Phi Beta Cons

Tenure’s Real Consequence

The otherwise poignant Inside Higher Education story about Professor Yves Magloe, dismissed from Pasadena City College as a result of misunderstandings arising from his bipolar condition, contains a tangential but revealing comment. Another Pasadena faculty member, Hugo Schwyzer, reflecting on his role as one of Magloe’s defenders, notes apropos tenure, that it allowed him “to be an advocate without risk.”
Most academics and observers of academe view tenure in its putative role of allowing professors to speak freely about issues of general controversy. Tenure does, of course, sometimes facilitate such freedom. But as a device promoting wide-ranging intellectual discourse it has clearly been a failure. Debate in almost every other intellectual marketplace–including the mass media for all its tilt and spin–is far more open and diverse despite tenure’s absence. Either the protections of tenure are overwhelmed by other stultifying factors, or it actually promotes stasis, conformity, and group-think.
In any event, tenure’s chief outcome is just what Professor Schwyzer lets slip. It allows professors to take on their administrations with far less risk than would be faced by any other type of staff. Put another way, its principal effect is on institutional governance not scholarly debate. It creates a system where administrators can be fired but faculty, for all intents and purposes, cannot, where administrations are transient, but faculty is forever. Those deploring the protections tenure gives to outrageous cranks like Ward Churchill, might do better to refocus their gaze on its more collective impact. Any sensible reform of tenure must start with a consideration of its consequences for the university as a constitutional system and the balance of power that exists within it. 

Stephen H. Balch was the founding president of the National Association of Scholars. In 2007 he received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush.

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