Don't Eliminate Tenure Just to Trim Deadwood

UNIVERSITIES and major league baseball have one thing in common: It's tough to fire bums. Guarantee someone lifetime employment, and the result is a nonproductive, outdated snob who shows up for class two days a week to lecture from yellowed, tattered notes.

In eight states, discussions are taking place about professors and their unique employment. Deadwood is the key term in these discussions.

Tenure is an appalling concept to those who survive solely on the basis of performance. That's because discussions about tenure's elimination are based on free-market notions, such as ''If you're good, you can always find a job,'' and ''Tenure doesn't matter if you're doing your job.''

Yet within tenure's genesis lies the justification for its continuation. Tenure exists because of religion. Education was originally an extension of religion in its ecclesiastical focus. Even academic regalia has its roots in priests' robes. Scholarly work challenging that religious base was grounds for termination. The Puritans, for example, ousted the first president of Harvard College for his heretical beliefs.

German universities first recognized the need for an educational environment that fostered freedom of thought - lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and lernfreiheit (freedom to learn). Tenure provided these freedoms. Research and discussions that might pierce the veil of religious thought were protected.

The concepts of academic freedom and tenure emerged in the United States when Darwinism could not find a research or teaching home in higher education. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) became the proponent of tenure in the US in 1915. Without tenure, research would have been controlled and limited by the insecurity of faculty, who frequently were fired for challenging the Good Book.

American courts embraced the connection between the freedom and ability to speak candidly and the need for stability of employment. Justice Felix Frankfurter described professors as ''professors of democracy'' who fulfilled a unique role of seeking information and expounding on it.

Critics point out that, unlike the Darwinesque era, antidiscrimination protections as well as limitations on employment-at-will now exist. Yet, tenure and the freedom to speak remain inextricably intertwined. Socrates's life might have been different if he'd had tenure. Tenure protected free-market thinkers such as Milton Friedman during the Keynesian era, just as it protected regulatory advocates during the roaring 1920s.

Most schools today are government sponsored or, at a minimum, government beneficiaries. The insertion of religious views and morality in lectures outside of religion courses is risky business. Those academics with views and research focused on individual accountability, deregulation, and natural law are today viewed within university communities with the same outrage with which the Puritans greeted heretics.

Despite being self-confessed free marketeers with full professorships, active research records, and proven excellence in the classroom, our own academic careers could end with tenure's demise. We would not suddenly be unemployed, but our choices likely would be either positions at small, religious-sponsored schools or a return to the private sector. (An academic invasion should be frightening enough to rally business support). Without tenure, we could be drummed out quite easily for our views by personnel actions taken in the name of ''lack of collegiality'' or ''absence of professionalism.''

It would be painful to describe the levels of resentment and antics of retaliation we have experienced because of our work and views. But examples are universal. One academic organization adopted resolutions that denounced discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, weight, and public-assistance income (among other things) and mandated convention boycotts of cities and states with inconsistent laws. The silence in the room as the resolutions were presented was palpable. One opponent who raised a question was denounced as ''unethical.'' The fear of retaliation in mandatory peer reviews and evaluations silenced all but the proponents of the resolutions.

We find that the once-oppressed are now the oppressors. Campus heretics today are those who question the value of teaching feminist jurisprudence or sex in cinema. This generation of heretics is an endangered species.

We need tenure because we need free-market thinkers. If you think higher education is looney now, wait until those of us who ask questions and work for change are trounced.

Undeniably, tenure, mixed with human nature, can produce deadwood. But tenure's elimination is an overly broad solution for exorcising the unmotivated.

Doing away with tenure likely would result in greater unionization and pay scales that in turn would create more of the ''tired and plodding.'' A better remedy is the performance-based compensation now in place at many prominent schools. Arizona State University's College of Business awards ''0'' merit pay to nonproducers. Contributors receive double or triple merit increases. Monetary signals are universal in their motivational effects.

Some deadwood will remain. But a few pieces here and there is a small price to pay to retain the priests of democracy, some of whom will survive, despite their conservative views, because of tenure and its gloriously blind eye of protection.

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