Your Turn: Tenure essential to university’s mission

The Journal-World has been commendable in its coverage of the controversy over the University of Kansas’ refusal to disavow use of the Kansas Board of Regents’ optional suspension of tenure protections in the wake of current budget problems. In her “Follow-up” note on Friday, the provost suggested that tenure is a faculty right that must be balanced against the rights of other university constituents and the “common good.” I’d like to suggest that this represents a shocking failure to comprehend the centrality of the tenure system to the academic mission of the university, which the entire community needs to consider.

In the end, a university is only as good as its academic reputation. It’s the principal reason why students attend it, agencies fund research, and the public supports it. The work of the faculty is obviously central to this, and the tenure system makes it possible. Tenure enables the faculty to teach, do research and perform its many other functions without fear of retribution, reprimand or loss of employment. It is especially important to the many “management” functions that faculty members perform as well, such as curricular revision, making promotion recommendations and (most significantly) choosing new colleagues. These duties are central to the academic health of the institution and cannot be carried out with integrity under an atmosphere of duress, fear, intimidation or coercion. This is why tenure in not simply an option or a “right” but is absolutely essential to the academic mission of the university.

Shared governance also is not optional if the university is to maintain its academic integrity. It is troubling to read that discussions about the current crisis, including the decision to ask the Regents for additional time, have occurred among “senior leaders in administration and governance” without additional details. It is not a message that encourages confidence in collective decision making. The current leadership has already put KU’s academic reputation at risk by a hasty decision to break with other Regents institutions in even considering this step. It’s hardly the sort of response expected from a “flagship” university that claims scholarly distinction. Judging from reactions across the country, KU’s academic reputation already has been placed at risk.

In the end, if university leaders are unwilling to uphold tenure as fundamental to the academic functioning of the institution, it is quite possible that faculty may turn to unionization to protect the integrity of their work. That could seriously compromise the spirit of shared governance that is so essential to successful academic institutions, especially one that seeks distinction in teaching, research and service. Relations between faculty and administration could turn adversarial and transactional, lacking trust and shared goals. If that were to happen, today’s leaders may well look back on recent decisions as fateful missteps, reversing the course of a fine public research university irreparably.

— John L. Rury is professor emeritus in the School of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Kansas.

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