Blogs > Liberty and Power > WHAT KIND OF ATTACK ON TENURE?

Feb 5, 2004 4:06 pm


Steve Horwitz pointed to this recent article by David Deming as an example of an immediate and pressing threat to tenure for faculty members.

Obviously it is. Deming says that his tenure was “abrogated” by the dean of his college after he openly criticized the dean’s views on affirmative action for women.

What’s been happening to Deming goes in my Category 2 (arbitrary firings of tenured faculty). Deming hasn’t been fired yet, but the punishments that have already been meted out are secure indicators that this will happen, as soon as his dean can trump something else up. Besides, a dean who openly states that “submission to authority” is a requirement for continued employment in his college will not have a hard time trumping something up.

I wish Deming had told us more about the circumstances, though. Does the University of Oklahoma have a Faculty Manual? If we assume that it does—because most universities do—what does that manual say about the criteria on which a professor’s performance is to be evaluated? What are the grounds for dismissal of tenured faculty?

Some other things that Deming doesn’t mention: What kind of rating did he get on his post-tenure review (which took place less than a year ago)? What are the official criteria for post-tenure review at the University of Oklahoma? (Presumably they don’t include judgments about a professor’s letters to the editor.) Is there a grievance procedure at OU for performance evaluations that are done in violation of the Faculty Manual? If there is one, does it work? Or is it one of those dispirited affairs where a grievance panel of Faculty Senators, most of whom secretly hanker after administrative posts, sits and nods in agreement with administrators who testify in secret, and can’t be cross-examined?

Finally, we need to know whether administrators at OU are ever disciplined, should they choose to treat the Faculty Manual like toilet paper.

What has broken down just about completely at OU is administrative accountability. It would be interesting to know whether deans at OU are ever evaluated by the faculty in their colleges. Or whether their management skill is taken into consideration by anyone with the power to evaluate them, when they are hired, when they are reappointed, or when they are up for raises.

Unfortunately, administrative accountability looks to be in short supply nearly everywhere. Provosts are reluctant to remove deans from office, even when they are power-mad or manifestly incompetent; deans, in turn, are reluctant to remove department chairs, even when engage in corrupt practices or instigate factional conflict within the department. It seems that when academic managers this bad do get removed, it is always years too late, after damage has been inflicted that could take a generation to repair.

I wonder whether organizational psychologists or management researchers have surveyed deans and provosts on questions like the following: what pattern of conduct, from an administrator who reports to you, is patently unacceptable and constitutes grounds for immediate removal from administrative responsibilities? (For some reason, though, researchers in those specialties rarely study universities…)

All of this ought to bring us to a more basic question: what is tenure for? The standard justification is academic freedom. I’m happy to agree that academic freedom is a great thing. I agree, too, that universities would be pretty awful places and would do a lousy job of fulfilling their declared mission without it. But obviously if the tenure system were designed to protect academic freedom, every faculty member would be granted tenure, when he or she walked in the door. For surely Assistant Professors and Lecturers and Instructors are as much in need of academic freedom as anyone else on the faculty, yet Assistant Professors have six unprotected years to prove that they are worthy of tenure, and Lecturers and Instructors will never be eligible for it.

A venerable book chapter by Armen Alchian (1959) suggested that tenure protects senior faculty from arbitrary firing by bad managers. At one time tenure did that job pretty well, whatever you may think of its other consequences. Deming’s story, however, is just one of many that indicate how protections against bad management are being eroded. No one keeps numbers on bad managers at universities, but the percentage of university employees who are administrators has been rising. And the admittedly spotty evidence available to me suggests that either the average administrator is becoming a worse manager--or the really bad managers can wreak more destruction today than their predecessors could get away with.

Sooner or later, anyone who is concerned about the state of higher education needs to come up with ways to restrain the growth of administration, and to make the remaining administrators more accountable. Otherwise, we may end up having to forget about institutions of higher education fulfilling any mission at all, unless it is the care and feeding of administrators.

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