The University Record, April 8, 1998

Faculty Perspectives: Academic Tenure Benefits the University

By L. Keith Yohn, D.D.S., M.S.
Associate Professor of Dentistry

For almost a decade I have been embroiled in legal proceedings with the University of Michigan Regents and their administration involving academic tenure. Thus, I have become a student of the subject matter and I am amazed at the paucity of literature describing how the time-tested custom of conferring academic tenure to college professors benefits colleges and universities.

During the discovery phase of the judicial proceedings, I acquired the University's statement on academic tenure. The statement was triggered by a letter from William C. Stebbins, Chair of SACUA, to Provost James J. Duderstadt, dated May 8, 1986. The statement was composed by a committee created by the Provost, called the Tenure Issues Liaison Group. The committee consisted of administrators, faculty members and the University's legal counsel. The statement was approved by Provost Duderstadt and promulgated to all the directors and deans of the University in May to June 1988. The statement reads:

"'Principles and Practices Governing Tenure for Faculty Members with Divided or Partial Appointments:' "Tenure is granted to certain eligible faculty members at the ranks of Associate Professor and Professor by the Regents of the University upon recommendation of the appropriate departmental chair, dean, executive committee, and at The University of Michigan-Flint by the Chancellor, and by the President (Regents' Bylaw 5.08 [4]). Unless otherwise specified, a faculty member with tenure is presumed to hold tenure in his or her department, if the school or college is so organized; in the school or college; and in The University of Michigan except pursuant to the Program Discontinuance Guidelines or Regents' Bylaws 5.08 and 5.09. Faculty Rights conferred by the University with respect to tenure are described in Regents' Bylaws 5.08 and 5.09 and the Program Discontinuance Guidelines."

This document describes the principles and practices pertaining to tenure for those members of the faculty who hold regular instructional appointments in more than one unit of the University, or hold part-time appointments. The most general principle is that faculty rights conferred by the University with respect to tenure are indivisible (emphasis added). That is, no faculty member holding tenure may be dismissed from the University of Michigan, demoted, or have his or her appointment reduced below the level at which tenure was awarded except pursuant to the Program Discontinuance Guidelines (SPG policy 601.2) or Regents' Bylaws 5.08 and 5.09. At the same time, if tenure in a unit is associated with a fractional appointment, the University is not obligated to increase that individual's appointment to full-time in that unit.

Information about a faculty member's tenure status appears on the Notice of Terms and Conditions of Appointment received from the President of the University by each faculty member each year. Year-to-year fluctuations in actual assignments across different appointing units do not change a unit's responsibility for the faculty member's "with tenure" appointment fraction, but may affect the source of funds used to support that faculty member's salary in any given year. If the faculty member's appointment within a unit awarding tenure is reduced in any given year, that appointing unit shall reestablish the original fractional appointment at which tenure was granted upon request by the faculty member (emphasis added). This understanding is of course modifiable through mutual agreement or pursuant to the Program Discontinuance Guidelines or Regents' Bylaws 5.08 and 5.09. The Provost must also approve any recommendation for promotion.

It has been said that in 1995-96 President Duderstadt claimed that he had no knowledge of the existence of the University's statement on academic tenure. Alas, time passes and memories fade!

Although academic tenure was a concern in the early 19th century in America, it became a major issue after the "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure" was promulgated by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges in November 1940. The pertinent part reads:

"Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to those purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.

"Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) Freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) A sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and society."

Academic tenure benefits individual professors, and is also beneficial to the college and university. The following are my contentions as to how academic tenure benefits the university:

1. Tenure helps the university conduct a basic function, the vigorous exchange of ideas in search of the truth. It enables professors to challenge conventional wisdom without fear of reprisal.

2. Tenure is an efficient employment policy for hiring and retaining quality professionals. It eliminates negotiating a contract individually with each professor every one, three, five or 10 years. Such negotiations take time, energy and money, and they may produce adversarial positions causing hostility, bitterness, suspicion and fear.

3. Tenure strengthens the university's competitive edge in the free marketplace. If the university does not honor its tenure commitments it will weaken its ability to attract bright, intelligent individuals with special talents to the professorial staff. Professors will go to an institution where tenure is meaningful.

4. Tenure helps the administration plan for future budgetary and personnel needs.

5. Tenure prevents a rapid turnover in professional staff, providing stability, quality and excellence to the educational programs.

6. Tenure builds a loyal faculty with high morale and establishes a collegial environment for teaching and learning.

7. Tenure provides a core of experienced professors to mentor younger faculty members.

Quotes from an article written by Jennifer Reese that appeared in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, June 1996, are revealing about attitudes that may prevail at this University now.

"Tenure has always had its detractors. Why are they getting a wider hearing today? 'There is a sense that these jobs are cushy, and that professors have abandoned a sense of professionalism by giving in to political desires,' says Bollinger. 'The idea is, you've got to be more competitive. One has a feeling these forces are coming down on higher education.'"

But whether professors work less, more or about the same as everyone else is irrelevant. Money is tight. And in what profession do people not have to deal with market forces? In recent years, states have cut back funding for public colleges and enrollments are down at private schools. This has created an ironic situation: rather than safeguarding the unfettered flow of knowledge, tenure increasingly appears to safeguard the jobs of middle-aged and elderly academics. "Under the current budgetary situation at Dartmouth," says Bollinger, "we're able to continue to do more or less what we've been doing, but we have very little money to do anything new. It's frustrating. It can lead to feelings of stagnation."

What the tenure issue comes down to, then, is nothing less than a debate over the nature of academia. Are professors employees or partners? Should the university respond more to the needs of the outside world, or keep it at arm's length? On the one hand, there is the traditional model of the university: a self-governing community of scholars pursuing the life of the mind to the ultimate benefit of society, but not at its behest. At the other extreme, there is what Bollinger calls the "what have you done for me lately, free-market paradigm."

The problem with a university that reviews its scholars too often is that it discourages ambitious, risky intellectual endeavors. Says Bollinger, "Its time frame is too short for what it is the academic community is supposed to do, which is think new thoughts and transmit them to students and the broader society."

During remarks to SACUA on January 12, 1998, the minutes record that President Bollinger stated: "that he was against post-tenure review of faculty. He said that his view is that we have tenure and that he believes in it strongly." "He said that he believes there is rigorous review within the tenure system, and that tenure is critical to the education system as we know it."

The purpose of this article is to evoke from the academic community more meaningful ways in which the custom of academic tenure benefits institutions of higher education. Once articulated, these beneficial ways can be promulgated to combat the "bashing" that academic tenure has undeservedly received in the past several years.