John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

February 22, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

This will be a brief piece inviting a focus on, recognition of, those on your campus who are so fortunate to have tenure. We are going to be looking to them more than ever for the leadership we need from them from their privileged vantage point with the protection of tenure.

For as long as I have been a member of the academy as a professional, there have been debates in the non-academic world about whether tenure is necessary or appropriate. And currently the question is being raised again. I was a tenured professor, from 1976-1999 at the University of South Carolina, with the majority of those years being at the highest faculty rank for my last 23 years. Since 1999 I am Distinguished Professor Emeritus, and the CEO of a non-profit organization in which I do not have tenure either as an employee or President, but rather a rolling three-year contract. I remember what it was like when I was a faculty member without tenure. In fact, in my first academic job, non –tenure eligible, I was not renewed because of my activities in a small South Carolina city initiating a local chapter of the ACLU and for suing several prominent local parties. Not smart John. I was quickly dispatched.

Once I had earned tenure I found on several matters that I needed it. One had to do with stances I took which our all-powerful Athletic Department found to be unfriendly in terms of my unwillingness to engage in certain practices for first-year student athletes. There were a few very powerful people that became very unhappy with me over my stance related thereto. And then there was my administrative coordination of a module in the University 101 course called “Sex and the College Student.” The University president got so many complaints about that from parents that a form letter was developed in response. Without tenure, I would have been really vulnerable, the educational legitimacy of using pro-active preventive education to combat the spread of the AIDS virus notwithstanding. One of our finest hours as a faculty occurred, I thought, when one of our Provosts stood up to a huge campaign mounted by thousands of right wing zealots to deny a gay faculty member a promotion. This professor, the author of a book titled Growing Up Gay in the South, had offended many on the right by his offering of a special topics course for professional K-12 leaders on the theme of “how to combat the religious right.” Admittedly, not too subtle or diplomatic. But the administration stood its ground and didn’t give in and he was promoted to full professor. And then there was the time a group of tenured faculty, including yours truly, took an official stand against a move being driven by a member of the Board of Trustees as a cost saving initiative to outsource our campus custodians. Problem: most of these employees were African Americans with less power than any sub group on campus. Had they been outsourced they would have lost the same health and other benefits that I enjoyed by virtue of my relative privilege. My colleagues regarded this potential as immoral and unacceptable in a just community. We stood up for them and the move to outsource them was blocked. Tenure does matter.

Of course, none of us can look at our careers, present or past, with total objectivity. But it is my own personal self-assessment that I never abused my tenure. I used it to take stands to advocate for students needs and best interests and to enable me to offer respectfully my counsel to my superiors with total honesty and without fear of reprisal should my opinions differ from theirs. One of the criticisms of tenure is that it protects a class of drones whose productivity decreases upon the award of this privilege. In my case I am positive that any external review of my record would conclude that I was more “productive” after receiving tenure than before its granting. And that is also true of most all of the tenured colleagues I have known throughout my career.

So here we are now, several weeks into a new presidential administration and in a sea of vast uncertainty as we all try to chart our responses. It does seem clear that the academy will be under a microscope and that we will be attacked. It is even more certain that we will be dealing with distressed students and having to make choices about how we respond to their protests, for and against actions taken by the new administration.

The times ahead are definitely going to call for courage and risk taking, particularly in the public higher education sector that is dependent on state legislative funding from legislatures the majority of which are now under the control of the political party that is most likely to retaliate against those of us they perceive as being inappropriately “liberal.” I predict that our untenured colleagues will be looking much more closely at those of us who are tenured to take the stands that our untenured colleagues can only dream of taking. They will want us to stand up and be counted. They will want us to own our power. They will say if we who are tenured don’t speak up, then who can? I write in this vein because I think it is very important that those of us who have tenure be aware that our less powerful and secure colleagues will be watching carefully how we exercise our leadership and academic freedom.

For those of us who do not have tenure, I hope you will be letting those of us who do, what you expect of us, what you need from us.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and my long-time colleague at the University of South Carolina, Mary Stuart Hunter, have been facilitating once a year at the Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, a session entitled “Spirituality, Authenticity and Wholeness in Higher Education” since 1998. This session has become a perennial favorite for colleagues of all ranks and roles who have come together out of their commitment to enhance first-year student success, to share how they are dealing in their home campus settings with the challenge of incongruity between individual values and those espoused by the highest levels of institutional leadership. A theme that we have been hearing for almost twenty years now is the desire for more conversation on campus, encouraged and framed by campus leaders, about what matters most. This involves risk taking that is best taken, now, more than ever, by those with tenure.

Please remind your tenured colleagues of their obligation to fulfill this kind of leadership expectation. I don’t need to be reminded but many of us do.

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