Nothing is forever

There is some knee-jerk (I think) shock and outrage over the case of a federal appellate court upholding a university’s termination of a tenured faculty member. Now, no one hates university administrations more than me, and I understand that the faculty is under attack as universities become more and more about administrator’s careers than research or education.

I don’t know the facts of the case so most of my points here are general, but it sounds like the plaintiff refused to teach courses she felt were outside her area of interest or specialization. Pardon me while I laugh mirthlessly. That’s what junior faculty everywhere have to do and all faculty have to do at many institutions. If the assignment of teaching loads was done properly according to the relevant contract or procedures, I have no problem with her being fired for refusing to do part of her job she didn’t feel like doing.

I have recently had to watch the career of a junior faculty member completely sabotaged by a serial abuser with tenure. This tenured faculty’s “career” includes multiple discrimination complaints (settled), plagiarism (covered up), mishandling of public funds (ignored), decades of brutal bullying (not yet illegal), a string of victims and damaged careers, and, by the way, atrocious teaching and scholarship (a CV padded with essays on web sites listed as papers, vanity press books, etc). The only reason this person – who is a constant and ongoing legal liability for the university — has a job is the protection of the tenure system. As bad has having them around is, trying to fire someone with tenure for cause is worse.

I have seen a few milder cases of misconduct protected by tenure. I have yet to see tenure protect someone’s academic freedom. I’m sure it happens, and I fully recognize that important role of tenure. Universities do not fare well in wrongful termination complaints brought by tenured faculty. They are pursued vigorously by faculty unions (made up mainly of tenured faculty) and often lead to large settlements. I am happy to see a precedent that suggests that although tenure is a right, it is a right that comes with responsibilities. A right that can be lost. Again, I am not saying that this decision was right for this case, but that courts should not blindly accept that tenure is an unconditional job for life.

I understand the utility of tenure and believe in it, but it should not be absolute. If you refuse to do your job or engage in misconduct, tenure should be no protection whatsoever – the trust and privilege it entails has to run both ways.

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