Powers' ideas on tenure evince a misunderstanding of who, what tenure is for

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UT President William Powers Jr. gives his last State of the University address on Monday afternoon. Powers discussed the successes the University has had during his nine years as president, and what he sees as the future goals of the University.
UT President William Powers Jr. gives his last State of the University address on Monday afternoon. Powers discussed the successes the University has had during his nine years as president, and what he sees as the future goals of the University.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from English professor Douglas Bruster.

In a sentence of two dozen words during his final State of the University Address last Monday, President William Powers Jr. floated an ominous trial balloon. "We need to use tenure," he said, "when it is most needed: where competition is the keenest and where research is more central to the enterprise."

This is a troubling statement for several reasons. At base is the idea of tenure as something like a corporate retention tool — a gift to be reserved, perhaps, for professors in such fields as law, engineering, business and the sciences. More worrying are a possible misunderstanding of what tenure is and the corresponding redefinition of the University itself.

If tenure is a gift, it's not the kind of golden handshake that faculty in well-compensated fields need as incentive. Instead, tenure is a gift of time and security to established scholars. Importantly, it is also a gift to students, alumni and citizens generally.

How does tenure benefit those inside and outside the University? It does so in part by buying time for committed researchers to imagine, design, and conduct their inquiries, to publish them, and to engage with other scholars over their ideas. As crucially, tenure promotes the integrity of this process. It helps guarantee that scholars, and their research and teaching, remain free from external influences.

In a perfect world, there would be no need for such protections. Men with money and power would leave the University alone, not seeking to influence scholarship or teaching. We don't live in that world. We live in Texas, where interfering in the business of others is bad form for the great majority of us but a lifetime hobby for the very wealthy.

Skeptical of the dangers to free inquiry? Consider a handful of topics: Economic Theories and Practice, Education, Elections, Electronic Surveillance, the Emancipation Proclamation, Eminent Domain, Employment Discrimination, Energy Production, the Environment, Equal Rights, Ethics, Evolution.

You'll note that these all begin with the letter "E." As such, they are only a small selection of the areas where an untenured faculty member could expect to be fired for producing the "wrong" answers or accounts. Imagine a donor making a large gift contingent upon a department hiring or firing faculty members of a particular ideology or political affiliation. Or imagine our legislature doing the same. It hasn't been so long, historically, since faculty, staff and students were required to sign a loyalty oath in order to be associated with the University of Texas.

But the security to learn the truth, and to teach it, is only part of tenure's gift. Tenure allows scholars to think about things without immediate monetary or political value. So when Powers suggests that the University give tenure only in areas "where research is more central to the enterprise," we can rightly wonder, "Which enterprise is that?" and "When?"

I don't know what Powers was doing Sept. 10, 2001. But it's a safe bet that, like me, he wasn't thinking about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Or about the prudence of that University, and Nebraska's taxpayers, in having funded, three decades prior, a center for studying such a far-away place. What sense did it make for this Great Plains state to tenure speakers of Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Persian and Hindi? That next morning in September, the wisdom of supporting such scholars became as clear as the blue skies above.

To imagine that we know the future is to go against everything we have learned from the past. As the receding months and decades have taught us, no one knows what subject or discipline will become essential, or even useful. Universities exist to advance universal knowledge. A university of the first class cannot afford to restrict its enterprise by redefining tenure as suitable for only a select few fields. To do so is to misunderstand our mission and charge.

Powers' notion to give tenure in competitive fields gets things exactly wrong. When professors in law, science, business and engineering justify their high salaries by pointing to what they could earn in private industry, they are revealing a safety net that protects them from reprisals over their scholarship and teaching. It is scholars without this safety net that tenure is for — those, for example, in the languages, history, social science and the fine arts. Tenure in these fields is a valuable investment by the University, a way to nurture research that has no immediate monetary value but may prove priceless in advancing knowledge of our shared human condition.

I have served under a number of excellent university presidents, none finer than Powers. It is difficult to put into words how hard, and faithfully, he has worked for our University. As phrased in his recent State of the University Address, however, his ideas about tenure seem a distinct misstep and a departure from the sensitive understanding of higher education for which faculty, staff and students have more than once expressed their gratitude.