Making the Case for Tenure

April 25, 2006

The University of Colorado on Monday released an initial report on tenure-related processes at the university that contained some good news for those at the embattled institution -- and perhaps for proponents of tenure everywhere. It found that the tenure process is “well designed and generally well managed” at the institution, and that the “University of Colorado policies and processes [are] consistent with industry norms and best practices at other similar institutions.”

“I find it to be very thoughtful and very rigorous,” Rodney Muth, chair of the UC Faculty Council, said upon reviewing the report. “And it’s going to help the university get back to business.”

Legislators and members of the public have been outwardly concerned about tenure issues stemming from the more than year-long controversy over comments by Ward Churchill, a UC-Boulder ethnic studies professor, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The regents of the university had ordered the tenure review, separate and apart from various investigations into Churchill's own conduct, and some observers had anticipated that it might call for wholesale changes in tenure and the academic freedom protections that accompany it.

But during a two-hour explanation of the 112-page document, its author, Gen. Howell M. Estes, a retired Air Force commander, said that one of the biggest problems with tenure is the general public’s lack of understanding about its purposes and effectiveness. “The public had lost confidence in the system,” he said. “It needs to be explained to the public in a way to make them understand that there is [built-in] accountability and [the tenure system] can be strengthened.

“It’s easy to have a misperception about what goes on,” Estes added during a press conference after the briefing. “It will help the university, if the public has a better understanding.”

The report recommends a number of improvements to tenure-related processes “to add to rigor of annual and post-tenure reviews and to provide additional policy guidance for certain areas where policy can be improved or does not currently exist.”

The most controversial recommendations involve tying annual performance reviews for early-career professors to the tenure process, which is currently against rules established by the regents, and requiring background checks for new faculty hires. Several of the report’s other recommendations were largely viewed as minor process tweaks, which could easily be implemented to improve the tenure process.

In a review of 95 tenure-related cases since 2003, Estes said that he only found three cases where the policies and process used to award tenure were questionable. “While not typical, these are a concern,” he said.

Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the newly elected head of the American Association of University Professors, said he thought many of the document's proposals were sound. But he said he was wary of the recommendation that all new hires be required to sign a "Statement of Responsibilities of Faculty"  based on duties outlined in regent policies. "[T]he intellectual and political constraints they wish to place on classroom speech by way of a new loyalty oath upon hiring are wholly unacceptable," said Nelson. "I would not sign such a document and would urge others not to do so."
The statement reads, in part, "The faculty member is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the subject, but should be careful not to introduce into teaching controversial matter that has no relation to the subject."

The public will be able to offer comments on the independent report over the next several weeks before the university decides whether to implement its recommendations.

According to Muth, the public’s understanding of tenure has been somewhat clouded by the controversies surrounding Churchill. He set off a firestorm last year when it was revealed that he had called some victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks "little Eichmanns" in an online essay. His pontifications led many in the general public and some in the media to ask why such a person should have tenure.

To date, the university has conducted several investigations into allegations of academic misconduct by Churchill, none of which have led to reprimands to the professor thus far. He couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

Nobody called for Churchill’s tenure to be revoked during the briefing. And, contrary to outcries from the public and even state legislators, no one called for an end to or overhaul of the tenure system. 

“There’s something like 3,600 tenure-track faculty members in our system,” said Muth. “There’s only one Ward Churchill and somehow he is supposed to be representative of everyone in the system? Give me a break.”

Estes said that he hopes his initial proposals to improve tenure-related processes specifically at Colorado will set standards for other colleges.

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