Tenure `refuseniks' challenge system. Is the protection of academic freedom worth the many prices that tenure exacts? This question took on a new urgency this year when Congress made mandatory retirement illegal.

AFTER years in the junior faculty salt mines, David Helfand had reached academia's promised land. Columbia University had informed the young physicist that he was going to become a tenured professor. A job for life, virtually guaranteed, at one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. But Dr. Helfand wasn't impressed. ``I'm fundamentally opposed to the [tenure] system,'' he recalls telling the administration. ``Therefore, I'm not going to participate in it.'' In other words, he turned them down.

University officials were nonplused. That was like declining the Bill of Rights, they said. But finally, a year and a half later, Columbia agreed to Helfand's alternative: a five-year contract, after which his work would be reviewed by his peers.

A few years earlier, a Columbia geology professor, Wally Broecker, had tried to resign his tenure in order to open up more slots for junior faculty in his department. But the university wouldn't let him. While tenure ``refuseniks'' like these are hardly overrunning America's campuses, they are raising fundamental questions about the practice. Is the protection of academic freedom worth the many prices that tenure exacts? Are there alternatives?

These questions took on new urgency this year when Congress made mandatory retirement illegal. In the past, retirement at age 65 has served as a kind of ``graceful separation'' for tenured academic deadwood, university officials say. After a seven-year grace period, however, universities will no longer have this option. To trim the deadwood, they'll have to address the performance issue directly. John Chandler, head of the Association of American Colleges and former president of Williams College, says the ``uncapping'' of mandatory retirement could start a ``careful evaluation of faculty that rarely goes on in tenured ranks.''

``Careful evaluation'' is precisely what Helfand thinks the tenured ranks need more of. Helfand has no use for the waste that a tenure system can harbor. In graduate school, he began to realize that the tenured professors ensconced above him weren't all lighting up the skies. A year at a space science laboratory in Europe clinched the case. ``They're all tenured civil servants,'' he says, ``and the pace is about 1/10th to 1/30th what would be acceptable here.''

Dick Netzer, former dean of the economics department at New York University across town, affirms this view. ``There are faculty members whose brains cease performing anything but biological functions once they get tenure,'' Netzer says. Helfand adds that the safety of tenure can draw people to academic life for all the wrong reasons. One faculty colleague confided that he left the rigors of private industry because he didn't want to worry about reviews by his peers. Helfand is distressed, moreover, at the scant attention given to teaching in tenure decisions. Early on, a senior faculty member advised him that it would be a ``waste of time'' to put any extra effort into his teaching. ``I think that's appalling,'' he says.

Predictably, tenure stirs strong feelings on campus. Joan Ferrante, an English professor who chairs the executive committee of the Columbia University Senate, calls Helfand a ``fake.'' ``He has tenure whether he wants to admit it or not,'' she says. Dr. Ferrante says that Helfand, with his talk of productivity, overlooks basic differences between the sciences and the humanities. And Ferrante recalls the McCarthy era, when tenure was a bulwark, at least for some. In a non-tenured system, ``the guys who use their intellectual freedom will be the first to go, not the deadwood,'' she says.

Helfand counters that this protection is not all it appears. During the McCarthy era, some universities dismissed faculty despite tenure, he says. For junior faculty, the academic ``grunt'' squad, the years spent struggling for tenure are the opposite of freedom. ``They feel they can't pursue what they want to in their research, because they have to produce results quickly,'' Helfand says.

Alan Wolfe, a sociology professor at City University of New York, observes that in the economic crunch of the '70s, tenure froze out younger scholars of all political views. ``It's like rent control in New York City,'' Dr. Wolfe says. ``If you got in at the right time, you are in for life.''

Nobody knows how far the new federal retirement law will push universities to change the system. Maine has had such a law since the mid-'70s, and Alfred Fuchs, dean of the faculty at Bowdoin College, says it has produced no major changes in retirement patterns there. But should American universities need a new model, many point to Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, founded in 1970. Instead of tenure, faculty get long-term contracts, ultimately for 10 years. Along with flexibility and the ability to dismiss deadwood, the contract system has revealed an unexpected advantage, president Adelle Simmons says. It's a natural break point at which faculty can consider whether they really want to teach for another 10 years. With tenure, such faculty members ``just stay there and retire,'' Dr. Simmons observes.

Helfand isn't counting on Columbia adopting such a system any time soon, however. So, in his new role as chairman of the astronomy department, he's taking another route: reallocating pay from senior to junior faculty on the basis of performance. ``Of course,'' he says, ``the other 27 department chairmen ... are not going to take kindly to the idea that I'm going to threaten their salary security.''

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