Academic Freedom Through Tenure Insures Quality and Accountability to Students: Part 1

For a century now, tenure has served as the basis of academic freedom and shared governance in higher education. Together, academic freedom and shared governance insure a robust, responsive, high quality education to students and advance the public trust which is at the heart of an educational mission like PSU’s.

As the American Association of University Professors put it in 1915: “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” Similar to other campuses across the country, tenure and faculty stability have eroded substantially at PSU, threatening our ability to deliver on our mission and provide genuine accountability to our students. Excellence, accountability and genuine academic freedom for students is paramount, especially when students take on staggering debt to pursue and complete their educations. “Academic freedom in the classroom is not merely a matter of constitutional free speech nor should it regarded as a privilege of the faculty,” notes education sociologist William Pendleton. “It is a fundamental requisite of effective education.”

PSU must reinvest in tenure to protect its academic mission and to foster the instructional excellence that students demand and deserve. Extending tenure eligibility to faculty currently holding full time teaching appointments can effectively counter recent policies, especially of cancelling classes, which threaten to turn the curriculum and faculty into pop-beads. The cancellation of about 80 summer courses in June left students in the lurch, as the Oregonian reported. Not only did many adjunct and fixed-term faculty find themselves out of work, but one—a fifteen-year veteran—reported that he/she was “still expected to provide student advising and complete other work requirements without pay.” Abrupt cancellations of classes treat such dedicated mentors as exploitable objects.

Administrators pointed out that summer school courses are offered during the regular academic year, but we on campus know that those courses are increasingly vulnerable. A procedure of cancelling classes 1-3 weeks into the term has emerged which tears up student schedules and imposes on remaining faculty to pick up the slack or leave students bereft. Such practices represent not “flexibility,” but a ruthless and short-sighted crowd-sourcing of our majors and degrees that deeply compromises our accountability to students.

The administration recently announced an incentive program to accelerate time-to-degree for undergraduates, promising a fifth year of free tuition if students enroll for a four-year, 45-credit-per-year load and regularly meet with an advisor. Given the practices around course cancelling and an increasingly disposable attitude toward faculty labor, I must wonder what sort of “guarantee” we are really holding out to these new freshmen.

Investing in tenure by converting full-time fixed-term faculty to tenure eligible would go a long way toward stabilizing delivery of instruction and building teaching capacity at a fragile budgetary moment at PSU. Tenure helps nurture faculty-student relationships over the long term–in the classroom, the campus, and as alumni in the community—and thereby deepens the public trust which is the heart of public education. PSU has an important role to play in education as a K-life commitment. Indeed, the value of an authentic liberal education is only visible over the course of a life time, both in faculty and students. This tested and treasured vision demands a campus faculty rooted in a stable and well-supported community of scholars, rather than a shifting pool of contingent and increasingly exploited contract workers or at-will employees.

Patricia A. Schechter, Professor of History