Does Academic Freedom Not Apply to Criticism of Tenure?

Academic freedom in higher education is an honorable, noble proposition and allegedly protected by tenure. That is what I believed as young assistant professor starting out over 30 years ago. I quickly became disillusioned that the protections provided by tenure were really about job security for professors. Common comments I heard included:

I don't enjoy teaching but why should I give up a guaranteed job that pays....?

I don't have to cooperate. What can they do to me? I've got tenure.

We get lots of complaints about some professors but unfortunately they are tenured.

We need to keep that professor out of the classroom, we get too many complaints.

When I was awarded tenure, there was no sudden sense of intellectual liberation to share knowledge as never before. I just felt more job security but strangely guilty about it.

Once tenured, most professors live up to the Mr. Holland's Opus ideal to teaching as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss. If you haven't seen that movie, view with caution. It might inspire you to teach.

Unfortunately, a small minority of professors abuse tenure at the reputational expense of the majority. They fail to perform at their best, lowering quality and increasing costs.

Outside the Ivory Tower, tenure is commonly not viewed well by business leaders and taxpayers. They resent that underperforming faculty have unwarranted job security at a time when the rising cost of a college education is increasingly burdensome.

As a business professor, I was often challenged by business leaders who questioned why professors deserved guaranteed employment as opposed to business where there is no guarantee of customers or jobs.

In a strategic planning effort at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, the focus was on how we could move up in the business school rankings. I suggested we could move up overnight if we were the first business school in the country to voluntarily resign tenure. You could have heard a pin drop. No one was game.

Finally, after 13 years with tenure, I decided to make a personal protest by resigning it from the University of Minnesota. That was 20 years ago. I continued to decline tenure as the FedEx Chaired Professor at the University of Memphis and again as the Stevenson Chaired Professor of Information Technology at Texas Tech.

It was a principled, professional decision. I decided to spend the rest of my career non-tenured not only as a protest but as an experiment to see what difference it would make to my academic freedom -- I figured it would give me something to write about when I retired.

Over two decades without tenure I had one good and one bad experience pertaining to academic freedom. First the bad story: During a speech in which I referred to a company as using a byzantine procedure, an executive from the firm was present. Afterwards, he instructed me not to use that example again and threatened to complain to the university president. He refused my courtesy offer to redesign it for his company. But I didn't yield my right to use any factual examples, including his company.

Here is the good story. I was giving a speech to executives and during Q and A, a participant challenged with something I often heard: "You have tenure, easy for you to suggest what we in business should do...." I responded: "You and I share the same point of view on tenure. That is why I resigned it two years ago." A loud round of unexpected applause followed from the audience.

I wish I would have had that experience to factually support my suggestion at the Minnesota strategic planning session a couple of years earlier.

Nonetheless after two decades, professorial life without tenure was relatively uneventful. Academic freedom prevailed -- that is until March 2012 at Texas Tech University. I returned to my alma mater in 2000 -- with a contractual agreement from the university that I would be a chaired professor who had voluntarily rejected tenure.

Provost Bob Smith was hired in 2008. He didn't learn of my views or contract until 2012 after which he declared the non-tenure clause "illegal." He stated tenure "is not anything that we want to lose, particularly in the political times we are in now." The political times he is referring to includes public criticism of the increasing cost of college. He viewed my position/status on tenure if allowed could "corrupt the system."

In what I refer to as "March madness," he blocked my finalist status to become the next Dean of the Rawls College of Business and withdrew my name from the proposed agenda for the Board of Regents to receive the highest award for Tech faculty, a Horn Professorship. He stated under oath that my views on tenure made me unfit to be either a Dean or a Horn Professor. Further, he presented me with a disingenuous "Sophie's choice" of having to either return to a tenure track (against my wishes) or forfeit the position of Professor I have held for 30 years at three universities.

Is the irony obvious enough? Academic freedom does not apply when speaking out against tenure!

Can the First Amendment protect academic freedom sans tenure? If it can, the academic freedom argument for tenure evaporates, which opens the door to reduce the cost of college at public universities.

Stay tuned, a jury will decide.