SADOW: Yes, Let’s Get Rid Of Tenure In Louisiana’s Universities

There’s no need to waste taxpayer dollars on initial skirmishes about the merit of tenure in Louisiana higher education. Skip the preliminaries and get on with the legislation.

Last year, Republican state Sen. Stewart Cathey authored a bill to convene study of altering, if not abolishing, the idea of tenure at state schools. It breezed through the Senate but, unusually for study bills, drew significant opposition in the House, mostly from Democrats.

A lot of these bills never produce the intended report, through a combination of institutional resistance and absent follow-through by those requesting the response, including from the author deciding to back off. Cathey chose the latter course but also has stated he intends to move forward with legislation congruent with the idea that the task force would have studied.

From what the task force’s composition was, it seemed unlikely that a majority of its members would have recommended any but the most cosmetic changes to implementing the idea. A dozen of the 19 members of the now-disbanded unit either as legislators voted against the bill or in academia have benefitted from tenure as defined currently, so their personal and ideological interests suggest opposition and no real desire to expand their horizons.

In Louisiana, tenure normally is granted at senior institutions after six years of employment judged adequate by departmental colleagues and higher administrators, but sometimes comes automatically when hiring at the administrative level. Essentially, this secures employment for life unless there occurs noticeable incompetence or activities illegal or in contravention of formal university policy.

Defenders of the concept claim it necessary to prevent arbitrary dismissal for activities or expressed views unrelated to adequate performance in the areas of teaching, research, and service. However, this defense has eroded as tenured faculty members across a variety of institutions spanning the continent increasingly have come under attack from within their own schools for articulating views against the prevailing orthodoxy, leading to punishments and even terminations despite their holding tenure.

Proponents of reforming the concept note it can be abused to shield instructors more interested in indoctrination than education, as long as the views expressed are approved by the institution. There are many examples of this spanning decades, so reformers seek a middle ground trying to prevent arbitrary personnel actions – increasingly untenable under the current formulation in any event – and abuse of the sinecure.

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And reform is necessary, because the necessity for tenure has changed. Its origins about a century ago, and its flourishment throughout the last century, came from higher education then being largely immune from market forces. In the market, an underperforming employee easily is identified by attention to work product and the bottom line and can’t be tolerated precisely because of the negative impact to profitability; not so in academia shielded from the world allowing termination decisions based on arbitrariness to proliferate without consequence.

Yet since the new century, public higher education has become more driven by market forces, for a few reasons: a significant shift towards less public funding and more reliance on student resources; larger market penetration by for-profit institutions especially driven by the rise of Internet learning; marketplace demands shifting post-secondary education more to specific skills credentialling; and the general devaluation of classic liberal education by the academy in favor of orthodoxy that discourages enrollment by prospective students viewing such degrees as not cost-effective (enrollment continues to trickle lower and demographics suggest even steeper declines ahead).

Indeed, the increasing enforcement of orthodoxy at the hiring level (such as forcing applicants to attest to diversity, equity, and inclusion statements) makes tenure obsolete from the current gatekeepers’ perspective. If hiring all likeminded individuals willing to conform, then nothing they say or do will offend the powers that be.

That may be the case, but that won’t stop the real world from impacting negatively academia that it could reverse except it refuses to keep itself relevant by presenting an unencumbered model of education based upon robust debate and cultivation of critical thinking. Current tenure policy in Louisiana decreasingly supports that mission, making its reform essential. Undoubtedly, discussion about Cathey’s putative bill will be more than adequate to determine its suitability for this task.

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