Faculty Handbook: The Purpose of Tenure

By David A. West, Professor of Finance, University of Missouri-Columbia

Thirty years ago, several tenured and untenured MU faculty members were fired for participating in a national protest against the Vietnam War. The Faculty Council and most MU faculty members supported those colleagues. The Board of Curators stood firm, however, and MU was blacklisted by the AAUP. After a decade of negotiations by both faculty and administrators, the Board of Curators finally approved new tenure and promotion policies and procedures, including a new tenure appeal process. This is the background that is significant to me as I perceive and evaluate the purpose of tenure.

I was a member of the MU faculty during those difficult years, and one of the faculty representatives who negotiated the new tenure and financial exigency agreements that were ultimately acceptable to the Board of Curators and the AAUP. During that same period, the Faculty Council tried for 14 years to negotiate a faculty grievance procedure, which was finally approved by the Board of Curators. I was involved also in resolving the first formal faculty grievance. Because of these personal experiences, perhaps, tenure and faculty governance seem more important to me than to many newer colleagues.

In recent months, the debate concerning tenure has resumed with some vigor. The critics of tenure appear to be more numerous and vocal. Although some critics are external to the campus, there also appear to be two or more perspectives on campus that reflect quite different views of tenure. Some people seem to view tenure as principally an issue of economic security. A few suggest that tenure is designed to protect incompetent faculty. Newer colleagues seem more likely to take tenure for granted and to perceive less breadth in its purpose. Many newer faculty members seem more oriented toward their disciplines and less committed to their institutional employer of the moment. Consequently, they may have less interest in the faculty rights and governance that tenure provides.

Perhaps because we were here before we had some of these rights, tenure is especially important to many senior faculty. Within recent days, however, 150 more senior MU faculty have announced their intent to retire. These retirements will shift faculty numbers even further toward newer, untenured and non-tenure track faculty. With the hope that added explanation of our institutional background might shed a somewhat different light on why tenure and governance are so highly valued by some of us, I want to share my perspective of the rights, privileges and obligations of tenured faculty members.

I believe tenure provides academic freedom, enables faculty governance, and requires professional responsibility. Tenure confers the right and authority to express our views, even when they are unpopular, without undue fear of administrative reprisal. Academic freedom applies in the classroom, in research or print, and during faculty deliberations. Along with these rights, we incur substantial obligations to participate actively in faculty governance, we accept accountability for our academic behavior, and we agree to conduct and review ourselves with professional responsibility.

Academic freedom to experiment in the classroom and laboratory is crucial. As we all know, however, new course preparations require extended amounts of time and effort that may be unwise prior to tenure. Untried and unpopular teaching methods usually should await tenure, also. Supervision of doctoral dissertations is extremely time consuming, perhaps especially for a new, untenured faculty member, and may be very costly, career-wise. Most textbooks involve a four to five year commitment of time and energy. Some take longer, and many are failures. During such extended periods, of course, research activities and the preparation of journal manuscripts frequently suffer.

Academic freedom to pursue interesting research is equally important. The freedom to conduct controversial research is only a small part of that purpose. A more significant component is the opportunity to investigate unpopular and unexplored areas of research. Although we, as untenured faculty members, may have serious interest in resolving major social problems of great national need, the chance of any success is so small that we can hardly afford to bet our academic lives on such projects. Upon receipt of tenure, on the other hand, if we still have the same interests, we then can assume the risk of tackling really difficult, longer-term research projects that might not produce any publishable findings. Only with tenure, can we take the chance of such failures.

Finally, tenure and promotion are important as indications of professional growth and stature. If a faculty member has a desire to pursue an administrative position or advance through the ranks to higher administrative authority, academic promotion and tenure are virtually essential. Similarly, national recognition -- for purposes of appointment to grant application evaluation teams, election to professional offices, or serving on accreditation teams -- usually requires tenure and promotion because of the professional stature they imply. In these capacities, we establish and implement educational policies that require a more thorough understanding of the integrated roles of teaching, research and service.

To some extent, of course, one purpose of tenure is economic security because fear of reprisal is very serious. Moreover, expressing an unpopular view in a non-academic organization can and often does result in termination. Faculty governance and corporate governance, however, differ significantly. To suggest that job security is the principal purpose of tenure is to badly miss the real point of the issue. Tenured faculty members are first and primarily concerned about where their university is heading and who will determine its goals, objectives, strategies, and educational policies. A more appropriate comparison may be the determination, implementation and review of medical policies within a hospital; no hospital administrator does this alone. We truly believe in faculty governance at MU. We do not believe academic concerns and decisions should be left to our administrators alone. On several relatively recent occasions, in fact, a vote of "no confidence" by the faculty has ended an administrator's career on this campus.

The Board of Curators, like the trustees of other universities, has delegated primary authority to the faculty for many academic issues including standards of performance, research guidelines, curriculum, courses, student admissions, graduation requirements, tenure, faculty promotion and termination, doctoral dissertation supervision, faculty committee structure, and faculty responsibility. Additionally, the faculty shares authority with the campus administration on matters of students' rights, the calendar, and the application of criteria affecting the professional standing of faculty members. We also have advisory responsibility on resource allocation, selection of academic administrators, and the use of physical facilities.

Only tenure track faculty can vote on these faculty matters. Only tenured faculty can vote on motions to tenure, promote, or terminate faculty members.

The MU faculty, in turn, has delegated much of its authority to the Faculty Council as the result of a hard-fought victory over tremendous administrative opposition. Nonetheless, the Faculty Council must always act for and report to the faculty as a whole. It takes only 25 faculty signatures to require the Chancellor to call a special meeting of the entire faculty within 10 days to challenge anything the Faculty Council has done or failed to do.

In my judgment, the principal purpose of tenure is the protection of academic freedom. Moreover, the primary risk to a faculty member is internal, not external. The only time(s) I might have been fired from the MU faculty were over political issues. Those issues, however, were not matters of great concern to any legislator, newspaper editor, or voter. They were disputes over internal policies. At least one of my previous Chair(s) or Dean(s), I suspect, would have fired me because I voted the wrong way. The ultimate purpose of tenure, therefore, is to enable us to be active, participating members of this academic family who cannot be removed by administrative edict regardless of whether we support or oppose the winds of power that happen to blow at any particular time.

To an untenured faculty member, I would say this: The decision by your colleagues to tenure you is an expression of their belief that you should be a part of this academic family exercise for the rest of your academic life. The rights conveyed by tenure and the privileges and responsibilities "appertaining thereto" require professional sensitivity and behavior. Our academic freedom -- faculty rights and faculty governance -- is worth preserving. We preserve our academic freedom only through accountable governance.