Tenure Threatened in Iowa and Missouri
State legislators in Iowa and Missouri have introduced legislation to eliminate tenure for public colleges and universities in their states. While the Missouri bill would have schools cease tenure-track hiring in 2018, the Iowa bill goes further, proposing to take tenure away from those who already have it, according to reports from Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Rick Brattin, the Republican representative who authored the Missouri bill (HB 266), asks, “If you’re doing the right thing as a professor and teaching students to the best of your ability, why do you need tenure?” reports IHE, suggesting he does not understand the point of tenure protections. He also asks, “What other job in the U.S. has protections like that?” suggesting that he doesn’t know that tenure doesn’t prevent termination of faculty for failing to perform their job, and so has an exaggerated sense of what tenure protections are. Ignorance is no obstacle to introducing legislation.
As Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer for academic freedom, tenure and shared governance at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) says in the IHE article: “These are serious attempts to undermine universities and the role of universities in society.” Relatedly, you can join the AAUP here.
I encourage those working in academia in Missouri and Iowa to keep us apprised of developments there, including efforts to combat this legislation.
I get it these state legislators are conservatives and want to get rid of tenure as part of the culture wars. But am surprised more progressives don’t push for the end of tenure.
The main argument for tenure is, I take it, to allow academics to have the freedom to intellectually pursue any topic, however uncontroversial. But is it really worth it if in the process academics with tenure lose the moral high ground in public discourse? Are we producing knowledge at the expense of the knowledge producers seeming privileged and so failing to inspire the masses? There is a kind of inspiration – call it moral inspiration – which is especially needed when talking about controversial topics, when people feel that the person speaking is putting himself on the line to express that knowledge; is willing to speak up knowing there might be repercussions. Tenure gives job security, but is it worth it at the cost of reducing the scope for moral inspiration?
Suppose there is no tenure. Then when an academic faces losing their job because of something they published and some people don’t like it, then that situation instantly creates opportunity for moral inspiration for all the people who agree with that academic; it can be inspiring even for people who disagree with the academic. Knowing that academic put themselves on the line, his supporters as well will be called to put themselves on the line if they want to support him. This has the potential to be incredibly uplifting, and transformative.Report
Obviously you missed the McCarthy era of the 50’s. Tenure is there to protect free speech in one’s classroom, so long as that speech is within the purview of the course. It also protects free speech when an academic takes a public position as a private individual, not as a representative of the college. As a former chapter AAUP president, I will say that tenure is very badly misunderstood by some academics and the public in general – both of whom believe it guarantees job security absolutely. It does not protect incompetence, various sorts of proselytizing (religious, political, etc) outside the boundaries of course content. It has, however, been applied to protect incompetence and violations outside one’s expertise and course content (say, a math professor lecturing students on birth control and imposing his/her view on them in the classroom), as well as unacceptable behavior (sexual harrassment of a student, for example). It is the abuse of tenure that is the issue. Ridding ourselves of tenure entirely is not the answer; the answer is applying reasonable standards to tenure’s protections and to stop the abusive use of it to protect any and everything a professor does in and out of the classroom.Report
This all seems good. But it doesn’t address the point about how tenure affects how academics are now heard in society. Nowadays tenure is seen, I think, mainly as a job perk, and not something intrinsic to an academic vocation; after all, many academics don’t have tenure. If tenure is important so that people are more protected when they explore controversial positions, that suggests that faculty who end up with tenure are somehow more deserving of such protection; but how tenure is gained, in terms of publishing, etc., suggests it is just a promotion, and nothing intrinsically about the protections needed by those academics. This job-perkness of tenure stands in some tension with the more noble, edifying reasons for tenure.
The justification of tenure can’t be I think that it protects individual faculty (which, again, sounds mainly like a perk), but that such protection of faculty is necessary for fostering critical reflection in the community more generally. But it is not obvious the latter is true.Report
Is there any reason to believe that eliminating tenure would restore this perceived moral high ground? Did an untenured academic like Norman Finkelstein, whose career was destroyed after powerful interests campaigned to have him fired, thereby inspire anyone who agreed with him or disagreed with him?
“Progressives should campaign to remove protections from group X in order to make it easier for people in group X to be harmed, thus creating morally inspiring martyrs” is not the most convincing argument I’ve seen this week.Report
The point isn’t that eliminating tenure will restore the moral high ground for academics, nor that anyone should be martrys. I see what I wrote makes it seem that way; I didn’t express myself clearly.
I doubt anything will restore the moral high ground of academics at this point. Partly because the way tenure is gotten doesnt even aim to track anything moral. And partly because the role of academia in the society is changing into something more instrumental; partly due to neoliberalism, but also due to internal forces like specialization.
I am wondering why someone like me, who identifies as a progressive and is a non acaedemic, should go along with aligning the progressive causes with the cause of tenure. I get it why of course academics want tenure, and feel they need protections. What I am not sure of is why nonacademics should go along with this and what they are gaining. It might be helpful to at least rethink what society might look like alternatively without tenure, and weigh the pros and cons of that as a whole. It seems to be taken for granted that protecting the rights of academics is the best way to foster intellectual and moral discussion in society, and at the very least, would be great to see more debate in society of that point.Report
“What other job in the U.S. has protections like that?”
Rep. Brattin seems unfamiliar with the federal judiciary.
From his Wikipedia page, it also seems that Rep. Brattin is also unfamiliar with college, at least in a first-hand way.Report
A bit late, but here are some resources:
Representative Brattin’s phone number: 573-751-3783
Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot’s phone number: 573-751-0907
Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty’s phone number: 573-751-2124
I’ve called all these people. Unlike when you call D.C., here you almost always get through to a human.Report
Oh shoot, forgot to mention these are all in Missouri. Haven’t gotten round to calling the folks in Iowa yet.Report