The Tenure Issue at Keck Graduate Institute
by Tad Beckman
Humanities and Social Sciences
Harvey Mudd College
In this essay I make reference to a paper by David J. Galas, Chief Academic Officer of the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI). Dr. Galas' paper is titled "The Tenure Debate -- Is Tenure Always Necessary?" and is dated 20 November 1999. My understanding is that the paper was used in connection with a discussion at Pomona College; but I do not know how widely it has been circulated.
While I can agree with Galas that this issue needs to be discussed in detail with care, sincerity, and objectivity, I do not agree with the idea that he and his colleagues "are writing [their] policies, establishing [their] culture and setting [their] future directions" on a kind of "blank slate." The KGI is, in fact, an official member of the Claremont Colleges and this establishes an extremely significant and pervasive context -- scarcely a blank slate -- for many aspects of that institution's development. Clearly, so far as the tenure issue is concerned, KGI's decision not to offer tenure is revolutionary in this contextual setting and, I also believe, is generally unwelcome.
With this much said, I would like to discuss the tenure issue as objectively as I can. Let me begin, then, by calling attention to the fact that tenure does not mean a "guaranteed position for life," as is occasionally rhetorically stated. As we all know, tenure can be terminated for various reasons. One of these is simply the termination of a "program." What the "tenure system" names is a specific contractual system in which termination of a faculty member is answerable to specific and limited kinds of reasons. Doubtless, variations are possible within this contractual theme, though organizations like the AAUP have attempted to standardize the terms. I will use the name "tenure" broadly by implicitly including any contractual scheme that offers "reasonable" protection of a faculty member by requiring answerability on academically acceptable grounds --- something generally within the guidelines of the AAUP standards. Since tenure of any kind is a significant benefit to the individual faculty member and a long-term commitment by the institution, tenure systems generally require a period of trial in which the institution can decide whether to offer tenure or not. According to AAUP guidelines, however, the individual is protected even during this trial period, and tenure cannot be denied on frivolous grounds or without due process. In this sense, the tenure system is a significant benefit even to as yet untenured faculty members.
What Is the Tenure Issue About? In the narrow sense, the tenure issue is about the terms of employment. In the broader sense, the tenure issue is about membership in a working community. If we simply accept the narrow sense without considering the broad sense, then we miss the most important issues. There is an enormous difference between employment, as ordinarily construed today, and membership in a working community. The tenure system is all about creation of a working community.
I certainly grant that the difference I am suggesting is not a black&white dichotomy. There are many different employment situations and there are different working communities. The general difference I have in mind, however, is this: "Employment" is generally a situation in which an "employer," for reasons of his/her own, hires "employees" to perform various tasks defined by him/her; a "working community" is a group of people who share common interests and goals and who come together to achieve those. The community itself negotiates which goals will be sought after and what various members' tasks will be in achieving those goals. Members of the community are generally considered "equals" in this arrangement, though there may be differences produced by age or experience or special skills. The employer makes decisions, including termination of employment, to suit himself/herself. The working community makes collective decisions on negotiated grounds.
Academic institutions try to model working communities. Historically, the faculty as a working community was the whole of the institution and "administrators" were simply special members of the faculty with administrative responsibilities (often temporary). The rise in a professional academic administration, during the last half-century, has confused much of this and encouraged some people to believe that academic institutions are no different from simple employment situations. It has become commonplace for administrators and trustees to use the language of industrial employment to talk about students as "products" and faculty as "employees." Presidents consider themselves something like "CEOs" and we are always reminded that the Board has "the last word" on everything. But, while educational institutions have become very large and needful of organization, we should not let this alter the fact that a faculty is basically a working community. [And, by the way, students are not "products!"]
Why Is Tenure Essential to a Working Community? In his essay, David Galas considers two arguments for tenure. These are "academic freedom" and what I shall call "faculty voice." I shall add to these a third argument, which I shall call "reciprocation."
Let us begin by considering the issue of academic freedom. The very essence of the academy, for faculty and for students, is freedom to seek the truth. In fact, one might claim that the academy is the only institution in our society that has the privilege of devoting itself to truth, beauty, and goodness. This is quite a privilege and quite a challenge; and it is not to be taken lightly. The working community has been created precisely for these reasons.
When an individual cannot enjoy academic freedom because of real threats to grades, degrees, advancement or career, the educational function of the institution ceases to be realized. While this is simple to say, its import and power cannot be ignored or diminished. Academic freedom is an enormous issue and it must be protected at all cost. But is tenure important to the protection of academic freedom? The answer, clearly, is Yes. Tenure secures a working community based on accepted academic values and aims, and it guarantees that a person cannot be dismissed from that community without due process and without consideration based on well established objective academic criteria. As it turns out, the truth is not always popular, especially within circles of power and wealth. The academy can be free only when the practical matters are well insulated from the theoretical and ideal.
Galas argues that faculty members need a voice and that tenure protects this voice. In my own mind, it is not simply an issue of having a "voice;" it is the very core of being "a Faculty" as such. When faculty come together as a working community, they have a voice in defining the community and its work. The Faculty has the power to set academic policy, create educational programs, and set guidelines for student performance and experience. The faculty sets the criteria for accepting new faculty and for offering tenure. Who will do this if the Faculty no longer exists? That is, if the Faculty has no voice? Hence, how (out of what intellectual foundation) will educational policy be formed? To the degree that academia reaches toward the corporate management model, the answer will be professional administrators and their reasoning on these matters will proceed steadily toward marketing issues. But it is precisely the health of the Faculty ideal that stands the educational development of individuals in tension with market concepts.
Finally, I want to discuss what I have called "reciprocation." One of the greatest values of the tenure system, yet one of the least discussed, is the fact that the institutional commitment to an individual faculty member is reciprocated by the individual's commitment to the unique aspects of the institution. Tenure allows a faculty member to withdraw from the marketplace and to enhance personal skills that are of specific advantage to that institution. Without tenure, the faculty member must remain eternally ready to win a position elsewhere (we might call that person "market ready") and, consequently, is unavailable to serve the special interests of the institution. Tenure enables institutions to develop unique programs, providing diversity rather than destining homogeneity. A great deal of what happens at HMC would be impossible without tenure. You do not become "One of a Kind" without reciprocal commitments from the faculty.
Why Has KGI Decided Against Tenure? We will find some of these reasons on pages 4 and 5 of Dr. Galas' essay. I would like to comment on these. To my reading, they fall into three groups. Galas' points 1-3 compose the first group; point 4 stands alone; and points 5-6 compose the final group.
In the first group of points, Dr. Galas suggests three ways in which the tenure system currently fails to protect faculty. First, there are funding agencies which may refuse to support one's research and journal editors that may refuse to publish one's work. Second, in any tenure system, there is a large fraction of untenured faculty that are not protected. Third, "tenure is simply not a sufficient guarantor of academic freedom." There are other ways in which an institution can harm a faculty member beyond the possibility of termination. This, of course, is common knowledge. An institution can tamper with one's salary, office space, various campus privileges, lab space and equipment, etc. It is fairly common knowledge that institutions resort to tactics of this kind when they do not have normal reasons for terminating a tenured faculty member.
As arguments against tenure, all three of these points fail for the same reason. Just because the tenure system fails to cover all bases and ward off all evils is no logical argument against maintaining it where it can succeed. It would be like say that autos should be manufactured without locks since talented thieves can get past anything. Point 1 is the least compelling since we can only control what we ourselves create and, hence, cannot control foundations and editors. I have already argued against point 2 by pointing out that untenured faculty in the tenure system are, in fact, protected to a certain degree. But again, the logic just does not follow. Point 3 suggests a way in which institutions themselves get around the tenure system. It is a regrettable failure but no reason for giving up on the system. The argument seems to be that better contractual systems are available and that these can promise a faculty member more commodious treatment not guaranteed under the conditions of tenure. In fact, this is not an "argument" but rather a "deal." The faculty member sells protection against termination for greater security of accommodating institutional resources. The same deal has always been available for technical faculty, at least, by simply stepping outside the academy and going to work for industry -- higher salaries, more commodious offices, beautifully equipped labs, and random termination.
The fourth point is that faculty and institutions are best served when sharing authority and responsibility. That, of course, is a long-standing tradition in liberal arts colleges, and most people probably agree. Galas' point, however, is that he believes this is best achieved in a system of explicit individual contracts rather than in a broadly defined tenure system. Unfortunately, this is where the point is left; Galas gives no basis for his belief. Where do we find the exemplary cases of success in this kind of system. In the corporate world? I don't believe so.
The final group of points (5-6) discloses what is really at issue in KGI's decision not to offer tenure. The fifth point is that "to remain vital and to sustain academic relevance, [KGI] may need to shift academic focus from time to time. . . [and this] will sometimes require faculty changes." In the sixth and final point Dr. Galas goes even further by suggesting that "economic flexibility" is involved. In other words, KGI must remain current with an ever-changing biotechnology industry even if that means terminating faculty. Needless to say, we do not find these reasons among those allowed by AAUP guidelines. They have little to do with becoming or being a working community. Coming "together" as a faculty to work at KGI means focusing on the values and ideals of the biotechnology industry.
Conclusion. Several aspects of KGI seem to move into strong relief as we consider the issue of tenure. KGI is not the usual academic institution in which faculty come together to work toward common educational ideals. Rather, the goals are specifically focused on serving a very small rapidly changing purpose, feeding the growing biotechnology industry with up-to-date well-trained technicians. The administration of KGI clearly distrusts the idea that faculty will remain current and available to this training mission. Instead, it wants to be able to adjust the emphases and talents of its faculty in accordance with the movement of the industry. The entire institution is driven by the biotechnology industry and not by broad educational ideals as suggested and interpreted by a faculty. What this means, of course, is that KGI lacks one of the fundamental aspects of all educational institutions. Since it turns its back on development of the broad intellectual background within which biology and technology are developing in today's world, it surrenders its ability to ground any critical view of the biotechnology industry. Instead, it allows that industry to dictate the goals to which KGI will respond. Tenure is not only unnecessary in this environment (since criticism is shunned) but it is clearly an impediment to industry achieving its own ends.
Given what KGI intends to be, the decision against tenure is probably reasonable. What this highlights, however, is how different KGI really is. KGI does not belong in the Claremont Consortiuum. It is categorically different from any of the Claremont Colleges. The tenure issue makes this clear.