Our University – Tenure

Tenure has changed markedly since its inception as an academic concept. It is often confused with the idea of sinecure.  Tenure protects a faculty member from a board of trustees or, in public universities, an elected official who might not like his ideas.  Tenure is a further specification of the concept of free speech in that open expression is protected, however early tenure constructs directed that academic expression be focused upon a scholars area of interest.

There are a number of assumptions built into this equation.  Firstly, that the faculty member has an idea with the potency or originality to actually cause someone to notice.

Thankfully this occurs from time to time.

Secondly, it assumes that a board of trustees has ideas that have intellectual merit and substance, and that they pronounce them in such a way as they may be openly held and responded to.

Thankfully this occurs from time to time.

In both cases the hypothesis is that ideas have merit and value to the community.  Sinecure on the other hand is the notion that a particular office requires no labor, service, or responsibility.  Some monasteries and most political machines hold to this notion. Frequently used to describe patronage posts in public service, and a few have used it to describe faculty life, sinecure is not what should be meant by tenure.

Thankfully this is realized from time to time.

With alarming persistence these two concepts have drifted together in the past 75 years implying safe, low risk employment.  However, I have a general postulate: the better the university the more distance there is between the ideas of tenure and sinecure.

The best universities take on challenging subjects providing fodder for a free society to replicate while simultaneously improving.  Weaker universities don’t challenge much and replicate with marginal or no improvement.

Historically tenure in the United States is the child of 19th century German polytechnics.  But there is a significant difference.  The German polytechnics operated off two fundamental and delicately balanced principles.

Lernfreiheit and lehrfreiheit.

These ideas are closely linked, but significantly and powerfully different, not only to an academic person, but to an aficionado of the intellectual free market.

I am both.

Lernfreiheit connotes the lack or absence of administrative coercion or control in the learning situation.  The “leaning situation” is the classroom and it only has two components, a teacher and a student.  The student chooses to be there or the value of the construct falls apart.  A student cannot be coerced into the classroom, or directed by anyone but the professor upon entering.  Market principles must be tightly knit into this idea.

Lehrfreiheit implies the freedom of the professor to pursue, publish, pronounce, and profess findings and determinations that are important to her scholarly life.

We see immediately the implications from the perspective of the faculty member, and for better or worse, the board, and the state all stay out of the classroom. This creates a good deal of risk, but when it works its changes the world.

Tenure is necessary for free thinking, but I like to ask about the other side of the equation.

Do students have the right to choose under what conditions and whose tutelage they sit?

Our university should balance on the fulcrum of excellence and expression by faculty and student.

One without the other creates a vacuous environment.

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