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A College Keeps (But Redefines) Tenure

January 10, 2008

Can a tenured professor be fired because he or she isn’t good at recruiting students, or raising money -- or mowing the campus lawn?

Granted, the latter possibility isn't really in play at Laura and Alvin Siegal College of Judaic Studies, near Cleveland, Ohio. But the small private institution is redefining its relationship with its tiny cadre of tenured instructors in a way that will require them to take on significant administrative roles on top of their classroom duties -- and be judged as much on their performance in those roles as on their more traditional tasks.

Officials at Siegal acknowledge that the model is unusual but say that it was the only way the institution could retain tenure -- a principle and practice administrators felt was important -- given the college’s financial situation.

“We’re essentially taking what’s going to be an adult learning institute and staff that almost entirely with full-time faculty, instead of using adjuncts as most institutions would,” says Brian Amkraut, the provost at Siegal. “The only feasible way to do that is to work out a contractual arrangement that allows them to fulfill their academic workload, but to recognize that that’s going to be only one half to one fourth of the job requirements here.”

But the approach does raise the eyebrows of national advocates for faculty members, who question whether Siegal’s re-definition of faculty work is consistent with the historical meaning of tenure.

“I applaud the people at Siegal for retaining the concept of tenure,” says Jonathan Knight, director of the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors. “The challenge for the faculty and administration of this small institution is, Can you so stretch the meaning of tenure that you in effect dilute its serious meaning in terms of protecting faculty and their teaching and research?”

Descent Into Deficit

Siegal, once known as the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, has for more than 40 years offered offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Judaic studies, mostly designed for people who are or wish to become teachers. Over time, though, its degree-seeking student body has shrunk, from 150 or more to about half that now.

Education for adults has supplemented its offerings, but the changes (as well as other programmatic decisions in recent years) have taken a toll on the institution’s finances. Administrators and board members have seen Siegal’s budget deficit grow from $150,000 two years ago to as much as $700,000 this year, on a total budget of less than $3 million.

Working with an outside consultant, Amkraut, a history professor who became provost last year, examined every aspect of the institution’s budget to try to come up with a workable business model. Amkraut says that one major “embedded cost” – the seven full-time faculty members, three of whom are tenured – posed a major challenge. Administrators calculated that serving the college’s degree-seeking students requires only two or two-and-a-half full-time-equivalent faculty members, and one option would have been to eliminate tenure and turn to multiple adjunct professors to meet the college’s needs.

But Siegal’s professors “wanted to return tenure, because they like the security they get from it, the prestige they get from it, and the notion of academic freedom that accompanies it,” Amkraut says.

The other alternative, then, was to retain tenure and the seven full-time faculty members, but to define their jobs differently to have them do other work that fulfills other needs at the college. “Right now we’ll be sending our recruiting staff to an event at a senior center to talk to potential students, and we’ll ask a member of the faculty to go along to talk about the college’s history or offerings. They usually say OK,” Amkraut says. “What’s likely in the future is that we’ll make that part of the job, to go to 10 such events a year, for example.”

Amkraut says the college is still in the process of defining what other duties will flesh out the half to three-quarters of the job requirements the professors will be expected to perform on top of their classroom duties. But Siegal is giving the instructors year-round contracts instead of nine-and-a-half month arrangements as is now the case, and at this point, all of Siegal’s instructors have “indicated to us that they are perfectly willing to do that, and they’ve done so in writing.”

One of the tenured professors, Alan Levenson, demurred when asked to comment on the new arrangements, saying he preferred to let Amkraut speak for the college.

Questions About the Approach

Knight, of the AAUP, said he was intrigued by the new Siegal model but concerned about some of its implications, which he noted might have narrow application because of the “highly unusual circumstances” at Siegal.

The main purpose of tenure, Knight notes, is to “provide protection for faculty in carrying out the classic responsibilities of faculty as teachers and researchers.” The bargain, in turn, is that professors can be held accountable for their performance in those essential functions, such that, if an institution believes a faculty member has failed to perform his or her job, “the charges should be related directly to a person’s fitness as a teacher or researcher…. I don’t know of any [professor] who’s ever faced the loss of a job for not carrying out responsibility in governance.”

Under Siegal’s new approach, though, “what do you do with a professor who is crackerjack in the classroom, but is abysmal as a fund raiser?” Knight asks. “If he fails in this key responsibility, can they potentially bring him up on charges? What if things change and they need somebody to mow the lawn? Tenure is not meant to protect faculty for failures with respect to any conceivable duties to which administrators could assign to them.”

He adds: “I would cross my fingers that the Siegal administration, even if it found a faculty member not keeping up with responsibilities in fund raising, would figure out a way not to dismiss that person but to find other ways of utilizing him or her. The decision to retain tenure is all to the good, but they’ve made a choice that potentially is fraught with serious problems if it comes to the question of how they hold faculty accountable for not doing as well as some think they should in these nonteaching, nonresearch responsibilities.”

Amkraut laughs out loud when presented with the lawn mowing scenario, but he acknowledges that the issue Knight raises is real.

“Our goal is to give ourselves the latitude to redefine what a professor’s obligations to an institution might be in a way that allows us” to both keep tenure and make the finances work, Amkraut says. “Articulating that in contract form may be difficult. If it comes to the point of going into court, we can have written how we’re going to define tenure, but the reality will be that there are certain norms that are expected out there, and if 95 percent of the universe understands tenure differently from how we’ve defined it, we will probably lose the lawsuit.

“The college is looking to keep tenure, and we feel the need to define it in this way. If we ask [a professor] to do these things, and they say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a professor, I won’t do these things,’ that will take us into uncharted territory,” he adds.

“We obviously hope it won’t come to that.”

 

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