A President’s Renewed Respect for Tenure

Daniele Struppa’s years as a dean tested his support, but tenure’s protection of unpopular faculty views is essential in times like these, he writes.

February 5, 2019

Being a dean of a college with more than 400 outspoken faculty members can test one’s belief in tenure. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a large public institution two decades ago, I believed in the importance of academic freedom and that tenure was the ultimate guarantor of academic freedom.

While I was generally and publicly supportive of tenure, privately, I often felt conflicted. In reality, in my many years in administration, I never needed tenure to protect audacious and bold scholarship. I had only personally witnessed the use of tenure as a protection of inadequate teachers with no research agenda. As a former chair, and then dean, my role was to rebuff the complaints -- often quite legitimate -- of students, who knew that tenure was protecting substandard faculty members. The noble purpose of tenure, as the mechanism that allows brave and unfettered exploration of controversial ideas, seemed a bit abstract to me.

I am now the president at Chapman University in what I consider a new era of higher education. The climate in our society and in academia has taken a very dark turn. Every day we read of colleagues whose jobs are jeopardized by a tweet or a controversial post. A case at a Wisconsin university last summer brought a faculty member to the State Supreme Court over a blog post that found him defending his academic freedom. He ultimately won the case and was awarded damages, including "unimpaired rank, tenure compensation and benefits."

This change in climate on our campuses, and across the country, has me seeing and believing fully in the need for tenure. While I have always been a fierce advocate of academic freedom, I now see firsthand the need for tenure. Our faculty and academic leaders must be able to seek knowledge without fear of retribution.

As our society becomes more intolerant of dissent, tenure is reclaiming its central role in academia. A scholar attacks Israel, and his job offer is revoked; a chancellor invites a controversial speaker to campus, and he is financially punished by his university system; a dean of students defends the ability to wear ethnic costumes for Halloween, and she ends up leaving her university. This list goes on and on.

Additionally, and even paradoxically, the fact that I, as the president, interact with faculty members who have tenure actually makes my job easier. Just a few months ago, this reality became clear as I engaged in a fairly heated and much publicized controversy due to a donation Chapman University accepted from the Charles Koch Foundation. The premise of the controversy focused on whether our donor agreement gave the foundation authority in either curriculum or hiring decisions. Neither assertion was true, but the greatest and most aggressive opponents of this donation were tenured faculty.

It was exactly because of their tenure that I felt comfortable in engaging in a spirited and very robust debate with them. They knew, and I knew, that their jobs were secure and protected, and that knowledge gave me the freedom of indulging in a healthy debate with a confidence that I would never have had if they had been untenured.

Without tenure, aware of their precarious situation, I would have had to exercise a restraint that would have limited the quality of our engagement. And as a strong believer in the importance of robust disagreements, I feel that my institution, as a rigorous intellectual community, would have been poorly served by such restraint.

At a time when many observers in the United States are questioning the value of tenure, I find myself now rediscovering the critical need for it. Not just to allow faculty members to engage in risky research, not just to allow professors to express loyal or even disloyal opposition of their administrators, but also to allow administrators the luxury to engage their faculty on an even plane and participate in energizing debate.

Yes, sometimes tenure protects weak faculty, and yes, tenure sometimes slows down the process in academia. But I now have the luxury of seeing it through a new lens, and realize those negatives are the exceptions, and the benefits -- especially during uncertain and contentious times -- are invaluable.

In this country, politics divides us more than any other time in history, including on our campuses. We have an obligation to our students to allow them to engage in debate, hear differing views and learn how to be civil when presented with ideas they don’t agree with. The academic freedom provided to faculty members through the terms of their tenure allow this to happen.

Count me in: I am a fully committed supporter of tenure, and not just because, as an administrator, I have to say so.


Daniele Struppa is president of Chapman University, in California.


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