Colorado case reopens debate about tenure
A system off track? Critics say it shouldn't be so hard to fire tenured professors.
DENVER, COLO. — Divisive college professors are nothing new in academia. Every so often, though, they catch the public's attention and stir up controversy.
The latest case in point: University of Colorado Prof. Ward Churchill, whose controversial essay likening 9/11 victims to Nazis has reignited the long-simmering debate over tenure and academic freedom in higher education.
With the university now reviewing whether he deserves to keep his tenured post, the case is unique in its details yet symbolic of larger concerns about the quality and content of American academia.
Public outrage over Mr. Churchill's treatise naturally led to calls for his job - the loudest among them coming from Colorado's Republican Gov. Bill Owens and conservative state lawmakers.
"Ward Churchill is a wake-up call and is going to be a cause célèbre for the right and for reform," Governor Owens said.
Churchill is a fully tenured professor in CU's Department of Ethnic Studies. That protected status - granted by academic peers for achievement in a body of scholarship - means it's incredibly difficult oust him from his $92,000-a-year job at Colorado's largest and most respected research university.
But, faced with tremendous public pressure, university officials may be moving toward firing Mr. Churchill anyway. The grounds would not be his unpopular essay. Recently, administrators ordered the school's Standing Committee on Research Misconduct to delve into allegations of plagiarism and whether Mr. Churchill - who claims Native American lineage - lied about his heritage to gain credibility as an American Indian activist and scholar.
The tenure system - originally designed to foster academic freedom and protect professors from the constantly shifting winds of politics - is used at almost all of the nation's universities. Approximately 500,000 professors have been granted tenure, said Richard Chait, a professor of education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
"These stories come and go," Chait said. "They're volcanic at the moment, but when all the lava, ashes and heat dies down, life becomes fairly normal again. I don't think isolated instances of controversial speech actually create much traction in tenure reform."
Still, in an era of rising tuition costs, questions about the current tenure system do crop up. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for example, fired a tenured professor on the basis of a university rule allowing administrators to remove instructors after two bad performance reviews. But the professor prevailed and won his job back after a decade-long legal battle.
Now, in Colorado, politicians charge that tenure is a system has become damaged to the point that reform is needed.
"Over the years individual schools, administrations, and faculty senates have made their own rules regarding tenure," Owens said. "We've created a situation that serves the interest of the tenured faculty very well, but it doesn't serve the interest of the larger community. Lost in all of this, has been the relatively rare case where a tenured professor richly deserves to be fired." Churchill, he said, is just one of those professors.
Most tenure experts and scholars agree, the now infamous essay is not grounds for firing because it is protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the school's tenure system, which contractually bars firing a professor simply for saying something controversial.
"Clearly, these types of analysis and critiques are often unpopular, sometimes they are ill-founded, sometimes they are proven to be wrong, but unless we create a haven where such types of expression can be set forth, subject to the countercriticism by peers and others, then we handicap ourselves as a society in a severe way," says Jack Schuster, a professor of education and public policy at California's Claremont Graduate University.
If the investigation finds that Mr. Churchill copied the work of others or lied in order to get a leg up, this could be grounds for firing under the university's tenure policy. Churchill says the allegations are false and has vowed not to cooperate with the review, which could take seven months.
A finding against Churchill, one that leads to his ouster, would certainly quiet critics of the tenure system.
"That would somewhat vindicate the tenure system, but the fact it may take a year or more to happen erodes those results," said state Sen. Doug Lamborn, (R) of Colorado Springs, sponsor of a General Assembly resolution urging CU to fire Churchill immediately. "We have to put up with him for another year at best."
If history is a guide, Churchill will probably be teaching at CU in a year and a long time thereafter if he wants to.
In 1992, the City University of New York demoted Leonard Jeffries, also an ethnic studies professor, from his position as a department head for a series of well-documented anti-Semitic statements.
Jeffries eventually lost a protracted court battle to regain his status as department head, but the school was never able to fire him because of tenure protections. He still teaches at CUNY.
But university officials in Colorado sense the political pressure for reform is strong and have responded.
At the same time they created the panel to investigate Churchill, administrators also took the step of creating a commission to evaluate the school's tenure system.
"The purpose is to ask whether our standards are as good or better than other peer institutions," said Rodney Muth, a professor of education administration at CU's Denver Campus and chair of the Faculty Council for the entire CU System.
The panel will forward a series of recommendations - probably by the end of the summer - to the CU Board of Regents, which could decide whether to move ahead with reforms.
For now, the investigation into Mr. Churchill's scholarship and the review of CU's tenure system has placated critics.
But if lawmakers are unsatisfied with the results of either review, the drumbeat for change is almost guaranteed to pound again in Colorado.
"The universities themselves need to tighten up their procedures for tenure, including the processes for granting tenure as well as make a more rational approach for which it can be removed," Governor Owens said. "If it doesn't, the state can pass a simple law. We can actually centralize tenure rather than leaving it up to each individual university."
Supporters of the tenure system argue that a statewide tenure system subject to the political whims of state lawmakers would hurt Colorado's education system.
"One of the dangers is, the first thing they'd try and do is throw out tenure," Mr. Muth said. "If they did that in Colorado, they might as well close higher education in Colorado in terms of any expectation for excellence and quality."
Owens dismissed that argument.
"In Colorado, if you had a tenure system that protected intellectual discussion and provided what most of us presumed tenure provided, I think virtually everybody would be eager to come here and remain here except Ward Churchill, and that would be a plus," he said.