Tenure comes with no guarantees

By Kelli E. Christiansen

Tenure does not guarantee a teaching job for life.

Harold Stern, a professor at Illinois State University at Normal with 18 years of tenured service, discovered this recently after he was fired.

The Board of Regents revoked Stern’s tenure after two years of hearings. Charges against Stern were based on an unwillingness to teach and inability to provide professional education services as assigned. Stern denied all the charges.

“I think tenure is a fine idea,” said NIU History Department Chairman Otto Olsen. “But the incident at ISU just shows that if someone has tenure they can get fired.”

Faculty members are reviewed each year for tenure, said NIU Assistant Provost Frank Nowik. They receive a comprehensive review at the end of their third year of teaching, he said.

“There is constant feedback,” Nowik said. “It forces the departments to be consistent.”

Professors do not automatically achieve tenure status according to rules outlined in the NIU Constitution and Bylaws.

Faculty members are recommended for tenure at the end of their sixth year of teaching, Nowik said.

Tenure recommendations stem from evaluation of a faculty member’s “effectiveness in teaching, scholarly performance in research, creative production, publication and/or professional public service and service to the university community and profession,” according to the Bylaws.

The Bylaws also state faculty members get tenure if they show they are qualified to carry out responsibilities for the advancement of their departments, colleges and the university.

Faculty members’ departments, colleges and universities evaluate the tenure recommendations.

Nowik said if tenure is not granted, the seventh year of teaching is the last. However, faculty members can make a written appeal to the university.

“Tenure is not a guarantee of a lifetime job,” he said. “The down side is that some people perceive it as nothing more than job security.”

Tenured faculty members can be dismissed from the university only “for cause,” he said, and cited things such as incompetency and “acts which involve moral turpitude” as reasons “for cause.”

The Bylaws state “adequate cause for dismissal must be directly and substantially related to the fitness of the faculty member in his or her capacity as teacher, scholar or colleague.”

“You can remove someone for bad teaching,” said Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean James Norris. “But it would have to be something persistent, lasting over one or two years.”

Charges must be brought up against the faculty member by the university for the due process of dismissal to begin, the Bylaws stated.

A faculty member who faces charges is informed of the charges and receives a formal invitation to attend the hearing with legal counsel, according to the Bylaws. The hearing panel consists of university peers and is closed unless the faculty member desires otherwise.

“The hearings we’ve had probably lasted three to five days,” Nowik said.

Over the past 10 years, the university has heard “three or four” cases, he said. The university has not had a case of incompetency, he said.

No one in the history department or throughout the university uses tenure to continue teaching, even though it is designed to protect faculty members, Olsen said.

“Everyone has certain kinds of protection against arbitrary firing,” he said. “Tenure is the form for education.”

Most faculty members agree that tenure is to protect academic freedom.

“The good thing about tenure is it provides academic freedom without having somebody dictate ways based on politics,” said Psychology Department Chairman Joseph Grush.

“It’s not a pure thing,” Grush said. “It has both good and bad things. But overall, I favor it.

“Part of the allure of academics is tenure to offset low pay. It insures people with experience and qualifications can’t be removed simply for money,” he said.

One of tenure’s downfalls is that it could be difficult to replace faculty who stop doing their jobs well, Grush said. This is a potential problem and not the case for NIU, he said.

“It’s not a clean simple thing,” he said. “I think anyone who looks at it that way is not looking at the whole picture.”