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Tenure is being debated off, and on, campus

Published March 1, 2011 12:08 pm

Colleges • Lawmaker's bill dead, but issue won't soon fade away.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The University of Utah spent a lot of money to lure organic chemist Ryan Looper to Salt Lake City in 2007, setting him up with a lab to explore the potential of natural compounds for combatting cancer.

He figures he should repay the state flagship by bringing in research grants and publishing in scientific journals. But U. administrators have an incentive to ensure that Looper holds up his end of the bargain.

It's called tenure, and for junior faculty members like Looper, the stakes are huge. If he performs, he gets lifetime employment; if not he's looking for another job in a few years.

"It's an incredibly tough and daunting process. At the same time it encourages very rigorous performance," says Looper, an assistant professor of chemistry who came to the U. from Harvard where he had been a postdoctoral research fellow. "It lets you know where the bar is, what level you need to perform at for the rest of your career. There aren't a lot who have taken the 'free lunch.' "

But tenure, a dominant feature of the U.S. academic landscape since WWII, has come under legislative attack in Utah. Conservative lawmakers say it rewards sloth in the classroom, promotes "political correctness" on campus, and eliminates competition in the academic work force.

Rep. Christopher Herrod's bill to eliminate tenure died in committee last week after his colleagues concluded it would blunt Utah's competitive edge on faculty recruitment. But the proposal opened a discussion that is sure to resurface in a Legislature that reveres free market principles and is wary of liberal academics.

Professors should be subject to the same competitive pressures to excel as everyone else, insists Herrod, a Provo Republican.

Debate on campus • Critics within academia say the system does little to safeguard scholars who don't have tenure and discourages junior faculty from pursuing research that could challenge established professors. A few U. assistant professors voiced this concern, but declined to speak on the record.

Other critics say the ability to inspire and instruct students ought to carry the most weight, while tenure generally places a premium on scholarly output, regardless of its social value.

Utah's top academic leaders agree the tenure system is not perfect, but say it has served the state's research institutions and students well and should be left in place.

David Pershing, the U.'s vice president for academic affairs, argues that tenure saves money by reducing professors' hiring costs by up to 15 percent and promotes cutting-edge science by protecting researchers, like the Nobel-winning geneticist Mario Capecchi, who dare to think big.

"Big discoveries often happen when you're trying to do things differently than what everyone else thinks will scientifically work," he told lawmakers last week. "Even the science side of the university would suffer significantly if we were to lose this ability [to offer tenure]. It's not that there aren't issues. This is not the way to fix them."

Eroding system • The tenure system, both nationally and in Utah, has eroded over the past 40 years, with fewer faculty members even getting an offer. According to U.S. Department of Education data, the portion of faculty in tenured and tenure-track positions shrank from 56 percent in 1975 to 32 percent in 2005.

Of Utah's eight public campuses, just 36 percent of 9,313 professors are tenured or on tenure tracks, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. Put another way, fewer Utah students are being taught by tenure-track faculty every year.

At Utah State University, tenure-track and tenured faculty teach 75 percent of student credit hours, according to Provost Ray Coward.

"We are proud of that because if you come to this university you will be taught by people with the right credentials," Coward says. "We are a research institution where teaching is very important."

Although USU's share of credit hours taught by tenured ranks is on a downward trend, it remains much higher than at other land-grant state universities, where there is a greater reliance on graduate students and part-time instructors, Coward says. Universities and colleges across the nation are increasingly using contingent faculty, known as adjuncts, who work for lower pay, no benefits and short-term contracts. These instructors have no possibility of tenure, serving as second-class citizens in the academic work force.

"We argue that [tenure] needs to be strengthened and more faculty need to be in tenure-track positions. Colleges should be investing in faculty by giving tenure and improving job security for those who are in adjunct positions. Academic freedom applies to everyone teaching at a university," says John Curtis, policy director of the American Association of University Professors, an influential group that has been championing tenure for a century.

Liberal bias? • Meanwhile, Herrod and his supporters say tenure undermines academic freedom by enforcing liberal orthodoxy. He claims about 80 percent of academics are politically liberal.

"So what?" tenure supporters respond.

"There is no real evidence to support the claim that faculty members are forced to conform to some ideological litmus test. The 'research' that has been advanced in support of this argument uses selective review of voter registration records and counts Democratic Party registration as evidence of 'liberal ideology,' " Curtis says.

Privately, some Utah faculty say the Legislature's hostility toward climate science is an example of the need to protect the jobs of researchers who speak out on politically volatile issues.

Political orientation plays no role in Looper's tenure-review process at the U., but securing outside funding does, the young chemist says. He has won grants from the National Institutes of Health and the American Chemical Society to support his research, which looks at anti-cancer properties of compounds found in marine organisms and elsewhere in nature. Like many professors at research universities, he teaches just one class a semester and spends much of his time in a lab. At regional schools like Utah Valley University, where professors conduct as many as three sections a semester, teaching performance carries more weight in tenure decisions.

Without an offer of tenure, Looper says he would not have come to Utah.

"I'm trained as a chemist, but I'm very interested in the biology of my compounds," Looper says. "If I am successful in getting tenure, that allows me to pursue more risky research. My colleagues' programs of research change after they get tenure."

Tenured job security frees researchers to engage in high-stakes science that crosses disciplines and leads to breakthroughs, but might not pay off for years.

bmaffly@sltrib.com