Academic Freedom, Tenure & the U.S. Higher Education System
On the long and challenging road to build one of the most dynamic and powerful higher education systems in the world.
2015 is surely one of the most momentous years in a long time regarding debates about tenure, academic freedom, the Wisconsin Idea, budget cuts, etc. Yesterday’s balanced article (‘Tenure or Bust‘) by Colleen Flaherty, in Inside Higher Ed, is but the latest of a series of nuanced pieces Ms. Flaherty has produced this year about the unfolding of higher education debates in this Midwest U.S. state of 5.75 million people.
While I’m immersed in the tumult as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I can’t help standing back and trying to look at the big picture. Studying, living, working, and visiting a range of other countries, including universities in Canada, England, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and France, as well as being based in the U.S. since 2001, often engenders a drive to compare. And when comparing and reflecting upon what this wonderful university and the state/national higher education system (systems, in reality) has to offer, I increasingly think too much is taken for granted, or assumed. This is a relatively risk-oriented society, and I’m struck by how many people (including many of of the people leaving comments below ‘Tenure or Bust‘) assume the system is ‘broken,’ resiliency can be counted upon, and mechanisms to turn the system on a dime exist, if searched for long enough. They also ignore path dependency, and prior developmental trajectories and agendas, the ones that have led us to where we are now, a nation that has some of the strongest and most dynamic universities in the world. Problems and weaknesses exist, of course, but people in Wisconsin and the U.S. more broadly don’t seem to know just how many other countries are desperate to create just the types of universities that exist here.
And what are some of the deep (core) principles and conditions that have led to the creation of so many world-class universities and higher education systems (at the state-scale) in Wisconsin and the U.S. more broadly? This question brings me to the words of Hanna Holborn Gray, the esteemed president of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993. In conference panel comments reprinted in the Summer 2009 issue of Social Research, Hanna Holborn Gray deemed universities to be a very important and special institution:
…the only institution in our world, that is, as it were, commissioned to always take a longer-term look. The only institution in our world that is commissioned, so to speak, to concentrate on the mission of discovery and learning, and the transmission of learning, on the elaboration and interpretation and debate over important ideas, over what is most important in the cultural world.
Emeritus President Holborn Gray then begged the question: “What is it that makes that profession or vocation possible? And what is it that makes the institution in which it is carried on a genuine institution?”
Her question was actually answered 115 years earlier to this day (18 December 1900), by the founding president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, in his ‘36th Quarterly Statement of the President of the University’:
When for any reason, in a university on private foundation or in a university supported by public money, the administration of the institution or the instruction in any one of its departments is changed from an influence from without; when an effort is made to dislodge an officer or a professor because the political sentiment or the religious sentiment of the majority has undergone a change, at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university, and it cannot again take its place in the rank of universities so long as their continues to exist any appreciable extent of coercion. Neither an individual, nor the state, nor the church has the right to interfere with the search for truth, or with its promulgation when found. Individuals, or the state, or the church may found schools for propagating certain kinds of special instruction, but such schools are not universities, and may not be so denominated.
Genuine ‘universities’ like the University of Chicago and those that make up the University of Wisconsin System are associated with conditions of autonomy, and are spaces that respect and uphold academic freedom. And from the faculty perspective, academic freedom is significantly realized via the mechanism of tenure, which enables faculty to focus upon things like “establishing revolutionary theories about economics” (one of Milton Friedman’s many contributions in Chicago), the sustained basic research that underlies the creation of the iPhone (that the University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to), challenging research questions related to democratization, authoritarianism, sexuality or violence, complex global challenges such as climate change, and so on. And in so doing, these faculty members (in association with staff & students) play a major role in creating the conditions that have helped us facilitate the formation of one of the world’s first university-linked technology transfer units (WARF) in 1925, through to generating research activity and spin-off firms that has made the Madison city-region one of the US’s most advanced industrial bases (according to the Brookings Institution in 2015) — a now common process of geographical concentration that the World Bank and others (e.g., David Warsh) note is inevitable, but defacto functions as ‘engines’ for regional and national economies.
I have no doubt the vast majority of the University of Chicago’s current faculty would make the same argument I am above: after all, that great university’s leadership has been doing so since it was founded 125 years ago in 1890. Visionary leaders like William Rainey Harper and Hanna Holborn Gray were aware that the long and challenging road to build one of the most dynamic and powerful higher education systems in the world depended upon more than platitudes about ‘academic freedom’ – academic freedom actually had (and has) to be realized each and every day.
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