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Tenure's origins in dissent

| December 21, 2010 8:00 PM

One of the best things about our brand of democracy is dissent. That includes the freedom to express it, the freedom to debate it, and ideally, the practice of respect for opposing positions. The reality more often than not is that while the first two get plenty of attention, the last item is more difficult. No two aspects of society require all three more strenuously than the pursuits of politics and education.

In this nation too often issues swing like a pendulum. Recognition of a significant problem leads to a strong, typically emotional policy reaction in the other direction. Trying to fix the problem we swing too far the other way, thus creating different problems. Eventually we usually seem to find the middle ground.

The recently publicized battle over tenure in Wyoming and Montana is one such issue. Legislators there may end the policy offering significant job security (due process and specific cause before termination) for simple longevity. Tenure is unpopular among citizens who believe it keeps bad teachers employed. Some Idaho legislators talk of considering similar measures.

Tenure certainly can work that way sometimes and is of special concern at the K-12 level. It can operate in extremes, making administrators feel unable to fire subpar faculty. Sometimes it works against talented, new teachers who find it hard to compete for jobs with less talented but tenured teachers. However, before tossing that proverbial baby out with the murky bathwater, tenure's roots should be well considered.

At least originally, tenure was about censorship.

In Europe in the Middle Ages tenure was first granted to university professors to allow them to speak in opposition to royalty, the church, and other VIPs without risking their jobs. Nevertheless in the early 20th century American college professors still risked being fired if they researched, published, or otherwise expressed controversial opinions. Education is incomplete when it does not tolerate differing viewpoints. That led to discussions of tenure years before 1915, when the American Association of University Professors was formed. The AAUP policy favoring tenure in 1940 was approved by the Association of American Colleges and became widespread.

So if tenure started at colleges, why did it spread to children's education as early as 1909 (New Jersey was first to enact a K-12 tenure law)? Explanations are multiple but simply put, it was originally to protect teachers who wanted to try different or more creative teaching methods, but who feared firing by their principals if they did. At some schools, principals were very specific about which books and teaching methods were acceptable, so these teachers had no flexibility in serving their students' needs.

Tenure and faculty termination policies vary widely by state law and at each institution or district. Generally after a "probationary period" they offer full-time instructors an administrative hearing, peer review, and other due process rights before possible termination. According to the AAUP, that period could be up to seven years employment but is typically less than half that. Often the policy offers pay post-termination, or up to a year advance notice before termination is effective.

Tenure's potential negative effects certainly merit reforms. Yet its power to protect free speech, flexibility, and intellectual growth in classrooms must not be undervalued. I hope we can find a balance, preserving tenure's original purposes without sacrificing practical accountability.

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. E-mail sholehjo@hotmail.com

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