Tenure and Confessional Institutions – By John H. Haas

John H. Haas on the challenges to tenure in confessional institutions

To many readers it might seem obvious that church- or faith-based colleges and seminaries would have less reason to want a robust tenure system than other schools, where religious faith has little or no bearing on the institution’s identity or mission. This is not necessarily so. Indeed, a much better case can be made that church- or faith-based schools grapple with the same problems tenure was designed to address; that having a confessional foundation alters their situations not one whit; and that religious schools that have abandoned tenure have done so, not because they find it complicates their religious commitments, but for the under-thought-out, ostensibly “practical” goals of so-called “flexibility” and “nimbleness” that currently emanate from that fount of vapidity, the pop-business-self-help-entertainment-leadership-publishing-complex.

Rehearsing the basics of why tenure systems were adopted in the first place, how tenure is supposed to work, and what dangers are invited by its abandonment, makes it clear that tenure can and should be as much a part of even the most sectarian schools as it is of any state or private institution.

Tenure in the US arose around the turn of the last century because of the need to protect the integrity of the academic vocation. The threat at that time took the form of seemingly arbitrary hires and dismissals, with the latter generating most of the heat around the issue. Cases resulted sometimes as a result of personality clashes among faculty and college presidents, sometimes related to sloppy communications from an administration, and sometimes because of ideological and political differences between presidents, boards of trustees, or donors on the one hand, and faculty on the other.

During the Progressive Era in the years just before America’s entry into World War I there were several notable conflicts involving boards of trustees and faculty, which prompted the initial efforts toward organizing the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP. That organization’s 1915 declaration of principles highlighted the need to protect faculty member’s “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.”

While arguments for tenure almost always refer to the need to protect academic freedom, that freedom is not conceived as a mere perk of the academic profession but as integral to the proper functioning of any institution of higher education and to the pursuance of its mission. It is assumed that all educational institutions will put the discovery, transmission, and dissemination of truth — the academy’s prime directive — above the need to placate the prejudices and whims of any interested parties, be they an administration, a board, or even the public. As the AAUP’s 1940 statement put it, “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

To protect the prime directive of the academic calling, tenure seeks to ensure that academic peers with competence to evaluate a faculty person’s performance will play an important role in the processes of hiring and (when necessary) firing. Schools have, therefore, set up tenure committees, in which faculty serve by offering close evaluation and oversight at the points of promotion and dismissal. If the integrity of either process is corrupted by extra-academic considerations, the entire mission of a school as an institute of education is compromised. In this way, tenure functions to protect not faculty only, but also the actual substance and reputation of a school as a school, and ensures that society as a whole, as well as any more circumscribed publics (including students, churches, and believers in a particular religion), are not deprived of genuine contributions to the world of knowledge — contributions that may have significant implications for how we conduct our lives.

It should be obvious that, under this understanding, tenure is advantageous to the institution of higher learning, as well as to the faculty and the public. Administrations that care about the reputation of their schools welcome the contributions of academic peers in the evaluation process that leads to promotion or dismissal because it contributes to institutional integrity: it helps to ensure that an academic institution remains academic. For that reason, the vast majority of institutions in the US have adopted the AAUP’s guidelines on the matter.

What is lost if tenure is abandoned? Many have argued that that would make the academic profession less attractive to men and women of quality, thus hurting American education in general. It’s not clear that those so arguing have much reliable data on their side, though common sense would indicate that there’s nothing about abandoning tenure that would make the profession more attractive. Apart from tenure, administrations and boards of trustees have a free hand to hire and fire at will, without even the input of academic peers capable of evaluating a candidate’s scholarly fitness, or lack thereof. Without tenure, suspicions that such decisions were made for extra-academic reasons would be harder to allay in many cases (and would no doubt increase the chances of litigation in all cases). Without tenure public confidence in an institution’s integrity would be eroded. And, of course, without tenure scholars will feel less safe in pursuing their research wherever it seems to be leading, and in sharing those results with their students or the public. It might be too dramatic to expect a vast grey pall of conformity and intimidation to fall across the nation’s academies, but abandoning tenure would do nothing to prevent a slide in that direction.

Despite these considerations, tenure has had its critics over the decades. Some of the hostility towards tenure has derived from a general bias on the part of most organizations towards streamlining decision-making processes of all kinds, including those that bear on the promotion and retention of personnel. For administrators whose formation or orientation derives from the business world, the idea of having to consult with — or even listen to — other employees when evaluating the status of any given employee can seem incongruous and unnecessary. “For board members, many of whom come from the business sector, tenure can seem like an unnecessary restriction on the administration and a drag on a school’s budget,” Matt Forster has observed. “After all, corporations offer top executives golden parachutes all the time, but few are able to negotiate a golden ticket like academic tenure.”  This tendency towards viewing tenure as an organizational anomaly is probably a permanent feature of an American education system that seeks to combine the un-business-like values of education considered as such with the bottom-line oriented concerns of those operating in a competitive market according to a business model.

More peculiar is the hostility towards the professoriate that has been an almost constant characteristic of right-wing politics since at least the McCarthy era. Conservative evangelical opinionist David French expresses a typical version of this attitude when he observes that tenured “faculty members view themselves as a breed apart — entitled to lucrative lifetime employment no matter what they do.” Tenure is an entitlement no employee deserves, says French, and it props “up vicious relics of the ’60s” who indoctrinate rather than educate, and who are “publicly spewing deranged invective” from within a cushy, consequence-free bubble.

As with the effects of a business orientation that renders some board members flummoxed at the very idea of tenure, conservative rancor towards academics is probably a permanent feature of the American scene, part of the background noise that will need to be faced by the academy for the foreseeable future — although at times it can seem like background caterwauling.

The hostility towards the professoriate that has been an almost constant characteristic of right-wing politics since at least the McCarthy era is peculiar.

One often hears the refrain that the creedal character of religious colleges and seminaries throws a spanner into the workings of tenure. Teaching and publishing, and even research in some cases, needs to adhere to the fundamental theological doctrines espoused by these schools. In theory, that might be a problem, but in theory and practice there’s a long-standing fix for it. As the nascent AAUP noted back in 1915 (and has repeated in one way or another in the various updatings of that document), “If a church or religious denomination establishes a college to be governed by a board of trustees, with the express understanding that the college will be used as an instrument of propaganda in the interests of the religious faith professed by the church or denomination creating it, the trustees have a right to demand that everything be subordinated to that end.” (The term “propaganda” did not carry the negative connotations in 1915 that it has acquired since Joseph Goebbels put his stamp on it.) Any creedal elements any school considers a non-negotiable part of its mission can be (and often are) spelled out in a faculty handbook or statement of faith to which faculty are required to subscribe, and dismissing the errant academic is no more complicated in most cases than dismissing a faculty member for violating a school’s moral standards.

On the ground, religious schools that have abandoned tenure in recent years, however, have rarely done so for demonstrably religious reasons. This is not particularly surprising to anyone familiar with the workings of these schools, where business decisions are usually guided more by the spirit of George Babbitt than that of John Calvin or Pope Francis. Several cases will illustrate the trend.

Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Ohio, a small evangelical school, eliminated tenure in 1998 (this is discussed in the previously cited article by Matt Forster). The seminary’s president, David Draper, viewed tenure as “a ‘million-dollar decision,’” which, he said, locked the school into employing faculty who might not be a good fit decades down the road. “We wanted people who were open to change,” he said citing, like many in the current climate, the school’s need to be “flexible.” The school has moved to a three-equal-semesters plan, with faculty teaching summer, fall and spring, as well as evening classes and shorter intensive classes. “We believed we were making a good educational decision and a good business decision.”

It’s not clear in the case of Winebrenner what bearing tenure had on the changes the school was initiating. Tenure does not normally relieve faculty of the duty of teaching the courses they are assigned. There is nothing in any of the AAUP statements on the matter that indicate that summers are guaranteed off, or that schools must have only two semesters, or anything else related to the revisions of the school year plan Winebrenner initiated. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the school’s decision to eliminate tenure was motivated by concerns other than those related in the story.

More recently in 2014, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary jettisoned its tenure system that had been part of its policy for more than half a century. The president of the seminary, R. Albert Mohler, offered several justifications for the change. This is a return, said Mohler, “to the classic, traditional method of hiring faculty”; tenure had become “a major impediment” to “academic quality”; tenure is a “ticking fiscal time-bomb” that “every academic institution is going to have to abandon or face disaster.” By rejecting tenure, Mohler explained, “we have returned to making election of faculty by the board of trustees the most important issue … .” (At that same meeting, the Republican speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, was elected chairman of the seminary’s board of trustees.)

Again, it’s not easy to divine just how tenure impacted any of the topics Mohler referenced. Tenure does not impede restructuring a school due to financial exigencies (this principle was upheld by a Kentucky Court of Appeals in 2012 when two dismissed faculty sued Lexington Theological Seminary); nor does it prevent removing faculty because they are not performing up to standards. At the same time, getting rid of tenure opens up all the old questions about whether a board of trustees (who are rarely scholars in their own right) is competent to evaluate faculty, either with regard to promotion or dismissal. The seminary is inviting suspicions that non-academic factors might be involved in any future hires or fires. It is hard to imagine why a school would welcome that kind of attention — especially a religious school, given how often religious institutions are rent by ideological factions or compromised by apparent nepotism.

In 2012 Catholic Saint Louis University temporarily moved in the direction of eliminating tenure by reforming it so that it would have nearly no meaning. It was proposed that faculty would re-apply for tenure every six years. Understandably, faculty objected, and the proposal was withdrawn. While such a reform would not necessarily erase all the benefits of tenure mentioned above, it does raise the question of what tenure would mean under such a system, and why a reform of that sort would be desirable. Applying for tenure is an extremely time-consuming process, not only for the professor in question, but also for others involved: colleagues familiar with the professor’s work have to write letters, the tenure committee must thoroughly review the application, and administrators need to supervise the entire process. In light of all that, the familiar question arises: what was it about the tenure system at Saint Louis University that was broken, and how did this proposed fix address the problem? The administration withdrew the proposal before such questions could get aired in print.

Several observations deserve underlining. First, tenure is not a benefit for faculty alone, but affords benefits for the institution and society, too. Insofar as the academic vocation requires rigorous and repeated testing and reassessment of accepted theories and received conventional wisdom, it is part of the normal process of knowledge acquisition and dissemination that there will be disagreements and controversies. The academic mode of operation, therefore, runs against the typical American grain of “going along to get along,” not “rocking the boat,” and taking care not to disturb any of the pet peeves of one’s organizational superiors. The academy operates according to different rules than the world of business because the academy has a different mission: it cannot fulfill that mission without encouraging responsible, good-faith nonconformity.

Tenure affords faculty a sense that the institution has confidence in their work, and that they will not be dismissed merely because they have advanced an unpopular opinion or ruffled some administrator’s feathers. At the same time, ensuring a free space for inquiry protects the reputation of the institution as a place of intellectual integrity, and helps to ensure that the wider society will not be deprived of genuine advances in knowledge simply because someone in power dislikes where inquiry is leading.

Second, church- or faith-based colleges and seminaries are no exceptions to the above considerations. Non-negotiable creedal affirmations are like any other rules an institution might adopt. Generally they are publicized and in fact part of what makes a school distinctive and attractive to a certain constituency. If and when a faculty member’s explorations traduces any of these affirmations, it is in the interest of the school to have academic peers involved in the process and attesting that the faculty person has indeed put themselves at variance with the institution’s identity and mission

Third, nothing has changed in the world of faith commitments or in the general economic climate that affects these considerations in any way. The protections afforded by tenure address now, just as they did at the beginning of the last century, the enduring complications and vulnerabilities of a vocation that sometimes requires saying what others would prefer left unsaid. Nothing about our contemporary moment has altered them in any way, much less obviated this system the American academy has put in place to address them for the past century.