Do Ag Profs Need Tenure?

U. of Arkansas division plans to shift new hiring to renewable 1-year contracts -- and faculty are outraged.
December 13, 2005

A University of Arkansas vice president has announced plans to no longer hire new agriculture professors on the tenure track -- a move faculty members say will make it impossible for them to attract the best talent or provide academic freedom.

The plan affects only those hired through the university system's agriculture department. Some others, hired directly by the agriculture program at the Fayetteville campus, may still be tenure track. But those hired by the system office teach and do research at Fayetteville and for the state's extension system, and Arkansas faculty members say that the change represents a serious erosion of faculty rights.

"Tenure is one of the ways that we compensate faculty members and that we attract faculty members," said Bruce L. Dixon, a professor of agricultural economics at Fayetteville. He said that faculty members in agriculture are easy targets for critics who would try to censor or fire them. Agriculture professors, he said, regularly do research that may point to, for example, an environmental problem created by a farming technique or a practice by an agriculture business.

"Until now, a dean could always say: He has tenure. There's nothing I can do," said Dixon. New faculty members are going to lack that protection, he added.

Faculty members in agriculture at Fayetteville have a variety of duties -- research, teaching, extension work -- and the funds to support them come both from the system agriculture division and the university. In theory, the change will affect those whose duties focus on research and extension, not teaching. (Tenure will not be taken away from any faculty member who already has it.) Faculty members at land grant universities all over the country deal with the sometimes complicated realities of reporting to both the academic and extension arms of institutions, but that has not previously led to plans to do away with tenure for new hires.

The plan is the brainchild of Milo Shult, the Arkansas system's vice president for agriculture. Shult said that the state's agricultural needs are constantly changing, and that the university needs flexibility to hire in hot fields, and to shift positions as needs evolve. "There's not much flexibility in a system that gives you a job for 30 or 40 years, a job for life, after a rigorous review," Shult said.

Shult noted that most of the expenses for the agriculture program are paid by state and federal funds, which have been flat. "We need to be very judicious about how we use our revenue and take hard looks at our programs," he said.

The current agriculture faculty -- 143 tenured and tenure-track and 82 off the tenure track -- has "great talent," he said, adding that the plan wasn't intended to produce a system where people only stay for a year or two. He said that he anticipated many people having their contracts renewed.

While the system has been designed for one-year renewable contracts, Shult said he was open to considering three- to five-year contracts as well, as long as flexibility is preserved. The problem with tenure, he said, is that it lasts too long. "Right now, we're giving a property right for life."

Shult rejected the idea that the university would have a tough time recruiting without tenure. He said that there are three openings right now for which one-year contracts are being or will be offered. A "top class" candidate has just been offered a contract in the search that is the furthest along, he said.

As for academic freedom, Shult said that "we enjoy more freedoms in terms of freedom of speech and academic freedom than ever before in history."

The university is committed to academic freedom, and already has to defend faculty members -- on and off the tenure track -- when their research offends various people or groups, Shult said. For example, he said that university research on water quality angered some business interests, but that the professors were backed.

"We've got a track record of defending our folks and I have no interest in caving in," he said.

Such statements have not reassured faculty members.

Deborah Thomas, a professor of accounting and chair of the Faculty Senate at Arkansas, said she was "very concerned" about the plan, even though she said that there was no sign of it being applied to any areas outside agriculture.

She noted that in recent years, faculty members nationwide whose duties are primarily teaching (namely adjuncts) have been forced to do without tenure. She said it would be a blow to the tenure system if people whose jobs are primarily in research were now deemed able to work without tenure. She also said that the move "would disconnect" the agriculture college from the rest of the university.

"For agriculture to be a viable part of the university, those faculty members need to be treated in the same way," she said.

M. Jean Turner, associate professor of human environmental sciences and chair of the Faculty Council for the agriculture college, said that faculty members are worried that their new colleagues will have a tough time recruiting graduate students, who won't be certain that those working on renewable contracts will be around for long. "I think a lot of faculty feel that this is making agriculture faculty second-class citizens at the university," she said.

Turner also said that there was little consultation about the change. She said she learned about it from faculty members who told her that job advertisements for which they were seeking approval were being rejected because they were for tenure-track positions.

Dixon, the agricultural economics professor, said that true academic freedom requires the long-term support that tenure provides. He said that the model being pursued is similar to the one used in state research agencies, where a scholar is an employee given specific tasks to solve. "With academic freedom, you work under the umbrellas of free inquiry, and you are free to think about problems that may well be very important, but that aren't necessarily on the state agency's front burner," Dixon said.

The pressure to have a contract renewed will remove the ability of researchers to think long term, he said.

Dixon also said that scholars outside of agriculture fields should not assume that there aren't tough academic freedom issues in agriculture -- and that they won't have an impact on where talented professors work. He noted the infamous margarine-butter debates at Iowa State University during World War II.

Professors trying to help the war effort by looking for ways to economize and conserve resources published studies showing that margarine could have the same nutritional value as butter, and could be produced more efficiently. The dairy industry was furious and pushed Iowa State administrators to withdraw pamphlets that were viewed as anti-butter. The department chair of agricultural economics was so angry that the administration gave in that he quit and moved to the University of Chicago. The chair, Theodore Schultz, stayed at Chicago for the rest of his career, picking up a Nobel in economics in 1979.


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