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Tenure raises question between academic freedom, lazy teaching

December 6, 2007

Permanent employment contract: sounds nice, but recently increased debate over the concept of tenure has officials at some institutions wondering if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be, and it has some UW-River Falls students doubting the sincerity of their professors.

At UWRF, new hires come up for review each year, during which they are evaluated by other department members on the basis of elements such as student course evaluations, course syllabi and student advisees. Department members then vote whether or not to retain the faculty member in question. After six years of full-time, or at least half-time employment, members of the department have the option to make a recommendation that the faculty member be evaluated for tenure, according to the UWRF Faculty Handbook.

After passing through the chair of the department, dean of the college and the provost, the recommendation will then be handed to the chancellor; if approved, the faculty member will no longer come up for yearly review. The intention is to preserve a sense of academic freedom for faculty, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Connie Foster said.

“[After tenure is granted], the faculty member is committed to serving at our institution,” Foster said. “Essentially, faculty can speak their mind without losing their jobs.”

Several professors working toward tenure were reluctant to speak about it. This may be due to a fear of being demoted or punished for expressing an opinion — just what tenure is designed to prevent, Journalism Department Chair Colleen Callahan said.

“Tenure is important because a person is much more willing to speak their mind if they don’t have to worry about getting demoted or at the least, not promoted,” Callahan said.

“It’s an issue of academic freedom.”

After being granted tenure, faculty cannot be removed unless they elect to leave or there are “severely extenuating circumstances,” Foster said.

“The bottom line is they have to continue to do their job,” Foster said. “It’s not an excuse not to perform in an adequate manner.”

Junior Emily Fonder, a biology student, said that she thinks unfortunately, some professors don’t treat it like the administration intends.

“They know they have their job no matter what,” Fonder said. “Then you get teachers that just get lazy.”

Senior Annaka Isenberger experienced a tenured “professor who didn’t care” at school in Steven’s Point.

“We had to wait 45 minutes to take our final,” Isenberger said. “And she didn’t realize until the last day that her book was different than ours, so the readings were all off … it was ridiculous.”

It is this sort of student response that has officials at some institutions more closely examining “the tenure trackline.” In Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Richard P. Chait’s novel, “The Questions of Tenure,” he even refers to tenure as “the abortion issue of the academy.”

Although there may be some faculty who don’t take their job quite as seriously at times, it has nothing to do with tenure or even with a particular profession, Callahan said.

“The thing is, if you have someone who is lazy at their profession, they’re going to be lazy no matter what,” Callahan said. “In my 22 years of experience here, I’ve found that tenured professors work just as hard as others.”

It is also important to note that tenure doesn’t mean that professors are exempt from review, Foster said.

“[UWRF has] adopted a system of post-tenure review that comes up every few years,” Foster said. “It doesn’t deal with retention but rather suggestions and recommendations by other department members.”

Junior Kirsten Farrar said that professors do deserve to be repaid for the time and energy devoted to their job, but there is no reason they shouldn’t be evaluated on a regular basis.

“They put so much of their time into the school and know the system, so they should get credit,” Farrar said. “But they still need review … teaching styles change.”

Pre-nursing student Casey McCutcheon said she believes tenure is a great idea for professors that take their jobs seriously whether they are tenured or not.

“My bio teacher is tenured, and she’s really good,” McCutcheon said. “She deserves to get paid back somehow.”

Spanish professor Elizabeth Skwiot said she feels as if UWRF is a place where teachers shouldn’t have to worry about their jobs whether they are tenured or not because it is obvious that everyone here has a passion for what they do.

“It’s something about the atmosphere of UWRF … I’ve seen it as a teacher and a student,” Skwiot said. “At other universities it may be different, but here the teachers just enjoy teaching.”