Wayne State University in Detroit has proposed a new contract that would make it the first research university in the U.S. to abolish tenure, according to a recent article in Labor Notes. Other public universities are likely to follow suit (or attempt to) in order to cut labor costs as they grapple with years of declining revenue.
The proposed contract would effectively remove peer review and give administrators more power to get rid of faculty, including for financial reasons. (Veteran professors cost universities more, since they have more years of service credit). The administration also wants the right to fire faculty for participating in or supporting political actions that “interrupt the normal daily teaching.”
Terrible for Students and the Public
The purpose of tenure is to provide protection for academic freedom. Professors and teachers who lack tenure can be dismissed at will, for any number of reasons that have little or nothing to do with the quality of their teaching. Without tenure, professors could be compelled to focus their research on topics generated by the administration or by private interests that stand to gain from the research, thus infusing the research with a bias that could undermine its validity.
This could have grave repercussions for the public in the case of medical and scientific research, especially considering that some corporate funded research contracts give the corporation the right to determine which data will (or won’t) be published. For example, a contract could forbid the publication of data revealing that a new medicine is no more effective than existing or cheaper alternatives. Without tenure rights, a professor would have fewer protections if she or he refused to accept such funding, particularly if it was being pushed by administrators.
Loss of tenure would also be bad for students. Teachers often advocate for the wellbeing of their students or the integrity of their academic programs. Tenure protects this kind of free speech. Without tenure, professors could more easily be fired for advocating positions opposed by administrators. Furthermore, without tenure, professors would have a more difficult time resisting administrators who pressure them to change their grading policies or curriculum in order to improve the university’s profile and fundraising abilities, even if such changes eviscerate the integrity of the course or undercut the objectives of the department.
The university has roughly 3,000 faculty members, approximately one-third of whom are tenured or tenure-track. They are represented by AAUP Teachers Local 6075, an AFT affiliate.