As an administrator at one of the largest state universities in California for almost 20 years, I had the opportunity to work with many wonderful faculty members. The great majority were fine, dedicated men and women, learned in their specializations and eager both to contribute to their field through scholarly and creative activities of their own, and to share that learning with students. Most of those whom I knew were very good people, cultured, knowledgeable, and even erudite. They did their utmost to contribute to students, to their field, to the university at large, and to the wider world, and it was a pleasure, even an honor, to work with them.
There were, however, some who did not fit the above laudatory description. Some whom I knew personally, and others who were known to me through reports or simply by way of reputation, were slackers of the worst kind. Once having attained tenure, these few either barely did the minimum required of them, or in some cases even brought a kind of moral harm to the students whose educational lives were entrusted to them. But in all cases, the good, the bad, the mediocre, and the excellent, the benefits and protections of tenure covered everyone.
Just recently, the system of tenure was challenged in a California court, although not in regard to university faculty. Instead, the matter in question was tenure for primary and secondary school teachers, as much as the basic issues and questions related to tenure in general may be very similar. A ruling this past Tuesday, June 10, 2014 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found the system of tenure, as well as several other protections enjoyed by teachers, to be unconstitutional. The reason given for the finding was that the system especially harmed low-income students by allowing incompetent teachers to remain in the classroom. The same ruling also affects the practice of laying off teachers during hard economic times based solely on when they were hired (the so called last-hired first-fired method).
Focusing for the moment on the question of tenure at the primary and secondary level, here in California the only bar that teachers have had to reach is to remain in their position for some 18 months. If they make that cut off, then they are virtually in for life, since firing them for negligence or incompetence has proven extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive. And it was for these reasons that suit was brought on behalf of several middle school students by a group called Students Matter, an organization itself funded by wealthy tech entrepreneur Dave Welsh.
Teachers unions argued vehemently that such a change would punish the vast majority of teachers, who do excellent work, and who are fully dedicated to their students. And I think that few people who know a teacher would disagree that many, indeed most people who go into teaching as a career, do so for high-minded, altruistic reasons. Unions argued further that, so far from excelling, students frequently continue to fail at learning the basics not because of uninterested or incompetent teachers, but because of larger societal issues having little to do with the classroom itself. And it surely is true that parents in particular, as well as school administrators, must do more to support students and teachers alike. Not even the best teacher can help a student learn, if that student comes to school hungry, or physically and mentally exhausted because of a chaotic home life, or if an unbalanced student is filled with rage and bent on disruption, or worse. And so safeguards must absolutely be in place to protect teachers who work hard, but whose students nonetheless fail for reasons other than what takes place in the classroom.
Even so, the question remains, is tenure the best policy given the fact that there are some teachers (estimates vary from 1% to 3%), who really ought to be let go? In fact, is the current system even that good for teachers who do work hard, excel in their profession, and have the best interest of their students at heart, given the fact that these very teachers must sometimes work alongside very poor ones, or may themselves be let go in tough fiscal times because they do not have sufficient seniority?
Union representatives have argued that the ruling is anti-teacher. But perhaps it is not so much anti-teacher as it is pro-student. Even a few percentage points in a system the size of the Los Angeles Unified School District represents thousands of teachers. And can there ever be a reason to keep in place teachers who do not do their jobs, when so much is at stake not only for the students as individuals, but for the state, and for society as a whole?
I have never seen estimates of tenured university professors who fail to do their jobs, but can it be any less than the 1% to 3% of primary and secondary school teachers? Probably not, judging simply from the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the years – tenured professors, for example, who come to class uninterested and unprepared, who rush in and rush out of the classroom, who spend only a few hours a week on campus, or who even have whole other jobs that interfere with and take away from the teaching they are paid to do.
One of the strongest arguments for tenure has always been that it protects the academic freedom of faculty and allows them to pursue ideas and research that may be unpopular with or even antagonistic to those in power. University professors do, as a matter of fact, go through a greater degree of scrutiny, a more stringent vetting process, than primary and secondary teachers, before they are awarded tenure. Not only must they prove themselves to the administration, but to a jury of their peers, as well. Additionally, in most universities, especially ones that emphasize teaching as much as research, student evaluations also form part of that vetting process, as does working with the local community.
In my experience, in all the years that I spent as an administrator – and I sat in on many high-level meetings – I never once heard a single word spoken which might in any way be construed as negative toward a faculty member because of the research or creative work she or he was pursing. Of course, it may rightly be argued that no such word was spoken BECAUSE faculty had tenure, and because everyone knew that you could not get rid of a “gadfly” (as Plato says in his “Apologia” – that annoying person who loves to provoke others), even if you wanted to. Still, the question remains, is it not possible to imagine that there may also be other ways to protect faculty from arbitrary or “politically correct” firing than tenure? And shouldn’t there be ways to get rid of what is sometimes referred to as “deadwood,” that is, faculty members who weigh down and clog up the system through their disinterest or ineptitude? Again, when the best interest of students is in the fore, or even when the very nature of academic and scholarly or creative work is at stake, why should an institution dedicated to learning be saddled with, and unable to get rid of indifferent, apathetic, or downright recalcitrant members of the faculty?
I do not expect any time soon to see a judicial ruling that would address these questions related to university faculty, the way one recently has been handed down concerning primary and secondary teachers. And again, perhaps that is just as well. As noted, the process of attaining university tenure truly is more rigorous than it is at other levels of education. And in it, individuals who prove themselves not to be appropriate sometimes are rooted out. Though this still does not explain away or right the wrong of those who have attained tenure, but who then either comfortably coast, or do actual harm to their students.
For now, it may be enough that the question related to tenure for primary and secondary teachers has been raised so forcefully and so publicly. The battle is not over. Teachers Unions have vowed to appeal and to fight the ruling at the next level of the courts, and that is as it should be. Such important questions deserve as wide a discussion and review as possible, before decisions are made that will affect the lives of many people. Whatever the final decision may be, though, let us hope that it redounds to the best interest of students. Indeed, it must be our wish that, in the end, it will be our students, and the wonderful teachers who truly dedicate themselves to the education of these students, who will come out as the winners.