Time to tackle problems with tenure

In these times of crisis, university officials should re-evaluate tenured positions.

For many students, the classic idea of higher education has been replaced by a new academic reality.
Ever-increasing tuition costs and limited class choices make it difficult for undergrads to find coursework they find both interesting and enjoyable. But even if a course description excites their curiosity, students often find their learning experience dependent upon the quality of their professors. Such is the case at the University of Minnesota. Students come here expecting not only a degree that will assist them in their careers, but opportunities to interact with renowned educators. However, with serious budget shortfalls and a lack of support from Governor Pawlenty, University administrators are trying to restructure programs left and right to provide the same levels of service with a chopped employee roster. Part of that process ought to include evaluating senior faculty holding tenure and reevaluating the nature of tenure itself. The last major attempt to reform tenure at the U came in 1995. The University of Minnesota Regents tried to enact policy changes that would have allowed the Regents, quite reasonably, to cut facultyâÄôs salaries for poor performance. Regents also would have been able to fire tenured professors if their programs were eliminated or restructured but the university was unable to retrain or reassign them. Tom Reagen, one of the Regents at that time, was quoted as saying âÄúThe current code just doesn’t give the university the flexibility it needs to meet the rapidly changing circumstances in higher education.âÄù At that time, 87 percent of university faculty were either tenured or on the tenure track, and the professors defended themselves. Eventually, then-President Nils Hasselmo opposed the changes, and the proposals were dropped. Now, one of the highest-paid university officials in the nation âÄî Ohio StateâÄôs current president E. Gordon Gee âÄî is bringing reassessment of tenure to the national fore. In a recent Associated Press article, Gee raises concerns that traditional tenure-track formulas place too much emphasis on scholarly output (read: publications in academic journals) and too little emphasis on teaching and other contributions. Gee is right. Amid the changing economic landscapes of universities everywhere, the realities of tenure no longer fit its purpose. Tenure-for-life was traditionally established to encourage academic freedom, protecting professors who wished to spend time on controversial topics within the classroom. However, job security in the name of free expression has been replaced with job security in the name of job security. One of the major criticisms of tenure is that once it has been awarded, it allows professors to become unproductive or irrelevant without suffering any consequences. Even if a professor clearly becomes a burden on the department, the process for stripping tenure is long and tedious and typically requires evidence of major misconduct. ThatâÄôs why today, professors who were tenured in the 70âÄôs can flex their security to ensure they see as few undergraduate classrooms as possible, and new academics must stick to rigorous tenure tracks that typically require a high output outside of the classroom in order to maintain their positions. While the complete abolishment of tenure would be radical and unnecessary, failing to seriously re-evaluate its conditions will cause our nationâÄôs higher education system to become toxic and unsustainable. As a cesspool of cozy older educators blocks the opportunities of younger, more motivated post-grads, studentsâÄô educations will suffer. Jon Radermacher welcomes comments at [email protected]