The University Record, February 13, 1995

Tenure definition document promotes wide-ranging dialogue

Tenure definition document promotes wide-ranging dialogue

By Mary Jo Frank
Record Special Writer

A faculty-generated document "Toward A Definition of Tenure" is accomplishing its authors' goals: encouraging colleagues to discuss rights and responsibilities of tenured faculty, and collegiality at the U-M.

More than 50 faculty and staff attended a forum last Thursday on the meaning of tenure.

Although agreeing that tenure is important to the vitality of the University and to preserve academic freedom, forum speakers differed on how far the University should go in codifying the rights and responsibilities associated with tenure.

Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr. and Donald J. Lewis, professor and former chair of the Department of Mathematics, cautioned against putting too much detail in any document defining tenure. Lewis, who recalled the days when junior faculty in mathematics thought nothing of sharing office space, said today young faculty members expect to have their own offices. Spelling out institutional support to include "adequate classroom, library, laboratory and office facilities," as proposed in "Toward A Definition of Tenure," could result in more grievances, he warned.

Whitaker said a "minimalist approach to formal rules and formal processes and a dedication to shared governance and to colleagueship" works better in a University devoted to excellence, merit and fairness.

Alumnus Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, professor of law at Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin, praised "Toward A Definition of Tenure." The document was developed by the Standing Subcommittee on Tenure of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) and endorsed by Senate Assembly Dec. 12.

"I think this document is excellent," said Dau-Schmidt, a member of the National Council and Executive Committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Tenure, Dau-Schmidt said, is important for the efficient operation of academic departments because peer review is needed to decide whose research, teaching and service merit the offering of tenure.

A hiring system without tenure, with faculty serving as employees-at-will, would promote mediocrity, Dau-Schmidt said, because faculty would tend to hire less talented colleagues so they wouldn't have to worry about competition. It also would destroy collegiality because senior faculty would have no incentive to mentor younger faculty, again for fear of losing their jobs.

The rational strategy for faculty seeking tenure is to publish, publish, publish, Dau-Schmidt said, because "research is the only thing that is marketable." The rational thing to do after receiving tenure is to spend more time on teaching and service.

If universities hired faculty as employees-at-will, research would take even greater precedence over teaching and service than it does today, he predicted.

Kent D. Syverud, professor of law and principal author of "Toward a Definition of Tenure," said one of the difficulties in drafting a definition of tenure is the broad array of tenure and promotion practices at the University.

Sections of the document dealing with privileges and responsibilities of tenure have generated the most response, Syverud said. The committee agreed that failure of tenured faculty members to meet their responsibilities should have consequences but "we punted on the consequences," Syverud said.

Whatever definition of tenure the University community develops, it should signify what tenure means at the U-M. Without dialogue on the subject, the University risks being saddled with a definition dictated by court decisions, Syverud warned.

Whitaker said tenure is offered, not earned, through the peer review process, and brings with it obligations both to the University and to the individual. The University is obligated to do all it can to enable the faculty member to carry out the program of teaching and scholarship for which the appointment was offered. The faculty member, in turn, accepts an obligation to work diligently to achieve excellence in scholarly work and in teaching.

Whitaker said: "Frankly, I believe this document is a step backward in the protection of the liberties of academic freedom and a big step backwards in describing the obligations of tenure--and indeed the obligations of academic work. I furthermore believe that, with full and adequate discussion, most faculty and the Regents would find the underlying attitudes in this document very discouraging, especially in an institution which strives for excellence, rewards, merit, values fairness."

Whitaker said he and SACUA agree that some elements of the grievance system need improvement. "I think we can begin the process of fixing those we agree on soon. The rest will take a little longer."

The forum was sponsored by SACUA, the Academic Women's Caucus and the U-M chapter of the AAUP.