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The Special Obligations of Tenured Faculty

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For years, the percentage of tenured and tenure-line faculty has been dropping throughout higher education. Trusteeship magazine reported last year that approximately 70 percent of the men and women teaching in college and university classrooms today are not eligible for tenure. In 1969, that percentage was closer to 20 percent. In one generation, we have seen the percentage of tenure-eligible faculty working at our institutions of higher learning shrink from 80 percent -- the norm -- to 30 percent, the exception.

What usually follows these statistics are claims about the exploitation of contingent faculty, the erosion of faculty rights and privileges, the decline of the university -- all accurate enough and representing pressing matters for university administrators. Today, though, I want to shift focus to those 30 percent of faculty whose working conditions exist under the umbrella of tenure.

Tenure protects academic freedom. The authoritative statement on tenure is the American Association of University Professors, "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure", which includes the following description:

"College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."

I'll focus on one phrase, pointing to the fact that college professors have a "special position in the community" and that this position "imposes special obligations." If this was the case in 1940, when virtually all faculty members expected tenure, it is certainly true today, as the privilege has become rare. What are the "special obligations" of tenured faculty members? What obligation flows from a special position of privileged, protected speech?

It would seem to follow logically that it is the special obligation of tenured professors to engage the public and to serve American democracy by applying their expertise to social and political issues. Consider the example of the growing civic engagement movement on college campuses. There are few if any college presidents or provosts who are opposed to the idea of civic engagement, and almost every college and university mission statement or statement of values and purposes includes some endorsement of student involvement in the larger community. But at the same time, few presidents can afford to endorse any specific cause or issue and to become embroiled in the political nature of such matters. However, few if any presidents will fail to protect a faculty member's right -- or in the AAUP's terminology, the faculty member's special obligation to introduce students to these issues and to assist students in becoming active agents of change or progress.

The editors of a recent study of civic engagement on college campuses identify an unfortunate, unproductive trend in the movement. John Saltmarsh and Matthew Hartley argue that "The movement has largely side-stepped the political dimension of civic engagement." Ironically, what has emerged is "a remarkably apolitical 'civic' engagement" movement nationally. The reason for the diluted mission is tied to "pressures in certain sectors (e.g., some public institutions) against doing anything that is seen as 'political' - in this sense, partisan activities and political activities and political awareness and agency are being confounded" (6). As a result, we see a lot of politically safe practices, such as student volunteerism in schools, in shelters, and in other services to victims or to the disadvantaged. What we encounter less often are students pursuing civic engagement credentials by participating in robust, controversial democratic activities.

Can colleges and university faculty members play a role in the political invigoration of civic engagement? Saltmarsh and Hartley are unequivocal in their stance:

"In our view, the answer lies in reorienting the work from a vague emphasis on community involvement toward an agenda that seeks significant societal change. The movement must not only strive to encourage civic impulses and actions among students; it must assume a joint responsibility with the communities with which it works to confront problems and to enact change through every democratic means possible. It requires linking the pursuit of knowledge with pursuit of a healthier society and a stronger, more robust society" (4).

Who on college and university campuses can lead this charge toward engagement in politically sensitive issues, issues that will attract advocates but will also attract opponents and critics? Only the faculty can do this -- and not all faculty, but only tenured faculty for whom the specific issue falls within his or her area of academic expertise. Tenure was not created solely to protect faculty members under the legal umbrella of academic freedom. Tenure is advocated as well to serve society, so that uncomfortable truths and perspectives, bearing the authority of research and professional study by experts, would be available in the marketplace of ideas.

The percentage of tenure-eligible faculty has shrunk over the past forty years for reasons tied to higher education financing. Attention has rightfully been focused on the working conditions of those who work as contingent faculty, as lecturers and as adjuncts. Tenure has been attacked on the grounds that lifetime employment, as it is often denigrated, is a right enjoyed nowhere else in the workforce. At the same time, there are few in the workforce whose careers are based on the continuous quest to understand an intellectual issue or problem or set of ideas, not for an extrinsic reason, but for the understanding itself. How such understanding might serve society or motivate action is often left to students, who apply what they've learned to whatever unfolds in their lives.

The civic engagement movement is designed to assist students in cultivating habits of democratic involvement. Tenured faculty need to lead this movement, to reverse trends toward programmatic dilution or satisfaction with "safe," or apolitical activities. And institutions with high levels of tenure-line faculty must be the ones to lead the national movement toward greater levels of student engagement with civic issues and problems. Tenured faculty are those best equipped to encourage informed participation by their students, instilling in them the values of expertise, of involvement based on evidence, on careful assessments of value and purpose, and not simple opinion or party line. The public should then more readily recognize the "special obligations" of its national cadre of tenured professors in higher education, professors who encourage and mentor their students toward lives of purposeful democratic engagement, inspired by the idea that only knowledge can save humanity from its failings.