Provost Sona Andrews made a statement in faculty senate in December regarding tenure at Portland State. “We can not be a research university without tenured faculty,” she began. “And I have never said, nor wanted to imply, that we should eliminate or phase out tenure.”
PSU has held on to tenure lines, even grown them. But since 1993, PSU has also hired faculty off the tenure track at 10 times the rate of tenure hires. Andrews noted that our campus “need[s] some faculty who devote their entire time to teaching.” But no one has made an argument for why such faculty work does not require or merit the academic freedom and role in shared governance that comes with tenure.
Recent efforts to revise academic ranks for teaching and research-oriented faculty bracket the issue of tenure. This avoidance entrenches the notion that academic freedom is a dispensable part of academia. “Inevitably there will be differences of opinion on where and how many tenure related faculty are needed,” noted Andrews. “I hope, however, we can all agree that our first commitment has to be to provide high quality and affordable education to Oregonians.” Expanding the basis for tenure would be a positive way to deliver on this commitment.
Tenure delivers stability and efficiency through fewer but more robust faculty appointments. Tenure also enables genuine participation in a body of self-regulating scholars through the peer review process. Job security is not the same as academic freedom, which involves engagement in a scholarly community. The American Association of University Professors takes the position that tenure should embrace all or nearly all faculty who generate, analyze and teach current research in the academic disciplines. Moreover, it is tenure, with its tie to the idea of the public good, that lends coherence to the university’s accountability to stakeholders at the local, state and national level.
We need a broader conversation about the social cost of delivering instruction without meaningful academic freedom or the robust exercise of shared governance. The planned budget cut to summer session 2014 that threatens to eliminate full-time faculty from teaching is a worrisome harbinger.
Tenure must be re-centered in our commitment to excellence and accountability to our students. The practice of rewarding research and scholarship with tenure is a relatively recent phenomenon in higher education and on the PSU campus in particular, probably dating from the early 1980s. Research on this question would demystify present practice. The American Association of University Professors reminds us: “Tenure was not designed as a merit badge for research-intensive faculty or as a fence to exclude those with teaching-intensive commitments.” Rather, tenure is the beating heart of the public trust through which the life blood of free inquiry—research and teaching—flows in our society. The free search for truth must equally cover our classrooms and our research. One without the other compromises both.
PSU’s Promotion and Tenure guidelines state that “a fixed term appointment does not foreclose the possibility that a department may wish to consider that faculty member for a tenure-related appointment.” Expanding the process of peer review to teaching and curriculum development could form a basis for broader interactions among faculty, lending cohesion and reciprocity to our practice. This kind of cohesion is crucial if faculty members are to meaningfully negotiate teaching related to digitization and online learning, with all the outsourcing and permatemping of labor potentially implied. Now more than ever we should examine the tension at PSU between privileging teaching in faculty work assignments and in our marketing to the public but tenuring primarily for research. The history of awarding tenure at PSU and elsewhere might show that tenure for teaching taps older traditions of professionalism that will help us keep up with the times and realize the best of our current and future aspirations.
Patricia A. Schecter, professor of history