In 2003, the board of trustees of the Metropolitan College of Denver -- a public school in Colorado -- changed the school's handbook to make it easier to lay off tenured faculty in case of financial exigency. Under the current system at Metro College and elsewhere, some professors who have been at an institution for a period of about seven years are eligible for a job for life. They can technically be fired for gross misbehavior or incompetence....Riley uses this case as a springboard to launch familiar attacks against tenure, tinged as they generally are by an ideological stain ("The fact that university professors donated to President Obama's campaign over John McCain's by a margin of eight to one is only the tip of the iceberg").
In response to the handbook change, five Metro College professors sued. They claimed that the terms of their employment had been significantly altered. The state district court ruled in favor of the trustees. That decision was appealed -- with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) filing an amicus brief -- and in 2007 a state appeals court ordered a new trial. In its brief, the AAUP argued that "depriving the tenured faculty of a preference in retention places the tenured faculty at greater risk of being singled out" because of an administrator's or trustee's dislike for his teaching or research, or for positions taken on public issues.
The results of that new trial came down earlier this month. Rather than simply deciding that the change in the handbook altered what was a "vested right" of the professors, Denver District Judge Norman D. Haglund ruled that "the public interest is advanced more by tenure systems that favor academic freedom over tenure systems that favor flexibility in hiring or firing." He also noted that "by its very nature, tenure promotes a system in which academic freedom is protected."
Yesterday, I posted grim statistics about the loss of tenured and tenure-track positions at PSU. They represent one kind of assualt on tenure. Riley's is a more dangerous variant, one that seeks to undermine the very intention of tenure. Her view is so constrained that she could write this passage without seeing the implications:
The school even offers a nutrition major. These are all fields of study that have fairly definitive answers. Faculty members don't really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them.We need independent scholars. In fingering nutrition, Riley unwittingly made a strong case for exactly why we need scholars. The field of nutrition doesn't have difinitive answers--it's a field even more subject to the storms of money and corruption than most. "Nutrition" is a moving target. Defined by food or supplement companies, it means something entirely different than it does to a scholar. If we remove the protection of tenure, who will protect independent research about what is actually healthy?
Universities, perhaps more than ever, need the protection of tenure.