Panel debates importance of tenure

A panel discussion organized by former Williams trustee Choppy Rheinfrank ’62 painted a bleak picture of the role of tenure in higher education last Saturday.

The College did not sponsor the event, though Rheinfrank did thank the Alumni Office and Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, for allowing the event to be held on campus.

Jim Carlin, former Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, and Cathy Trower, a researcher at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education Project on Faculty Appointments, joined Rheinfrank on the panel. Kate Zernike, an education reporter for the New York Times, moderated the discussion.

Eugene Hickok, the current U.S. Under Secretary of Education, was supposed to be on the panel, but had to cancel the trip at the last minute due to complications in his travel plans.

The discussion began with each of the three panel members giving opening statements. Carlin denounced what he called the outrageous increases in tuition over the last couple of decades. “Middle class parents are having a difficult time paying for the costs of higher education,” said Carlin. “It is becoming a severe burden for everyone except the very, very rich and the very, very poor.” Carlin claimed that the only way to control those costs would be to challenge the faculty tenure system. Tenure is a system that allows selected faculty to hold their positions with little fear of being fired.

Advocates claim that tenure is crucial because it allows for free speech while opponents say it can, in some cases, lead to intellectual laziness. “There are few jobs where someone can get paid so much for doing so little,” said Carlin. “Of roughly 278,000 tenured professors in the country, you can count on two hands how many are fired each year. The University of Massachusetts hasn’t fired one in 35 years.”

Carlin also claimed that college presidents are powerless to do anything about this system. According to Carlin, a president’s secondary responsibility is fundraising while his primary responsibility is pandering to a faculty body that essentially runs the institution.

“Crossing the faculty means a no-confidence vote,” said Carlin. “That means either being removed by the board of trustees, fixing up your resume and moving on to another job or having the rest of your stay at the college being very unpleasant.”

Trower picked up where Carlin left off and condemned the system as a whole as well as its role in keeping women and minorities out of the teaching ranks. Trower claimed the tenure system was instituted by white males in a bygone era.

“For women who want to have a family, the biological clock conflicts with the tenure clock,” said Trower. “By the time a female academic finishes graduate school there is very little time left to raise a family. Many women get embittered by the entire process.” Trower went on to add that 90 percent of tenured faculty across the country are white, non-Hispanics.

Rheinfrank, the final speaker, grew emotional as he highlighted the injustices that he believes arise out of the tenure system.

“The kiss of death for getting tenure is winning the best teacher award,” said Rheinfrank. “We can, will and must abolish tenure. I’ve yet to find a president or member of the board of trustees at any college who will say off the record that tenure is a good thing.” Rheinfrank claimed that abolishing tenure could cut the net tuition costs for students on financial aid by 50 percent.

Following the opening statements, the members of the panel fielded questions from Zernike and also from audience members. Zernike began by asking the panel how it would protect intellectual freedom without tenure.

The panel’s consensus was that tenure is unnecessary to protect that freedom. Trower emphasized that in a society with due process, tenure becomes superfluous. She pointed out that the press was free to report as they desired without being guaranteed a job for life.

One concern raised by the audience was the lack of anybody on the panel who supported tenure.

“It’s hard to get somebody to argue the pro-tenure position,” claimed Carlin. “They argue the freedom of speech angle and their arguments are quite weak. Everybody agrees the system doesn’t work. We need to have an open discussion on how to fix it.”

The one big disagreement between the members of the panel was how to implement change in the system. Carlin, claiming the system was too deeply rooted in academia to change overnight, said the only solution was to grandfather members of the faculty already tenured. “You shouldn’t take tenure away from people who have it. They played by the rules, which may or may not have been fair, and earned it. I’m willing to wait 30 or 40 years to see this change,” he said.

Rheinfrank, however, thought that would be unacceptable. “People are being frozen out of four-year degrees because of tenure and it’s despicable,” said Rheinfrank. “We cannot wait 40 years to fix this system. Colleges need to act collectively and people need to start bringing lawsuits.”

While Trower claimed not to have ideas for a better system, or even to know if there was a better system, Carlin and Rheinfrank proposed that colleges offer professors multiyear contracts which would be renewed by the administration if the professor was performing well. “Colleges should hire the same way any other organization does,” said Carlin. “If they get a good worker, they’ll do back-flips to keep him.”