The main bastion guarding the academics who inhabit America's ivory towers is tenure. Today, however, this traditional protection of academic freedom is under unprecedented pressure.
After decades of steady growth, the nation's institutions of higher learning are facing a future of steadily declining enrollments and tightly pinched budgets - a situation that is forcing them to redefine their contracts with tenured faculty. In the process, the degree of security for tenured academics is almost certain to suffer.
''Everybody is worrying about this: how to protect tenure in today's conditions,'' observes Peter Bunn, secretary of the faculty at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin.
The University of Colorado (CU) is one the furthest along in this delicate process of redefinition. This month CU's Board of Regents adopted a specific process by which the university, in times of financial crisis, can fire tenured faculty members. The regents set aside a second, more controversial measure, which would allow the administration to discontinue entire academic programs and let go tenured professors in them - when such a move is judged to be in the best academic interests of the institution.
Tenure, the legal right of senior faculty members to hold their positions, assures professors that they can be fired only for infractions such as conviction of a felony or moral turpitude - and not for advocating unpopular or controversial ideas. Supporters of tenure consider it an invaluable protection of freedom of inquiry. Its opponents claim it protects lazy or unproductive academics.
One of the standard reasons universities can invoke for firing faculty members with tenure is a condition of ''financial exigency,'' or financial crisis. According to experts at Western Interstate Conference on Higher Education, some 30 state university systems are currently facing midyear budget reductions because of state budgetary shortfalls. For instance, the elimination of 300 faculty and staff positions has been proposed at Washington State University because of a reduction in the state's budget.
A few university systems, like that in Wisconsin, already have procedures for firing tenured faculty in such cases. ''Most universities have this clause, but the phrase is not defined,'' says CU vice-president Theo Volsky. ''When it has been invoked, the implementation has been ad hoc. As a result, these cases have ended up spending years in the courts.''
CU's administration and faculty spent more than two years negotiating the terms of this policy. Then CU's regents spent several hours debating and amending the four-page policy statement before approving it Dec. 16.
After the new policy was passed, CU president Arnold Weber termed it a ''constructive example of how the administration, faculty, and Board of Regents can work together.''
Ed Nolan, an English professor and chairman of the CU faculty council, explained that the faculty supported this policy as a necessary evil. ''We're better off with a document than just an oral agreement,'' he commented. The faculty's primary concern is that cutbacks be made in a fashion that improves, rather than decreases, the academic quality of the institution, Professor Nolan says.
Although willing to accept that policy, Nolan was not satisfied with the more radical policy proposal on discontinuing programs. He reluctantly acknowledged the basic concept but criticized the policy as ''lacking clarity of function'' and as being ''cloudy'' on the matter of faculty consultation.
Mr. Weber conceded that the statement ''was not an accord, you might even call it a discord.'' Consequently, the regents voted to table the measure until their next meeting in January.
Robert O'Neil, president of the University of Wisconsin, has been floating a similar idea there, but the faculty appears to be adamantly opposed. ''We think we already have ways to discontinue programs without declaring them superfluous and laying off tenured faculty. What faculty members are worried about in this regard is the possibility that the regents could hunt out and eliminate unpopular or controversial programs,'' Mr. Bunn explains.
The discussions on program discontinuance are more heated because that policy represents a fundamental modification in the historical tenure contract. The administration favors such a policy, says Mr. Volsky, because it would allow a university to keep pace with a dynamic intellectual environment when the number of faculty and the size of the student body is fixed.
In the past, universities could respond to the latest scientific and intellectual trends by adding new faculty members. However, fiscal limitations and the prospect of radically dropping enrollments no longer make this possible. (Experts generally anticipate a 15 percent drop in enrollment by the mid-1990s because of the declining number of 18- to 22-year-olds). Thus, universities are being forced to develop methods to phase out weak programs so that they can add or expand in the newer, more exciting fields of study. This is also considered essential for creating openings for young teachers and researchers in increasingly top-heavy institutions such as CU.
''We have the lead on this, but I expect a number of other universities will soon be taking similar steps,'' says Volsky.