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Tenure

Jim says:
As reprehensible and disgusting as I personally find his views and would therefore like to see him shipped off the planet, Ward Churchill, the former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado in Bolder, Colorado, represents to the best of my understanding, why certain professorships deserve tenure.

Under the principles of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, vested in the clause pertaining to freedom of speech, we need dissenters, learned dissenters, to keep us on an even keel. Recognizing that these persons might be subject to dismissal in the university setting, I think tenure serves a useful and protective purpose for their ideas. I am not sure what the logic for tenure might be in countries not blessed with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but it certainly makes sense to me here in the application described above.

(Note, I have not and am not going to discuss Dr. Churchill’s dismissal or subsequent wrongful termination trial [in which he won an award of USD 1 in damages]—that is outside the scope of this argument.)

However, in almost every other field, my experience shows that tenure has coddled and protected ROADs (those Retired On Active Duty). From almost the beginning of my collegiate experience, through my activities with various colleges and universities, to this very day, I have observed professors in many technical fields awarded, yet undeserving of, the benefits of tenure, for what they do has nothing to do with protection of freedom of speech. I would say these people have been so useless, ineffective, and destructive that they have negatively affected the competitiveness of technological advancement here in the United States.

A couple of examples.

The earliest I remember took place in my sophomore year as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering. All of us were required to take a course in the metallurgical department called NAPOM (Nature and Properties of Materials). As an aside, it was pronounced “napalm” much to our delight in those Vietnam War days. The professor, who I expect had started teaching in the late 1930s, was hung up on iron castings as an economical way to manufacture various components one might need for machinery, automobiles, and so forth. I had watched my dad, since I was five years old, work vigorously in various assignments to replace cast iron and sheet metal fabrications with plastics. He had done so quite successfully, lowering the costs and improving the functionality of many components needed by his various employers. I mildly challenged the professor, who assured me that cast iron was the most economical, best utilitarian choice for most applications. I decided he was clueless and way, way out of date.

Several years ago, in another technological school, I watched a long-tenured professor, now finally and thankfully retired, succeed in running off a recently hired department head who challenged his workload and areas of study. Even though the department head had been automatically granted tenure upon hire, the crusty old professor used all of his political acumen to twist and turn the levers to get the new head fired for merely suggesting he might want to work, and work more vigorously, on subjects germane to the modern world.

When I look at some of the work the bad apples (I am not focusing on the good ones here) propose and seek funding for, I am appalled. Whether they are squandering industry funds or government grants, they are wasting money, but more importantly, missing opportunities to move the pulp and paper industry forward. We can’t afford to have these people work on their favorite little focus areas when so much is at stake in making better and more economical, and, yes “green” products today.

There are concepts such as “pure” and “applied” research. I understand these—pure research is “blue sky” thinking, while applied has near immediate applications. This distinction is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about people well beyond blue sky thinking and out in no sky thinking, just working on their favorite and most comfortable things (if they are actually working on anything at all).

How can the tenure system be justified except in the special case of First Amendment protection? Why, other than tradition, should these technology professors think they deserve a coddled lifestyle with almost no constraints or accountability? How do we get rid of this obsolete form of welfare for the intellectuals?

Travis says: I think everyone who has attended college can think of a professor or two who continued to teach long past his or her prime. That said, I do believe that tenure can serve an important purpose – protecting institutional knowledge against politics.

The courts are another American institution with tenure rules. Strict-constructionist/reactionary jurists appointed by Richard Nixon and progressive/activist jurists appointed by Jimmy Carter (and vice versa) remain on the bench. On the whole, I believe this hodgepodge judiciary is superior to one that completely changed with every new administration. The law evolves slowly over time rather lurching from conservative to liberal ideology.

This underlying stability that still allows for occasionally major changes, e.g. Brown vs. Board of Education, serves us well. So to, are academic institutions well served by the diverse perspectives that tenure supports. Take economics. Today, the neoclassical paradigm dominates the field; heterodox approaches, such as neo-Keynesianism, Veblenism, and Marxism are out of vogue. Non-neoclassicists are effectively locked out of the top departments (as new hires) and the best journals. Maybe neoclassism is superior in every aspect to the other perspectives and when they are fully eradicated, we will only wish that the enlightenment had happened sooner, unhampered by an inability to unseat tenured faculty. But I suspect that the reverse will occur; we will soon acknowledge that neoclassism is useful, but limited (just like the other paradigms), and we will not regret having a few crusty old professors around to teach the newly interesting old ideas.

The same analogy applies to engineering and the sciences. The joke in our household is that if you want an academic job in chemical engineering, it helps immensely to add the prefix bio- or nano- to your research statement; bionano or nanobio, all the better. Not to disparage these fields, they deserve increased attention, but today’s lagging subdisciplines might be tomorrow’s leaders.

Tenure can protect poor performers, but do not discount the effect of positive peer-pressure on academic norms. Professors that do not bring in grant money and conduct cutting-edge research will have the most onerous teaching loads and the worst committee assignments. Occasionally, administrators reconfigure entire departments to isolate certain faculty members. While this is not as efficient as wholesale firings, it does provide some flexibility.

If tenure is the best way to keep unfashionable but useful perspectives in the academy, I am for it; to the degree that it lets utterly out-of-touch dinosaurs drain resources, I am against it. There might be a middle ground. A rolling contract, with an initial term of five to 10 years, renewable each year by mutual agreement, would provide job security and academic freedom while professors chase grants and complete research. If a professor clearly shirks his or her duties or simply does not produce, a clock would start that would allow him or her to shape up, or find a new job. I believe that Georgia Gwinnett College, or at least some departments there, have contracts of this sort. That said, if a prestigious university offered either of us a fully-tenured position, I would wager that we would jump at the opportunity.


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