, universities will be selecting from a small pool of candidates that, in many fields, is rather thin in talent. Tenure will be dispensed liberally to retain faculty in a seller's market and we will have locked in for 35 years a faculty of questionable distinction who will, in turn, block academic paths for another 35 years.

Most important, tenure attracts and protects the wrong type of professor, and encourages the wrong type of behavior. In my naive youth, I felt that the existence of tenure was incidental to the decision to choose a career in academia, that the opportunity for a lifetime appointment was not a powerful magnet. I was mistaken. Repeatedly, in conversations with junior and senior colleagues alike, I find that the prospect of a guaranteed job is an important component in their choice of profession. I was disheartened when a very successful colleague told me he had resigned his position in a prestigious private laboratory to accept a position at Columbia so that "he wouldn't be dependent on peer reviews.' This is troubling. Scholars hold a unique position in society. They are entrusted with the preservation and transmission of the culture, and they are by far the largest group that is supported primarily for the purpose of extending the frontiers of knowledge. For those crucial tasks, we are selecting those with the greatest need for security, and the least confidence in their ability to hold a job on merit.

My experience has been that those who are most security-conscious are also the least likely to possess the intellectual creativity and courage needed to extend the frontiers of knowledge. What we need in our universities are people like J. McKeen Cattell, the professor Nicholas Murray Butler tried to fire several times during World War I. Instead of nervously retreating, Cattell wrote a letter to the faculty describing Butler as "many-talented and much-climbing' and suggesting that the president's house be expropriated for use by the faculty. Similar defiance in the face of official displeasure is far too rate today.

Unfortunately, while tenure is not particularly effective at protecting academic freedom, it is quite good at preserving incompetence. Professors and administrators at Columbia and other schools take it so much for granted that faculties are studded with deadwood that they commonly discuss "acceptable' ratios of incompetent to competent professors. The consensus seems to be that only one to four is a reasonable ratio. My own mental list of professors we should do without includes both those who never had much talent and those who did but lost most of their energy after gaining tenure. I'll never forget the discussion I had with some colleagues about two professors in one of the school's weaker departments. We were all complaining that they were uninspiring teachers and marginally competent researchers. Eventually one professor, seemingly unaware that the tenure system existed, blurted out, "I don't understand. Why don't they just get fired?' The other professors shifted around in their chairs nervously until one said, "We don't treat Columbia professors that way.'

Tenure even can damage the creative drive of the good professor. After tenure is granted, there can be the depressing feeling that the rest of one's life is foreordained. One senior member of a prestigious college's administration told me that the day he resigned his tenured position at another university to take his current job was "the greatest day of my life; I felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders.'

Another way

What are the alternatives? Several schools use a one-three-five-year series of contracts so they have a chance to gain confidence in the teacher's abilities before signing him or her on for the long term. The University of Rochester has lengthened pre-tenure probation to 11 years, with short-term contracts required until then. Union College in Schenectady, New York, suspended the "up or out' rule in the early 1970s and now determines after six years whether or not a candidate is "tenurable'; an affirmative decision leads to a renewable six-year contract and a place on the "waiting list' for tenured slots. The experimental Hampshire College, founded in 1970 in Amherst, Massachusetts, eschews tenure altogether, offering renewable contracts of increasing term.

To me, a renewable contract is reasonable. From my current letter of appointment, the university undertakes to "renew [my] appointment every five years conditional upon satisfactory review of [my] work.' In the third year, the provost is to appoint a faculty review committee to decide whether to renew the contract. I have just submitted my first brief in response to a request from the provost beginning this review. It appears that at last the process is being taken seriously. The university is clearly nervous about agreeing to an act that fundamentally challenges the tenure system. "For the time being we consider him an untenured faculty member, but that's still in question,' Associate Provost Stephen Rittenberg said recently. Every year since I rejected tenure I have received a letter from the secretary of the university informing me of my tenured status, to which I've courteously replied that she was mistaken. For an untenured faculty member to serve on ad hoc committees and assume a departmental chairmanship requires special dispensation.

The system I have adopted is not perfect, of course. Some of the problems of the tenure peer review process--the petty politics and pressures to conform--would still be present under the contract peer review system. To truly improve the process of selection and promotion in academia, the values emphasized by the community must change. There is little chance, for example, that good teachers will be abundant if peer review panels refuse to view teaching as important. But the system I propose does help move them in that direction. The academic department, the level at which personality clashes take on most significance, is divorced from the decision; the renewal decision is made by an ad hoc committee of people outside the department.

Moreover, unlike the tenure system, the contract system allows me to present the information I think is important. I was careful to amend the contract Columbia offered me so that it explicitly stated that teaching performance is one of the qualities on which I will be judged. As part of my application for renewal I included descriptions of my work with students, the courses I designed, and my work as a faculty dormitory adviser. Under this kind of system, each individual could make the personal choice of how to balance teaching, scholarly work, and service to the university. In a well-run department, the mix of approaches and personalities would allow for the development of each professor's strengths and broaden the rules by which professors are judged. And a professor who got his job by following a maxim other than publish or perish would be less likely to impose that standard on others.

Even within the system I have proposed, schools could provide extra protection against abuse of academic freedom by setting up an arbitration process in which those who feel they were fired for political reasons or on other unjustifiable grounds could appeal to a university-wide body or even a panel composed of outside scholars. This system, a common mode of protection in union contracts, combined with a natural reluctance to fire people and the kind eye of the courts, would provide sufficient insulation without the rigidity of the tenure system.

The probability of instituting such a system of renewable, fixed-term contracts nationwide seems small at present. The tenure system is administered exclusively by those with a strong self-interest in maintaining the status quo (principally the AAUP). I have been encouraged, however, by a small number of faculty members around the country who recognize the problems I have cited and who feel strongly that change must come. Several have discussed the prospect of resigning their tenure, as James O'Toole, a social anthropologist at the University of Southern California, did in 1979. The task now is to find like-minded colleagues and to ask for some sort of term appointment requiring review. Such a plan for language teachers is being seriously discussed at Columbia. The law school has recently established a category of clinical professor hired on a year-by-year or multi-year contract much as many medical school professors are.

The coming decade will see an unprecedented wave of retirements among college professors hired during the massive wave of tenuring of the 1950s and early 1960s. This upheaval represents an invaluable opportunity to restructure the system of academic employment and ensure the future health of our universities. Failure to do so will have serious consequences for both higher education and fundamental research well into the next century.
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Author:Helfand, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1986
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