The First Turning

A worldwide climate of positive change and hope for the future.

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The Tenure System in Higher Education: A Voice from “Inside the Club”

Since I started this blog in April 2014, I have pretty much stuck to writing about and expanding on the chapters in my book, The First Turning.

Today, I am going to veer off that format and address an issue in higher education that cannot be ignored. And that topic, which I believe needs to be set squarely on the table, is higher education’s tenure system for professors.

Here’s the back story: The tenure system, whereby professors essentially can earn lifetime employment, began in this country as a guarantee to the right to academic freedom. As Wikipedia describes the origins of the tenure system, it “protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics.”

An example of this academic freedom occurred in 1894 when Richard Ely, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor supported the idea of labor strikes and labor law reform. Despite pressures by the Wisconsin legislature and other bodies calling for for his dismissal, the university asserted its commitment to academic freedom.

As I stand here today considering the form and function of the tenure system, I can’t help but think, “Something has gone terribly wrong with that wonderful high-minded belief.”

I am a tenured associate professor at a university. As someone who enjoys its privileges, you would think I would just keep my mouth shut on this topic. Because of my tenured position, I am protected from an unpopular research agenda, which is invaluable to my ability to pursue and impart learning at the highest level.

But, in my mind, the privileges I’m afforded with the tenure system also carry with them a responsibility to higher education and those it purports to support: students. Tenure is not meant to be a mechanism whereby autonomy becomes a lack of responsibility, or permission not to act. Unfortunately, though, I feel that is what it has become. Nowhere have we witnessed a sincere effort on the part of the tenured community to take a stance against the state of financial emergency enveloping the institutions by which we enjoy our academic freedom.

I learned long ago, according to family members, that “right is right and wrong is nobody.” So I am sticking my neck out and going against the grain.

My agenda, personal and professional, is the reform of higher education in the United States. I am a proponent of cutting the astronomical costs of tuition by streamlining and expanding the existing delivery platform at universities to include MOOCs and online education. My thinking and writing is extending also into the very heart of university curriculums in the wake of employer demands for competency-based professionals in the workplace, rather than general knowledge university graduates.

I believe that the urgency of these reforms, made even more dramatic by the $1.1 trillion student loan debt in this country, delivers a powerful bottom line: we are losing an entire generation of young people who simply cannot afford higher education.

And some of the most ardent protestors of any reform whatsoever are tenured professors.

My question is this: Do universities exist for the protection of tenured professors or do they exist for the education of millions of students? I may be writing myself out of a job here, but I believe that it takes someone “inside the club” to ask the hard questions that need to be asked.

In The First Turning, there is a chapter titled From Malala to MOOCs: Educating the Planet. Education is a basic human right, not a privilege. Educating the planet means just that . . . that the door to a better life needs be broken wide open by a change in the conditioning that exists in universities . . . a conditioning that espouses the view that higher education can occur only for a few . . . and that the few had better be well heeled.

Perhaps one of my graduate students said it best: “By the time I get my student loans paid off, it will be time to start paying off my child’s student loans. And she is in elementary school. I am discouraged.”

There is no way to put a “positive spin” on that student’s statement. It is the unvarnished truth. And how does the tenured professor, who insists that universities do not need reform, respond to that statement?

How can we walk into our classrooms, look our students in the eyes—the very same students we read about, those individuals swamped with student loan repayments—and teach them when we haven’t the slightest response to such statements? How can we shepherd them in their studies when we are doing nothing to overcome the obstacles of their education?

This “club member” has no answer… or perhaps only this remark: We are failing the very students that we are supposed to be educating.