The widely reported firing of 33 employees, including tenured faculty, at Emporia State University in Kansas has signaled to the higher education community that Emporia State and the Kansas Board of Regents no longer have any regard for academic freedom. Despite proclamations to the contrary, an administration cannot support academic freedom without supporting tenure or equivalent academic due process protections. In addition to the tragedy of unexpected job losses for the employees, the reputational damage to Emporia State stemming from the obliteration of academic freedom will be long-lasting. The lack of respect for process and faculty expertise and the idea that decisions regarding higher education programming should prioritize “revenue-generating” programs both fundamentally undermine higher education’s ability to fulfill its role in our society.
The dismantling of tenure at Emporia State should highlight the fundamental importance tenure plays in American higher education. Instead, in Juliet Shields’s recent opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, she asserts that she would “gladly exchange my tenure for a union.” This is a false choice—both are needed to protect academic freedom and keep higher education sustainable.
Tenure, along with the requisite academic due process, is the single best protection for academic freedom in the United States. For higher education faculty members and academic professionals, collective bargaining unions are the best vehicle for securing workplace rights and strengthening tenure security.
Rather than setting up tenure and unions as mutually exclusive, which they most certainly are not, we should recognize the complementary nature of the two and the need for both academic tenure and unions to protect academic freedom, promote shared governance, encourage workplace justice and ensure that higher education plays its essential role as a common good in our democracy. In the spirit of the well-known social media GIF, regarding tenure and unions: we need both.
Our goal must be for all higher education faculty, regardless of rank or appointment type, to have the academic freedom necessary for the unfettered search for knowledge. To best understand how this should happen, we turn to the formulation of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a joint statement of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities). In drafting the 1940 statement, the authors addressed a crisis of contingency made worse by the Great Depression. The solution—groundbreaking at the time—was that tenure would be acquired automatically after the expiration of a probationary period of at most seven years.
That is the position that the AAUP has fought to promote and protect for nearly a century. As with most fights, the best strategy for making progress is through organizing and the power of collective action. To that end, last summer, the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers approved a historic affiliation agreement that is destined to build a much more powerful academic labor movement. Together, we now represent more than 300,000 higher education workers nationwide.
There is no question that a collective bargaining agreement can be a very effective means for protecting academic freedom and tenure, as well as addressing economic issues and promoting a just workplace. AAUP’s Statement on Collective Bargaining includes obligations for a chapter engaged in collective bargaining to protect and promote the professional and economic interests of all faculty and other academic professionals it represents, to support and strengthen institutional structures of representative governance that provide full participation by the faculty and other academic professionals, and to defend academic freedom and tenure, all in accordance with the AAUP’s established principles. It also includes obligations to establish due-process procedures for grievances for all bargaining unit members and to promote racial and social justice.
These obligations serve any faculty organization equally well. This is important because, quite frankly, the choice Shields posits—tenure or union—does not exist for most tenured faculty in the U.S. For more than 40 years, full-time faculty at private institutions attempting to unionize have faced hurdles that are essentially insurmountable as a result of the 1980 Supreme Court decision National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) v. Yeshiva University. In public institutions, the process of weakening union solidarity began in the states with so-called right-to-work laws encouraging “free riders” and culminated in the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision, which ruled all fair-share fees unconstitutional.
Roadblocks to NLRB recognition, though, are not roadblocks to organizing. Dismantling the tenure system will not make organizing any easier. Shields’s hypothetical tenured faculty members hiding in their offices, riding out a career content in the knowledge that they are personally protected by tenure, are far outnumbered by the tenured and contingent faculty activists fighting for workplace justice and higher ed as a public good. We see them every day. We need everyone in the fight, and we need tenured faculty taking full advantage of the protection of tenure to speak truth to power in demanding that the needs of our colleagues in contingent and part-time positions be met. We need faculty unions to stand in solidarity with other unionized workers on campus and to ensure that our institutions are just workplaces for all who work there.
In the short time since the affiliation between AAUP and AFT took effect in August, we have seen our partnership translate into huge victories for faculty negotiating contracts at Eastern Michigan University and at Rider University. Now is not the time to let up on any aspect of building power in the academic labor movement. Now is the time to demand genuine academic freedom for all who teach and research in higher ed.