A response to legislators seeking to end tenure

Legislators in Missouri and Iowa have introduced bills to eliminate tenure at public colleges and universities in those states. It is too early to know if these proposals will receive support. However, following attacks on faculty and public institutions in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and other states, we must treat this legislation seriously. The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a Q&A with Representative Rick Brattin, the author of the Missouri legislation. Representative Brattin’s comments reveal the folly of his proposal and the lack of basic understanding of faculty. In today’s post, I want to republish the Q&A along with my response which is in brackets below.

A response to legislators seeking to end tenure


Chronicle: Why did you feel this bill was needed?

A. The biggest intent had to do with the provision of being transparent in the cost to students for the degrees that they receive. We’ve seen throughout the media and all across the nation where some professors are taking what is supposed to be their responsibility of teaching and, once they reach tenure, they are able to start teaching classes that really aren’t, in a lot of people’s opinion, especially ones that are paying for that college degree, are a little out of the scope of what’s going to help them in a real-world situation. [How exactly does eliminating tenure factor into cost transparency? If you want to provide better information to students and families, this is a policy goal that would find broad support. Folding an attack on faculty into a bill and claiming that the content of teaching is the cause of rising college costs is disingenuous.]

In today’s day and age, a need for tenure is outdated. [What about today’s day and age makes tenure outdated? I would suggest the opposite is true with the attacks on public institutions and their faculty not to mention the politicization of trustees and higher eduction policy.] There are provisions that do protect the ability for a professor to teach in accordance to how they see fit, but not go off the rails and off the deep end on a protection such as this. [So are you in support of letting professors teach how they see fit or not? To be clear, your bill would eliminate this protection for faculty.]

Chronicle: What is a better solution for the university-employment process? As you know, virtually every American university uses tenure.

A. Where else in any other industry do you have tenure, do you have a protection to where after you work somewhere for so long you’re basically immune? [That’s a great question. I’m a tenured faculty member and I don’t have that protection. Please let me know an industry where that exists and I may consider switching. Currently, I can be fired for a number of reasons as long as my institution follows due process procedures.] That doesn’t exist anywhere except for our education system, and that’s just un-American. [To the contrary, tenure is a foundational tenet of America. In our society, we encourage debate, free speech, and challenging ideas. We’ve been doing that since the real (gasp) Tea Party. The courts have consistently found that faculty speech is important and should be protected. Taking away the ability of faculty to study and teach without political interference sounds more Russian than American to me]. If you’re doing your due diligence as a professor or any profession, you shouldn’t have to worry about termination. [With all due respect, I can think of many times in my career where my due diligence could have gotten me fired. Giving a bad grade to the daughter of a wealthy donor, disagreeing with my dean on the academic credentials of a new hire, and publishing research findings that question the decisions my president and trustees make. My academic integrity is protected by my academic freedom and tenure. Your bill is a direct threat to academic quality and integrity.]

Why do we need a protection like tenure if you’re doing your job as a professor and you’re educating kids like you’re supposed to be doing for real-world application and betterment of their life skills? Why do you need that? [My job is not to educate students for real-world application and betterment of their life skills. My job is create and disseminate knowledge through teaching, research, and service. Some of my teaching has real-world application. Some of my teaching is for life skills. Some of the things I teach are to make someone a more knowledge person and citizen of our nation. And to be clear, I listed those in order from least to most significant.]

Chronicle: Are you concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom, or professors could get fired for political reasons?

A. Like I said, in what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? [Like I said, tenure is not protection for whatever you say, whatever you do.] You don’t have that. Their job is to educate, to ensure that students are able to propel themselves into a work force and be successful. That’s their job. [No, sir. Let me put this clearly, you are wrong. Higher education is not solely about the workforce. It is a part of what we do and it may be the only part of what we do that YOU like, but it is not our sole job. It would be easy if that were true, but we also have the responsibility to create new discoveries, develop an educated citizenry, serve our communities, preserve knowledge for future generations, support the arts, foster innovation, cure diseases, and, yes, improve the workforce.]

If they are going off the rails and not doing what they are supposed to as a hired staff of educating those kids, should they not be held accountable? [You seem to be under the mistaken belief that college students are kids. Perhaps you haven’t heard that more than a quarter of college students are over 30 and nearly half are non-traditional.] Should they have the freedom to do whatever they wish on the taxpayers’ dime and on the students’ dime? That should be more the question: Should they have that freedom to do that? Their focus should be to ensure that we have an educated person to be able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. [Who do you think cradles, supports, and makes those dreams come true? I’ll give you a hint, you are attacking them in your legislation.]

Chronicle: When you say that professors are teaching things that aren’t practical, do you mean the courses offered by the university or the lesson plans in the classroom?

A. It’s a mixture of both. We’ve seen out-of-control cost and the cost of the schooling is just astronomical. What my bill does, it lays out what the costs to that student is going to be to degree, what they are going to be able to make in that job market, what that degree even pertains to in that real-world job market. By having an inflated amount of classes that are required, and really don’t pertain to degrees addressing some of these issues of transparency, will help our education system as opposed to hurting it. [What your bill does not do is address the out-of-control price of college which is the problem you say you want to address. Where’s your legislation increasing state appropriations? That’s how you control the price of college.]

Students are getting degrees that have no real-world applicability, and then they’re stuck with all this monumental debt and then no job to pay it off. And it’s a disservice to our youth.

Chronicle: It sounds like you think that universities should change the structure of certain majors, and the way degree maps are presented.

A. I know the bill has a tenure portion, but the main portion of this bill is to make it as transparent on the cost each student is going to be paying, the applicability of the degree, every degree that they offer, and what the prospective job market is for that degree. That’s what needs to be brought to light.

If you talk to these college students, they’re told these degrees are great and then they get out in the real world with no job that it even applies to. Then they find themselves having to go back to school trying to find something that hopefully they’ll be able to get a job with.

I think that tenure is a contributing factor at bringing down costs for students to where we have an efficient work force, but not inflated to where everyone is protected by tenure if they are not educating our kids in the fullest extent. [Okay, maybe we need a rule that you can’t write legislation about things that you have no idea about whatsoever. There has been a massive trend away from tenure-line faculty for nearly a generation. Every faculty member does not have tenure. Not only that, many do not even have full-time positions anymore. Seriously, call any faculty member in the state of Missouri and ask them if there are more tenure eligible faculty today or ten years ago. I will turn in my tenure card if you can find anyone who thinks there are more today.]

Chronicle: Was this connected with the Mizzou protests?

A. I filed this bill long before the protests happened. (According to the Missouri House Journal, Mr. Brattin filed a similar version of this bill, House Bill 1165, in March 2015 without provisions to eliminate tenure. The University of Missouri at Columbia’s student and faculty protests took place in the fall of 2015.) This was brought to me by students and family members that have gotten degrees they were told was a great degree path and they get in the real world and can’t find a job that it really applied to. They’re working at a retail store for $12 an hour with $50,000 in debt. They feel like they were misled. That’s a disservice, especially with a public university, and we need to ensure that what those public dollars are going to, and if these students are going to be making a good investment. [I assume you are talking about underemployment which is a legitimate concern. But to be clear on the facts, 12.6% of recent college graduates are underemployed compared to 33.7% of high school graduates. I agree someone being underemployed and $50,000 in debt is bad. I’d welcome your legislation to increase state grants to reduce the need for debt to pay for college to help alleviate this burden.]

Chronicle: A lawmaker has filed a bill to eliminate tenure at public universities in Iowa. Is there a sentiment in statehouses nationally that tenure should be eliminated, or is this a coincidence?

A. We see this in the media, we see it all across the nation, we see it here in Missouri to where things aren’t being done according to their job description and students are having to pay for it. Taxpayers are having to pay for that, and it’s wrong. [I assume you’re referring to the controversy with Melissa Click during the protests at the University of Missouri. She was terminated. What was that you were saying again about faculty not being held accountable?]

We’ve got to make sure there is checks and balances. We want academic freedom. We want the building to have that freedom there, but you’re also there to carry out a job, and you have to do that job. [So carrying out my faculty job and academic freedom are not compatible? I think what we have here is a failure to communicate.] Those protections that make it to where you can do whatever you want — you don’t have to worry about anything because you have that protection — I think it’s wrong. [Me too, thank goodness that’s not what tenure entails.] Our students deserve better, especially when they have this huge amount of debt they are going to have to pay back, and they may not end up with a real, applicable job by the degree they are being told will do that.

Chronicle: Specifically, what do you mean “things aren’t being done” according to a professor’s job description?

A. When we have college graduates making up 40 percent of unemployed Americans, after they have been promised if they come here and they receive this degree, they’ll be able to do this, that, and the other, and they find out its an out-of-date degree program or degree, its an injustice to our youth. Something’s wrong, something’s broken, and a professor that should be educating our kids, should be concentrating on ensuring that they’re propelling to a better future, but instead are engaging in political stuff that they shouldn’t be engaged in. [Something is wrong but it isn’t faculty. It is your data. Yes, we faculty are sticklers about data. To be clear, the unemployment rate of recent college graduates is 5.6% (versus 17.9% for high school graduates).] Because they have tenure, they’re allowed to do so. And that is wrong. It’s an abuse of taxpayers dollars. If you want to go get grant money, or you want to be privately funded to do your endeavors of whatever, that’s fine. When you’re on the taxpayer dollar, I don’t think that’s a proper use of the taxpayers’ money.

Chronicle: Let’s say a geologist at the University of Missouri is tenured and his responsibility entails research. Part of his job is to do research on publicly funded dollars. Do you think that should be publicly funded?

A. If that’s his job and he was hired by the university to do x, y, and z, and he’s performing x, y, and z, that’s what he was hired to do. It’s when these professors receive tenure that they are all of a sudden allowed this astronomical freedom to do whatever they wish, and they’re virtually untouchable, I’m sorry, it’s taxpayer dollars. [All of a sudden… like after 6 years, numerous reviews by peers at the institution and nationally, and a mountain of evidence has been reviewed.  Riiiiiiiiight.]

There should be accountability with whatever you’re doing. And it’s quite clear by the numbers that what’s being done is not at the best level and the highest echelon that it should be. [What numbers? What evidence is there to support this point?]

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.

Editor’s Note (1/13/2017, 2:05 p.m.): The Chronicle has removed from this article a sentence in which Mr. Brattin inaccurately cited a statistic on the proportion of college graduates among the unemployed. A link to a two-year-old Newsweek article that Mr. Brattin supplied as evidence for his assertion has also been removed, as that article concerned the proportion of unemployed people who are members of the millennial generation, whether college graduates or not. [Please, please tell me this isn’t the evidence that a state representative is using to propose legislation. Just kidding, I know there is no basis in data or evidence in this legislation. That never was the point. Using evidence to inform conclusions is just a crazy thing that me and my off the rails tenured colleagues do.]