Embracing Tenure

At San Francisco Art Institute, a new president and a union jointly decide to adopt the practice. 
October 12, 2005

Many supporters of tenure feel besieged these days, with colleges replacing tenure-track positions with adjunct slots, and trustees and politicians regularly deriding tenure.

But at the San Francisco Art Institute, the board last week followed the faculty union in approving a tenure system at a college where faculty members -- some of whom have taught there for decades -- have worked without any tenure system. The institute granted tenure to long-term faculty members and set up a review system -- similar to those used elsewhere, with departmental reviews that then move up the administrative ladder -- for new faculty members.

The institute is also shifting faculty job searches, many of which were conducted locally, to become national and international searches.

"We're ecstatic," says Janis Lipzin, an associate professor of film and interdisciplinary art at the institute and president of its union, which is part of the American Association of University Professors.

"I had one faculty member say to me, 'For the first time, I'll be able to say anything I want in the classroom,' " Lipzin says. "That's a bit of an exaggeration because we've had a strong commitment to academic freedom here. But it shows the relief that people feel, the security they now feel."

Chris Bratton, president of the institute, says, "I think tenure is essential for the long-term health of the school."

Bratton, who formerly taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at Brown University, says he saw at those institutions and elsewhere that tenure helped attract the best faculty members and encourage them to do good work. "I feel fortunate that in the institutions I worked in, it seemed that tenure was a component of the overall excellence of those institutions," he says.

So when Bratton arrived in San Francisco 21 months ago and soon set out to negotiate a new contract with the AAUP, he says, creating a tenure system was on the administration's agenda. (Lipzin confirmed this, saying, "Both sides wanted tenure.")

Bratton says that many administrators viewed the old system, in which long-term faculty members were designated as "resident faculty," as providing many of the protections of tenure. And there was no incident with academic freedom or job loss that led to the push for tenure. But Bratton says that he noticed that while administrators thought the old system worked, professors did not.

"From our perspective, they functioned in most ways as tenured faculty would function," Bratton says. "Now the faculty, on the other hand, they felt there was no guarantee that they would be renewed outside the terms of the contract, and therefore there was a widespread feeling that they were living their professional lives in a fair amount of insecurity."

Bratton says that he believes the new system will provide for rigorous reviews prior to tenure, and that having a tenure system will allow the institute to recruit top faculty talent.

Not all trustees were initially excited about the tenure system, the president acknowledges. "I think they had a healthy skepticism of tenure," he says. "But it was my job and the job of the senior staff to educate them, and we did that through a series of conversations. We wanted to compete for the best faculty, and we also thought it was an important statement of institutional values for academic freedom," he says.

Lipzin says that she thought one of the most significant things about the adoption of tenure at the institute was that both administrators and faculty members wanted it -- tenure wasn't viewed as a concession of one side to the other. While faculty members benefit from security, she says, the administration sees tenure as a recruiting tool and as a means to assure a stable, committed faculty.

"There are advantages to both sides for tenure, but it's often painted only in terms of the faculty side," she says.

Tenure is particularly gratifying, she says, because many artists are controversial or outspoken. "This is an incredibly positive move," she adds, "in an era of a repressive political climate."


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