The University Record, October 30, 1995

Point-counterpoint discussions on tenure continue at Senate Assembly meeting

By Jane R. Elgass

The granting of tenure carries with it the provision of certain rights, with which, in turn, come responsibilities---responsibilities related to academic freedom that are particularly important in undergraduate teaching.

These were among the points made last Monday during a point-counterpoint discussion on the rights of tenure at the monthly Senate Assembly meeting.

The rights implicit in tenure were spelled out for the first time at the U-M in the document "Toward a Definition of Tenure" that was adopted by Senate Assembly in 1994.

They include:

  • Continued employment.
  • Economic security.
  • Institutional support and protection of academic freedom.
  • Continued involvement in the academic mission of the University and the unit.

    These four were put forth, according to Thomas E. Moore, because they are believed to be the "minimum essential rights" necessary to the functioning of the institution. With them, he added, come certain responsibilities. Moore, who is vice chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, made the initial "point" presentation.

    Moore asserted that these rights and honoring them are fundamental to the well-being of the institution. They are not absolute, he added, but do preserve fair practices and review against potential institutional interference.

    Also speaking for the "point," Bernardus A. Van der Pluijm, associate professor of geological sciences, noted that tenure "is not intended to be a security blanket," adding, however, that it is the duty of the system to offer a framework that supports academic freedom.

    Jacqueline Lawson, associate professor of English at U-M-Dearborn and chair of Dearborn's faculty governance, provided the counterpoint, focusing on the importance of tenure with respect to undergraduate teaching.

    Lawson noted that without the right to free expression, implicit in tenure, "teachers can't teach and students can't learn." Tenure, she said, "obligates us to help students search for truth, permits the unfettered expression of all ideas."

    Educational institutions, she said, are conducted for the common good, which universities have a responsibility to promote. This civic obligation demands that controversial issues be raised.

    The challenge inherent in undergraduate education, Lawson said, is the obligation to expose discomfiting ideas. It does not, however, permit provocation for provocation's sake.

    Lawson uses a text that is a narrative on Frederick Douglass in one of her courses that disturbs her students. "They are reluctant to explore the implications of the content," she said, "but studying it makes them better citizens.

    "Tenure does not give me the right to teach the text, but it does ensure an environment of academic freedom that will permit informed inquiry."

    Bernard Patrick Maloy, associate professor of kinesiology, speaking for the counterpoint, noted that if faculty accept the rights as outlined in the definition document, "they are not unlimited or unconditional. They are always subject to limitations."

    In open discussion following the presentations, Steven M. Whiting, who does not have tenure, said that tenure "has nothing to do with academic freedom. You keep your head in until you've got it."

    This attitude was termed "a tragedy" by Louis G. D'Alecy, who added that those who feel that way "haven't seen the merits of tenure."

    One Assembly member supported Whiting, noting that she was "less cautious now that I have tenure."

    Citing the "political winds blowing in the country today," Bunyan Bryant warned Assembly members against taking tenure too lightly.

    "You may think today that tenure is not important, but it could be tomorrow," said Bryant, who is associate professor of natural resources. "As a minority, I am very sensitive to these issues. Tenure provides protection."