Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Cost of Tenure: Reflections on Ward Churchill

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?


sciencedoc said...

I wonder, when Richard Vedder was a chaired professor at Ohio University, did he walk the walk? I don't have much respect for people who wait until they have their pensions to discover the evils of the system they have enjoyed all their lives. It kind of reminds me of the left-wing professors who decry capitalism all their lives, all the while enjoying the privileges it makes possible.

Paul said...

I don't know, it seems like tenure is a bit over-rated to me. Does it make sense to give anyone a lifelong job? Regardless of future performance? I know a couple professors where I go to school who are a little nuts and sometimes embarrassing. I don't know if I would fire them, but does that mean they should have tenure? Any business needs to be flexible in firing or moving unproductive employees as well as hiring new ones who have more energy and capacity. This is the opposite of how it is on college campuses today. We live in a performance driven world. You need to offer some service that others value to get your paycheck. Otherwise, it's nothing short of corporate charity.
As far as tenure being necessary to promote intellectual freedom, I'm skeptical. What did they do before they had universities with tenure professors? Was there no freedom? Could people not speak their minds, publish papers, working in public policy, and just go out and talk to people about what they believed? Why do we need an institutionalized free ride to promote academic freedom. If the professor has something valuable to say, he will be retained. If he has something important to say that is unpopular, he can say it somewhere else. Universities, students, parents, and donors should not have their hands tied by unconditionally tenured faculty.

sciencedoc said...

"What did they do before they had universities with tenure professors? Was there no freedom? Could people not speak their minds, publish papers, working in public policy, and just go out and talk to people about what they believed?"

No, they couldn't. Ask yourself how much freedom of speech people have in most other positions. The answer is little to none. You can do a bit of research on the history of the adoption of tenure in American univerities around the beginning of the last century.

Do you really think there would be any conservative professors left if there wasn't tenure?

James said...

One must also consider that without tenure, universities would probably have to pay their professors more. Some professors (especially in science/engineering) are foregoing higher pay in the private sector in exchange for tenure, and if you remove tenure, you'll have to pay them more in order to attract them to the university.

Academics should not, I think, fear that without tenure they will be fired for saying something "controversial". They will be fired for reasons of financial expediency. Universities will move even more in the direction of hiring adjuncts on yearly contracts with no benefits, and senior professors who "cost too much" will be shown the door.

sciencedoc said...


I think you're right about the adjuncts in the fields with an excess of Ph.D.'s. At least until the excess dried up.

What I've observed in the science departments is that when finances are going downhill, they hire cheap, inexperienced adjuncts to teach the introductory courses (which generate most of the tuition revenue), and focus on people for the remaining tenure-track jobs who have a lot of potential to bring in grant money -- based on what is fashionable at the moment.

(Fortunately, I'm not describing my own department.)

In the long run, I doubt that it will work. Universities can't really compete very well for scientists doing work with a quick payoff. Tenure is one thing they can offer in place of high salaries, opportunities for getting rich, and plentiful research funds. But when what those fast buck guys are doing is no longer fashinable, those universities are likely to be stuck with people who are tenured but no longer competitive in research in any long term sense. They will be stuck with the worst of both worlds.

TC said...

Sciencedoc, According to my VERY reliable sources, I can assure you that Rich Vedder did and continues to walk the walk. He is still teaching in the Fall Quarter at Ohio University - even though he throws "rhetorical rocks" at OU.

With that said, I have to respectfully disagree with you Rich. I completely believe in free speech, and I believe it comes with responsibility. What he (Churchill) said was way over the line and hurtful.

We have "Little Eichmanns", Hitler, Nazi, and other hyperbole thrown around in complete ignorance. People who compare most anything to Hitler and the Nazis are trivializing a dictatorial regime that killed an estimated 72 MILLION people.


The more these words are slinged around like hash - the less weight they carry. And, of all the people who pitch this crap - how many of them would name their son "Adolph"?

Maybe Churchill shouldn't be fired so the light continues to shine on the type of people who think like he does. He has helped cement the idea of some that colleges and universities are radical left-wing institutions that teach nothing but crap.

I have very strong feelings about WWII being used irresponsibly as it had a terible effect on my family - 7 great uncles served in the ETO and PTO. I have read so much about WWII and have been to Normandy and seen all the crosses, that people who cite WWII to draw parallels to today's events are quite ignorant to say the least.

As far as this tenure thing goes, it's too heady for me to comment on. You have to understand, my college gpa was slightly higher than my average blood/alcohol content and it took me 7 seven years to graduate as a theater major - I just don't undestand the career path of college professors.

sciencedoc said...

tc, what I meant about "walk the walk" is for those who despise tenure, higher education so much to give up its privileges before they are safely pensioned off and gone on to private think tanks and foundations where they are earning still more gravy. I'm suspicious of those who discover the evils of the system right about the time they leave for greener pastures, especially after having gotten distinguished chairs and the like -- all the privileges.

I don't know if Richard Vedder is formally retired -- he is, from what I can tell, about 65 years old, having gotten his Ph.D. in 1965. I know quite a few people who still teach after they start drawing pensions.

Re Churchill: I actually think he should be fired, from what I can tell, not because of what he said -- which I detest, but I believe the academic freedom privileges granted to him (tenure) should be honored, in fact must be or he has a great lawsuit case.

Saying something "hurtful" is not grounds for removal. (Again, I detest what Churchill said.) But I remmber a number of years back when Prof. Lino Graglia, a conservative law professor at the University of Texas, made some controversial remarks about underperforming minoriites, about the connection to their "culture". Some people were grossly offended by this. A certain Gov. George Bush made the observation that 'guys like Graglia are the best argument for abolishing tenure', or something like that. I would say that Bush's remarks are a very telling reminder of why tenure is needed, especially by those who are not on the left in today's academy.

No, Churchill should be fired if the alleged plagiarism, erroneous statements about his background, etc. hold up. I would rather see him gone sooner than later, it's taken long enough. They should also be a lot more careful about awarding tenure to people like him.

The fault, in my opinion, is not in the tenure system per se, but in the failure to take it seriously at the point of awarding tenure, and the failure to make use of the provisions for dismissal at the current time.

A lot of it has to do, of course, with the fact that Churchill is part of the whole ethnic studies/diversity fraud. The universities are part and parcel of that, but not entirely to blame for it either (could say more about Bush, business, government).

As for drinking your way through college -- you are not the first, or the only one! I've observed that it isn't exactly conducive to success as an academic or otherwise. But, that's life. We learn our lessons in different ways.

TC said...

Hi sciencedoc,

Yes, I have no idea how Rich Vedder felt about tenure as a newly minted college professor. And yes, he could have changed his mind once he started CCAP and started putting college affordability and productivity under the microscope.

In addition to Churchill's statement, I also called it over the line. It's a sensitive issue with me - maybe moreso than with other people for a reason.

I'd also like to reiterate that it might be best if we keep people like Churchill in the public domain. This way we can see just how far off the reservation some people are - on both sides of our sorry two party system.

The part about drinking and being a theater major was a (failed) attempt at being facetious and adding a dose of levity. But it is very true that I don't understand college professor career tracks and tenure, etc.

By the way, there is a very interesting report by Rich Vedder and Matthew Denhart on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy web site - see:

Take care.

TC said...


I believe you said in your blog that this was not about firing Churchill but more about tenure?

I think I may have misinterpreted you - in which case I would owe you an apology.

sciencedoc said...

In case you meant this -- I didn't mean to imply that I think what Lino Graglia said corresponds on the right to what Churchill said. I actually think Graglia's comments were pretty mild and to me, unexceptionable. But other people were grossly offended. So what? Then-Gov. Bush seemed to think Graglia should have been fired. I found that kind of frightening, and very revealing. Of course, some people think Bush is offensive and should be fired (impeached in fact). So what. Fortunately there's quite a barrier to firing Professor Graglia, and quite a barrier to impeaching President Bush.

As for Churchill, I think he really is over-the-top. Not representative of the campus scene. I don't know anyone in my environs like him, even though there are quite a few people whose opinions I am sure I despise.

I don't think he should be kept as an example of how bad things are, because (1) I don't think he is and (2) there are plenty good grounds for firing him, from what I can tell, apart from his outrageous statements, which I don't believe are.

Mad Dog said...

Ward Churchill is a butt crack.

Saxon said...

I understood tenure as a safeguard to ensure that truth prevailed even if it offended powerful others. But this was before we had relativism and the notion that there are no eternal truths which scholars are seeking through their research.
Now, we see how it protects the professors at Duke from reprisals for their shameful abuse of privilege, this fellow, Ward Churchill from his cynical use of his position and countless others who have never read an original thought they liked.
Tenure just rewards mediocrity. As the college-going population declines and the costs go up and the benefits become dubious and the alternatives come onstream, it will be abandoned but too late to save the reputation of higher ed.

sciencedoc said...

Well, Saxon, all I know is tenure has allowed me and many others to "offend powerful others" -- our university bosses -- in the defense of values that are generally considered conservative. Without tenure I don't think we would have made a peep.

I think your beef at Duke is with the president and the trustees. Have they made any move whatsoever to express disapproval of the faculty group in question? (In fact, the president was the biggest ringleader.)

As for just rewarding mediocrity: if you've gone through the process of getting a tenure-track job and then succeeded at getting tenure at a good university, I'll more readily listen.

Ask the two most recent faculty members I know who didn't make the tenure bar and are now heading off to fine second careers in industry. (Actually, one will be on his second career in industry.)

Saxon said...

The truth that tenure was designed to protect was not the political sort one struggles with when dealing with an unsympathetic boss but the factual sort related to one's researches that the outside world, once so hostile, did not want to hear. Anybody in a bureaucracy has the sort of troubles you recount and they don't have tenure. The fact that the establishment is now vested within the academy just proves how badly things have deteriorated.
As for your comment that only certain people warrant your attention, that is the kind of remark that leads to suspicion of arrogance - hardly the mark of a seeker of truth.

sciencedoc said...

You were the one who made the vicious remark that "Tenure just rewards mediocrity." Why should you expect me to take you seriously for stuff like that?

As for whether tenure was supposed to protect only one's research -- consider the case of Professor Graglia that I described above.

If you really want people like him to be totally driven out of the academy or completely silenced, go ahead and get rid of tenure.

Not that it's going to happen, though.

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Chapmac said...

Prior to the creation of the tenure system there were spectacular cases of petty authoritarianism by Deans, Presidents and Boards of Trustees: the entire faculty of the University of Des Moines, for example, were fired for refusing to sign a religious loyalty oath to fundamentalist Baptist principles when a new majority on the Board demanded it. The students decalred a strike in favor of the faculty - and the board sat back and did nothing , certain both would cave in and return to school on the Board's terms in the Fall. Neither did, and the school promptly died. But the alumni association continued to meet for some fifty years thereafter.

The President of the University of Omaha, now U. Nebraska-Omaha, used to let himself into faculty offices during off hours to examine the content and neatness of their desk drawers, and then made personnel decisions on that basis.

One college president was driven to suicide for hiring too many "wrong" faculty, faculty were fired for having the wrong opinions, the wrong religion, the wrong skin, hair and/or eye color - even for salting their food before tasting it - a bright idea borrowed from Henry Ford - and for pronouncing Caesar as Seezar instead of as Kai-zar.

The examples would go in for a volumes -and the pettiness involved would amaze. Tenure's most assuredly there for a reason: the oft exhibited nature of petty authoritarians and their tendency to cluster where they can give the most free reign to their proclivities.