There are few industries in the world that offer lifelong contracts to their employees. Yet, higher education is unlike any other industry. Professors at SLU undertake pioneering research in a wide variety of fields. Moreover, they act as cultural and social critics, working to understand and transform our society.
Academic tenure protects these professors when their research or ideas don’t support the interests of the administration. By proposing a “Faculty Review” process for tenured faculty, the administration at SLU is putting this entire system in jeopardy.
The proposed review process would ostensibly ensure that tenured faculty are making valuable contributions to the university and not just cruising along in sinecure positions. Yet the review, which would occur every six years, loads professors with the burden of proving that they are indeed worthy of their jobs. Since professors who fail are at risk of losing their supposedly permanent positions, and since the review itself resembles the process for attaining tenure in the first place, it would make tenure at SLU a meaningless concept.
Before the university enacts a measure to cancel the contracts of tenured professors, it must be shown that there is, in fact, a problem of professors underperforming. This has not been demonstrated.
The motivations of the administration to make such changes must then be called into question, especially given the timing of the proposal. Just one month ago, Annette Clark resigned as dean of SLU law school, criticizing President Lawrence Biondi and expressing dissatisfaction with the administration. She initially stated that she would remain a tenured professor at SLU as was her “contractual right,” but ultimately decided to rejoin the faculty at Seattle University School of Law.
It may be necessary to dismiss underperforming professors in some instances, yet the process proposed is too vague and too subjective, and it allows too much leeway for professors to be fired based on political or even personal reasons. Though the review would be based on a “points system,” assigning quantities to subjective attributes does not make them any less subjective.
By weakening academic tenure at SLU, the administration would dissuade talented professors from signing on with the university. More than that, this proposal itself may sow distrust in our university community.
If SLU wants to stay relevant, our administrators must think carefully before undermining such an established institution as academic tenure. And if they do not, perhaps it is they who should be under review.