Sunday, June 20, 2021

Tenure and Academic Freedom Support the Common Good

In his essay, The American Scholar (1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances,” and that “Free should the scholar be—free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.”


Emerson stated that the role of scholars is to support the common good through research, observation, and reflection. He also recognized that their findings could be unpopular or at odds with those in power, but that the common good was dependent upon the scholar’s courage to speak and publish the truth. This is why tenure is a central tenet of American higher education.


Well into the 20th century, many university faculty risked termination if their research ran counter to the interests of influential financial and political figures. Tenure protects professors to “profess” the truth of their findings in service of society.


Often those outside of academic believe that tenure gives employees permission to do and say whatever they want, which is a misinterpretation of the principles of tenure. Tenure is the means of protecting academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors in its “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” provides these foundations of academic freedom:

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.


Some faculty appointments at large institutions are entirely or primarily dedicated to research, but for the vast majority of tenure-track position in higher education, effective teaching is a fundamental criterion for achieving tenure. Most institutions also include rigorous evaluation of teaching effectiveness as part of the review process for contract renewals leading to the tenure review.


Certain high profile and senior positions may be made with tenure at the time of appointment, in most cases that individual achieved tenure traditionally at another institution, and, in rare cases ,tenure upon hire may be extended to individuals of truly exceptional professional accomplishment.


To be granted tenure at most institutions, faculty typically serve a probationary period of six years with regular evaluations culminating in the tenure review conducted by a committee of their peers. This includes summaries of teaching observations, student course evaluations, and external reviews of their research or creative work.


To be granted tenure, at liberal arts institutions, faculty must demonstrate proficiency in teaching, scholarly or creative work, and service, in that order.


Tenure committees often comprise faculty members from across the institution, while larger institutions may have committees within individual schools. At many institutions the committee may also conduct a mid-term review to provide candidates guidance about what they must accomplish during the second half of their probationary periods to be tenured and promoted.


Once a tenure committee has rendered its recommendation, depending upon the internal governance procedures of the institution, this is either conveyed to the Provost/Dean who may have an independent evaluation of the candidate to be added to that of the committee, or sent directly to the president.


The president may 1) communicate concurrence with the recommendation, 2) split a tie if the Provost/Dean has a direct role and differs from the committee, or in rare instances, 3) render a decision contrary to that of the committee. In that last option, there is an expectation that a written justification for rejecting the committee’s recommendation be sent to the committee by the president.


Once approved by the president, recommendations of tenure and promotion are ultimately approved by a vote of the board of trustees.


In the scores of tenure cases with which I have played a role as administrator, the president has universally upheld the committee’s recommendation, and the board has approved it. This is a testament to rigor of the process and the quality of shared governance at those institutions.


When faculty members receive tenure, they have permanent contracts at the institution that should only be ended by resignation, retirement, cause, or institutional financial exigency. If tenure is denied, faculty members traditionally are given one additional year of employment to seek new opportunities.


Tenure is a great privilege that is achieved through an extensive and rigorous review. It is also a protection, not only of the academic freedom of those who hold it, but our nation as a whole by securing the free exchange of ideas that are at the core of an open and evolving society.





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