No more tenure?

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Comments by Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado, have ignited a national debate over academic tenure. A self-proclaimed Native American, Churchill referred to victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks as "little Eichmanns," a reference to the general in charge of purging racial impurity from Nazi Germany.

Since it was revealed that Churchill is not really an American Indian, many liberal academics have joined Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly in arguing that his tenure should be revoked. Churchill's comments were offensive and wrong. But if racial authenticity is a condition for tenure, perhaps universities should require DNA screening, a technology that was unavailable to Eichmann and the racial purists of the Third Reich.

Closer to home, state Rep. Mark Wright (R-Springfield) has introduced legislation to eliminate tenure at all state universities in Missouri as of Jan. 1. The Southwest Missouri politician is rightfully upset with a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor who wrote that "pedophilia should not always be called evil." Wright's campaign against college professors who defend pedophilia may not be a profile in political courage, but it is presumptuous to assume he is simply pandering to voters.

For many confronting an uncertain job market, the concept of tenure seems antiquated. In theory, the purpose of tenure is to ensure academic freedom. In practice, the job security implicit in tenure is increasingly used as a form of non-monetary compensation similar to civil service employment. If other states retain tenure, Missouri colleges would have to increase salaries equal to its value. In instances where universities have offered a 15 percent salary premium to buy back tenure, few accept, suggesting that the market price of tenure could be 20 percnet to 30% percent of existing salary levels.

Rather than pay higher salaries, Missouri universities could hire more non-doctoral instructors and/or eliminate programs in costly fields with strict accreditation standards. Unfortunately, these tend to be areas with the best job prospects for students.

Missouri's share of jobs in high-growth industries during the 1990s was below the national average for all states. Surveys of companies in these industries indicate that a skilled work force is a primary factor in their location decision.

Many Missouri universities already have difficulty hiring qualified faculty in some fields even when they offer accelerated tenure. As the number of doctorates awarded U.S. citizens continues to decline, the gap has been filled by immigrant scholars who have had a more difficult time obtaining visas since 9-11. As they age, it is likely that many of the most accomplished scholars at Missouri public universities would jump ship in favor of tenured positions in other states.

The government initiative to link the private sector with universities to promote a biotech research center could also be in jeopardy. Although Washington University in St. Louis is among the leading research universities in the nation, Missouri public universities lag behind the public universities of other Midwestern states in garnering research grants.

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City threatens to leave Missouri if Republican legislation to ban stem-cell research is passed. Eliminating tenure along with a ban on stem cells would cause Missouri's research gap to widen.

Contrary to the impression given by commentators on the Fox News Network, most college professors teach non-controversial subjects and never engage students in discussions on evolution, gay marriage, abortion or other issues that inflame the passions of cultural conservatives. For many tenured professors, academic freedom means speaking against grade inflation, declining standards and administrative decisions that divert resources from the classroom.

The modern public university system originated with the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions to teach agriculture, military tactics and mechanical arts as well as classical studies so that "the members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education."

In their book, "Academic Capitalism and the New Economy," Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades report that over the last two decades public universities have spent proportionately less money on classroom instruction and proportionately more on health and fitness centers, mini-shopping malls, job placement centers, international travel programs, day-care centers, sports programs, performing arts centers and economic development projects. Taxpayers subsidize a variety of non-instructional services that public universities market under the rubric of "a personally rewarding college experience."

Representative Wright's bill would have been much more compelling had he proposed raising the quality of Missouri's public universities while simultaneously eliminating tenure. Of course, it is easier to change university names than raise academic standards.

Higher quality could be partly financed by reversing the growth in non-instructional expenditures and unbundling services. Students who do not attend sporting events or use other university facilities would not be required to pay for them.

The liberal college professor has become a convenient straw man for unimaginative politicians more intent on scoring points in the culture wars than improving the quality of higher education for their constituents. Ambitious Republicans know that legislation to raise academic standards will not get your name mentioned on the Bill O'Reilly show.

Michael Devaney of Cape Girardau is a professor of finance at Southeast Missouri State University.

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