Here's an aspect of the tenure debate the blog hasn't covered yet. All the talk on campus and off has focussed on how valuable a thing tenure is for faculty, how it protects their job security and their academic freedom. But we faculty also know that tenure doesn't come easy, that faculty have to pass a rigorous test, and that other faculty are forced to make difficult decisions on many tenure cases. The Chancellor, to be fair, herself alluded to this aspect of tenure when she noted in her last town hall meeting that tenure was an "earned status", though she characteristically did not mention the faculty's central role in awarding, or denying, tenure. But her actions are undermining that earned status.
Experienced faculty readers will know how difficult tenure decisions can be. SIUC does in fact have pretty rigorous standards for tenure, at least in my experience, and we routinely turn down colleagues--essentially, we fire our colleagues--who have made and could continue to make real contributions to our programs. You know how it works: most often the tough cases are when a colleague is a fine teacher and does their share of the department's service work but hasn't published enough. We cast such tough votes precisely because tenure is supposed to represent a lifelong commitment on the part of the institution; this major commitment justifies high standards and tough votes. We uphold our side of the tenure system. But the administration is now, in at least two ways, undermining this system; they are, in my view, breaking the social contract we in academia have lived by for generations. After the break, I'll attempt to explain why.
1. The administration's new policy treats individuals unfairly. By demanding greater flexibility to fire tenured faculty, the administration undermines the value of tenure. This in turn makes it hard to justify our decisions to deny tenure in close cases.
I've already blogged enough about how I believe current SIUC policy (even on a rather charitable reading) undermines the status of tenure. I won't repeat those arguments here. I will add this angle. Faculty and administrators can sleep at night after making difficult tenure decisions largely, I suspect, because tenure is so valuable a thing. To award a status this valuable, one must be convinced that the candidate has well and truly earned it. It is the value of the status that justifies firing people who are otherwise valuable members of one's unit.
Yes, in other walks of life people get fired all the time, not only after five years of service. But they also have access to a far more flexible job market, given the absence of tenure. And they don't get fired at the five year mark for failing to prove that they will be valuable contributors to SIUC's research, teaching, and service missions for the rest of their careers. When we got into academia, we all knew there was a difficult trade-off we would have to make: the job market was inflexible, and the tenure decision a most frightening prospect. But we got into academia thinking that tenure, once earned, was a most valuable thing, not only to us as individuals but to the academic enterprise in general, given its ability to promote and protect academic freedom. If you devalue tenure you upset the entire social contract upon which academic careers have been built.
2. The administration's new policy treats units unfairly. By seizing centralized control of hiring, and treating the concept of "faculty lines" as an obsolete relic, the administration punishes units for making negative tenure decisions and hence puts incredible pressure on them to vote yes on close cases.
In my experience within CoLA, successive deans have been very clear that a negative tenure decision gives a department a very strong argument indeed for getting a new hire to refill the vacated line. No such argument is without exception, of course, nor can it be. For example, sometimes there will simply not be enough money; sometimes other units, through retirements or other departures, will have still more pressing needs. And yes, deans can and should take student demand into account, and can and should approve new lines even when not all old lines are filled. Lines will, over time, shift from unit to unit. But such shifts should be slow and clearly justified. I've already argued for this conservative principle in an earlier post on this blog.
Imagine the situation now--if you aren't already living through it. From what I hear, the central administration has made it clear that there is no longer any such thing as faculty lines. Departments no longer have lines--nor even do colleges. So you are now sitting on a departmental or college tenure and promotion committee. You've got a tough case: a candidate with real strengths in teaching and service but without a strong research portfolio (or vice versa, I suppose, though in my experience it is almost always research that undermines candidacies for tenure around here).
In the past, you had some good reason to believe that if you turned this candidate down, your unit--your department or college--would not be penalized. You'd get to make a new hire, or at least you'd get to go near the head of the line for new hires (a line which of course might be very long in tough times, and very slow moving during a "hiring freeze").
Under our brave new administration, you have no reason to believe anything of the sort. The pressure on you to approve close cases for tenure will be immense. If you don't approve this candidate, you may well never get a replacement; you'll never again have an expert in that given field, and specialities or even entire programs you've long offered could be lost. Either you continue to uphold a system you believe in, despite the administration's failure to uphold its side of the bargain, or you vote yes because you recognize that the system is broken. The result will almost certainly be more positive votes in close cases. While many of these cases will involve fine people who will contribute splendidly to the teaching mission of your unit for decades to come, at least some of the individuals involved will continue to have difficulty in contributing to our research mission.
The overall impact will be to make SIUC a less vibrant research university.
To put it rather crassly: you get what you pay for. American universities have produced great research because they were willing to abide by the tenure system, despite the lack of "flexibility" it entails. Our current administration believes that they know better, that, given more power, they will redistribute resources in a way that will make us more competitive. SIUC does need to turn around our enrollment decline. But gutting the tenure system does not seem a promising way to do so. Unless, perhaps, the administration can point to peer institutions who have outperformed us by gutting the tenure system themselves--and done so without turning themselves into universities unworthy of that name.