By Richard Vedder
The Colorado Board of Regents is having a special meaning soon to consider whether to fire tenured professor Ward Churchill. University of Colorado President Hank Brown (with whom I served on a panel only last week) wants to can Churchill. As a civil libertarian, I am very, very reluctant to let persons go because of their views, and believe colleges are havens where outrageous things can and should be said. At the same time, Churchill has allegedly been guilty of several other forms of irresponsible and highly unprofessional conduct, so the case to fire him appears strong. Hank Brown strikes me as a judicious man, not one prone to take strong actions unless justified. Many of the faculty in the "he is guilty as charged but should not be fired" camp are also believers in near absolute job protection for life for faculty under any circumstances, which I think is not defensible.
What is most interesting about the Churchill case is NOT the ultimate decision whether he will be fired or not, but rather the huge cost of taking any action. The earliest Churchill will be removed is more than 2.5 years after charges against him were initially brought. And this ignores subsequent court actions initiated by Churchill. The cost of firing tenured faculty is extremely high, so high as to be prohibitive for all but the most heinous of offenses ( I believe my university has fired 3 tenured faculty in over 200 years in existence).
Ryan Amacher and Roger Meiners in their interesting book Faulty Towers indicated that tenure is a vastly overblown problem, and while I partly agree with them, their contention that legally you can get rid of tenured faculty who misbehave proves little, particularly if the costs of removal are extremely high. Tenure raises resource rigidity and imposes a significant cost. For that reason, there has been a significant decline in the use of tenured faculty in teaching (in part, however, because of falling teaching loads that tenured faculty give themselves). I advocate allowing professors "buy" tenure rights --for a price. If they want tenure protection, which is somewhat costly, they have to forego some other fringe benefits, such as Lexus quality health care plans or free parking next to their office building. In what other profession would it take a special meeting of a dozen or more important persons to fire a mid-level employee?