April 30, 2003

When the Axe Falls, Tenure No Protection

Not if you're a tenured professor in the research division of a university-operated museum, and not if that university is the University of Nebraska.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that in response to serious budgetary pressures, the University of Nebraska has decided to eliminate the research division of the University of Nebraska State Museum, which involves the elimination of eight tenured professorships. While the university has found alternative positions for four of the eight professors, if its latest budgetary proposal is approved the other four professors will soon find themselves out of work.

The vulnerability of these professors stems from the fact that though they teach in other departments they do not have their own undergraduate programme: "The chancellor, Harvey Perlman, contends that the elimination of the museum's research division represents a 'programmatic decision' that won't harm the core mission of undergraduate teaching."

There can be little question that university administrators are in a bind. Their state funding was recently cut by 10 percent. 10 percent represents a significant cutback (apparently in the order of about $21 million), in response to which something must be cut. In fact, something already has been. The Chronicle notes that "while budget concerns had led to the layoffs of more than 150 staff and non-tenure-track faculty members since 2001, this was the first slice at tenured professors."

One question on the minds of tenured professors at the University of Nebraska: is this the first in a series of slices? Another question, raised by Susan W. Fisher of Ohio State University, which recently suffered a $28 million cut in state funding, is: "'If the precedent is set that an entire program can be eliminated and the tenured people did not have to be accommodated, then where does it stop?'"

A couple of other questions might also be posed. For example, how many mid- to top-level administrative positions have been cut? And since tenured professors at the University of Nebraska are understandably and, if this article is any indication, quite vocally upset about this first slice at the tenured, we might ask what, if anything, was their response to the elimination of the 150 staff and non-tenured positions?

I don't think this decision by one state-funded university should be taken as a sign that the institution of tenure is now in grave and imminent danger of abolition. This is, after all, not the first time that an entire programme has been eliminated. Moreover, the research division's lack of an undergraduate programme does seem relevant: regardless of the value of the museum (which is surely valuable in any number of ways), I think an argument can be made that it is not as central to the basic mission of the university as an undergraduate teaching programme.

Still, if the significance of this cut should not be exaggerated, I think it must be acknowledged that it is not a good sign. A number of state legislatures are proposing and implementing steep funding cuts for higher education. A number of state taxpayers are under the impression that tenured professors are at best lazy and at worst up to no good and to worse than no good. Indeed, a recent nationwide poll by the Chronicle suggests that while Americans are generally "more than satisfied with the quality of education that American colleges provide," they are "highly skeptical" of some of the practices of the academy, including that of tenure: apparently some two-thirds of the poll's respondents agreed that "experienced professors should not be granted jobs for life." Is this how the question was framed, I wonder? this would surely skew the response. But then, this is almost certainly how the question would be framed in the public sphere if tenure became a political issue. I don't think it would take much to run a successful campaign (say for a state-wide ballot initiative) urging voters to eliminate tenure as a way of making state-funded higher education more cost-effective and more responsive to the needs of the public (I don't think the abolition of tenure would do anything of the sort, but I believe it would be easy enough to convince enough voters that it would). I'm not suggesting that such a campaign is on the immediate horizon. But I also think it would be naive to rule out this, or similar, attacks on tenure as very real possibilities over the next decade or two.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 30, 2003 05:07 PM

This is not the first case I've heard of where university-wide/programmatic layoffs included tenured professors. My ex-husband's mother was a professor at Oregon State and took early retirement during a university-wide layoff in the early 90s. Some of those who got the axe had tenure.

The layoff was in response to a statewide tax reduction that significantly reduced university funds. There was a legal mandate for money to K-12 education, so all the cuts were at the university level.

Posted by: Ginger at April 30, 2003 07:20 PM

Tenure was in fact abolished in English universities by the Thatcher government. People already tenured got to keep their tenure, but no new tenure offers could, still can't, be made. I would imagine that would be the way in which tenure would vanish here, too. There's no point in engaging in a big fight to delete a clause in everyone's contracts if it has no immediate effect. If there's anyone more short-term oriented than a CEO, it's a politician. But it would be fairly easy (it was in England) to just stop granting tenure from here on out. There wouldn't be, even, much in the way of organized opposition. At least, there wasn't in England.

Posted by: jam at April 30, 2003 07:59 PM

Yes, it was remarkably easy for Thatcher to abolish tenure. Nobody really saw it coming, and there wasn't time to organize an effective opposition.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 30, 2003 08:03 PM

Do people in US univesities see it coming, and are they organizing an opposition? Or, more imporantly, do tenured professors see it coming - presumably, the non-tenured presumably don't have much influence.

Posted by: Barry at May 1, 2003 01:04 PM

It couldn't happen here the way it happened in Britain. Thatcher was able to abolish tenure across the system at one fell sweep, through a single Act of Parliament.

What I could imagine happening here: a gradual and uneven series of indirect attacks, followed by something more direct. The indirect attacks are already in motion, with tenure-track jobs being eliminated in favour of part-time and contingent contract positions. Sooner or later a state legislature votes to eliminate tenure at its state-funded schools, others follow suit. I think the elite private schools would be less likely to abolish it, though.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 1, 2003 07:27 PM

Pretty much what I figured.

Posted by: Barry at May 2, 2003 12:09 PM

Personally, I could care less if tenure were to disappear. In my view, its existence has contributed to the overuse of part time faculty. No other profession has such a tenure system. What makes academics so special that they are afforded the status of a protected class? (And the tired arguement that since academics often say things they could get fired for won't wash...other career fields have similar concerns and they do not have tenure to protect them; risk is part of life). I much prefer the contract system. Currently, where I work, there is a low turnover rate and high job satisfaction. We publish because we want to, not because we have to produce "x" amount of books and obscure journal articles. My teaching load is also reasonable. No, I'll never have the "prestige" of working at a reasearch I institution, but that was never my goal to begin with. I like to teach adults. And I don't need tenure to do it. I suspect if we went to a contract system, adjuncts would have a better shot at decent jobs for a change.

Posted by: Cat at May 2, 2003 01:01 PM

Cat where you at, exactly?

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at May 2, 2003 02:44 PM

Indeed, the elimination of a program, any program, can lead to the loss of a job by a tenured prof--not just programs like the one noted here. I am not sure that it qualifies as an attack on tenure, per se. More accurately, this sounds like an attack on a specific research program, which are, by definition, more vulnerable than teaching departments.

And as our host points out--tenure could not be eliminated in the US the way it was in the UK. It would have to be a state-by-state process here.

Posted by: Steven at May 2, 2003 02:58 PM

I could be a very fast state-by-state process, at some point, however. Once one state has actually done it, it'd be politically easier for each successive state to do it. And after some proportion of the [US] states did it, then it'd be economically easier, since there'd be little fear that a de-tenurized state system would have trouble attracting teachers.

Posted by: Barry at May 2, 2003 06:20 PM

Meika: I work at a small, private university in the Chicago area. So far, it's a great place to be!

Posted by: Cat at May 6, 2003 09:38 PM