Edward Ross, a renowned economist and professor, lost his job at Stanford University in 1900 when the school’s co-founder, Mrs. Leland Stanford, took umbrage with his views on railroad monopolies.
The Stanfords had amassed an enormous fortune from their railroad enterprises, enough to start and run a private university. Jane Stanford’s late husband earned a reputation as a robber baron through his business practices and use of Chinese immigrant labor, and Ross’s critique of his industry irritated Mrs. Stanford. So she fired him.
That a faculty member could lose his position because a powerful person disapproved of his research sent a troubling message to faculty across the country. Arthur O. Lovejoy, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins, and educational reformer John Dewey led the effort to provide college and university faculty with the freedom to pursue scholarly activities without fear of arbitrary retribution. They called this concept academic freedom. Now recognized as a fundamental principle of American colleges and universities, academic freedom allows faculty to conduct research, publish their findings, develop and teach courses, and express opinions and political views, even when these activities run counter to views held by powerful people, either inside or outside the university.
Attempts to censor faculty are not limited to private institutions and continue, despite the persistence of academic freedom. At the University of Wyoming, for example, not all faculty enjoy tenure track positions, and many continue to express hesitation to speak out and express their opinions on important issues affecting the university and our students. Tenured faculty are less susceptible to retribution, but that could change. Proposed changes to the language of UW regulations currently being considered by the board of trustees would effectively remove that protection, although the faculty senate recently approved alternative language to the resolution for the trustees to consider.
The concept of tenure is rooted in the Edward Ross’s dismissal: it is the mechanism that protects academic freedom. There is a great deal of misinformation as to what tenure is and the protections it provides. The following definition, constructed by administrators and professors in the 1940s, remains the standard:
Tenure, accurately and unequivocally defined, lays no claim whatever to a guarantee of lifetime employment. Rather, tenure provides only that no person continuously retained as a full-time faculty member beyond a specified lengthy period of probationary service may thereafter be dismissed without adequate cause. . . . [T]enure is translatable as a statement of formal assurance that . . . the individual’s professional security and academic freedom will not be placed in question without the observance of full academic due process.
Tenure is a joint commitment between a new faculty member and the university. Usually the faculty person comes in as an assistant professor, and the process of earning tenure takes, on average, six years. During that time, a faculty member seeks to prove his or her worth to their institution through three criteria: effective teaching, research publications, and service activities (committee work, professional activities, and statewide engagement are some common forms of service). The university provides support and mentoring. If an employee meets the standards for tenure, and it is granted, the employee has greater financial security and is less likely to fear reprisal for doing research or teaching in culturally or economically sensitive topics. Not all employees are granted tenure; those who do not automatically lose their job and must seek work elsewhere.
Tenure does not provide a lifetime guarantee of employment nor does it encourage faculty members to “retire in place,” as two common misconceptions hold. As the 1940s statement on tenure describes, faculty can be fired for cause. University faculty undergo a formal process called post-tenure review, and faculty members who do not maintain high standards of teaching, meet departmental requirements for publishing their research, or engage in service activities can be fired.
The financial security that comes with tenure plays a critical role in attracting and retaining highly capable individuals into academia. Generally, academics garner lower salaries than comparable positions outside the university setting. The lure of academic freedom secured by tenure encourages people to endure the years of postgraduate training (on average, eight to ten years in addition to the Bachelor’s Degree), and the low graduate student and postdoctoral salaries necessary to become a recognized specialist.
A university that attracts and retains top quality professors is more likely to provide top quality educational experiences for students. Students benefit when instructors are not afraid to share new concepts, theories, and technologies. It is healthy for all of us to explore unfamiliar cultures and emerging scholarship. Employers across our state benefit as well. They expect graduates to think critically, to address diverse realities, and to be comfortable with uncertainty. These are real-world, marketable skills.
The University of Wyoming has the enviable reputation of employing a higher percentage of tenure-track faculty than the national average. This fact lends prestige to our university, indicating a commitment to excellence in education and bucking the trend of institutions to increasingly rely on part-time and non-tenure track employees as a cost cutting measure. This is a fact that University of Wyoming students and citizens of the state should be proud of and should protect. UW students deserve faculty who prove themselves to be scholars in their discipline, as evidenced by meeting the tenure standards.
Renee M. Laegreid is President of the University of Wyoming Faculty Association — Wyoming Chapter of American Association of University Professors — Professor, History of the American West and the author of “Riding Pretty: Rodeo Royalty in the American West”, and, “Finding the American West in Twentieth Century Italy,” and co-editor of the essay collection “Women on the North American Plains”.