The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has written a five-page letter to the AAUP (pdf), which is considering an investigation of the institution because it revoked tenure and then dismissed two professors under its new system of re-evaluating faculty every seven years. The letter asks over 30 questions to the AAUP about its procedures and demands that the AAUP to justify its right to investigate the center.
Now, I don’t speak for the AAUP, and I can’t answer all these questions, but I do want to paraphrase and answer two fundamental questions posed in the letter: “What authority does the AAUP have to investigate anything?” and “Why should we protect tenure when we’re trying to save lives?”
First, I could detail a long list of the AAUP’s century-old commitment to investigating cases involving academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance, or the AAUP’s almost ridiculous obsession with being unbiased and fair in these investigations. But I won’t, because it shouldn’t matter. A university has a moral obligation to answer reasonable questions about its procedures, regardless of whether it thinks the questioner is unbiased and reasonable. Here’s an analogy: suppose that a bad thing happens to a patient, and that patient (along with some friends) wants to ask some questions about what went wrong. A hospital doesn’t say, “what are your qualifications to ask questions, and do you agree in advance with our presumptions about how to treat patients?” before agreeing to answer questions. A hospital is morally obligated to answer those questions, because it should have nothing to hide.
Now, the medical center writes that they decided to eliminate tenure and replace it with renewable contracts because there must be “a balance between the academic interests of an institution that has as its sole mission the elimination of human suffering from cancer and the required accountability in patient care, research, education and prevention.” In other words, tenure is fine for academic stuff. But when human lives are at stake, we need to have accountability, and tenure just gets in the way.
You know they really hate cancer because their letterhead crosses out the word “cancer” in their own name with a red line. They hate cancer so much that they need to get rid of tenure in order to stop cancer.
And, according to the medical center, “We submit that the success of our institute in caring for the patients that it serves is compelling proof that the balance has been appropriate.” I sure hope their medical analysis and scientific research is done with better standards than that. Exactly how do they know that a tenure system would cause slightly more patients to end up dead?
In reality, a tenure system is probably even more important in a medical center where life-and-death decisions are made. Remember, tenure is not a job for life. It simply requires due process to fire somebody. If a doctor is killing off patients, that’s certainly a justification for dismissal. But in a system of term appointments renewable every seven years, there’s an incentive to just wait until the next re-appointment before getting rid of them, instead of acting immediately toward an incompetent doctor.
Of course, a tenure system also has other benefits: it promotes job security and makes people more willing to take a job. And it encourages faculty to speak out critically about public issues and institutional practices, both of which can be critically important for public health. Most often, the greatest danger to patient health is not an individual incompetent doctor, but an institutionalized system of cutting corners and making money rather than serving patients, and tenure provides an important protection for those who resist these tendencies.
The AAUP doesn’t defend tenure and academic freedom just because it’s good for professors. It defends these principles because they are fundamental to universities, and good for students and patients as well.