Doctoring Tenure

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.

4 thoughts on “Doctoring Tenure

  1. Unfortunately, the link in the posting above purporting to provide a copy of the letter from the University of Texas center instead leads to the Houston Chronicle, requiring a subscription for access.

    A copy of the letter can be accessed here:

    In fact, it appears that both AAUP and the Chronicle of Higher Education are doing “damage control” on this issue/event: the Academe Blog does not provide us with the questions posed by the University of Texas and the Chronicle of Higher Education appears to once again be carrying water for the AAUP leadership, this time by placing its coverage article in the “subscribers only” section of their Website. The link above was unearthed via Google search.

    A quick perusal of the questions posed by the administration reveals that many of them are central to the conduct and public perception of the AAUP. Far from hiding the questions and digging in its heels, the AAUP leadership should be publicly proclaiming its responses.

    This is not the first time that the “authority” of the AAUP has been challenged by a university administration. In the SUNY censure back in the seventies, the system administration cited the exclusive bargaining rights of the UUP union of faculty and professionals as a means of attempting to avoid accountability to AAUP in the matter of academic freedom and tenure.

    The letter provided at the line provided here is surely a focused and insightful legal and procedural reply of an administration to the initiation of a review process by the AAUP leadership. The functioning of the AAUP since its “reorganization” does require closer scrutiny. For example, the counter-intuitive move to replace a General Secretary with an Executive Director — ostensibly to focus on the D.C. headquarters and management — only to leave in that employee’s hands the discretion to call for formal Committee A investigations clearly merits further examination, although not explicitly mentioned in the coverage of this case or others.

    It is time for the AAUP leadership to let the “sunshine” in. This is the same AAUP which several years ago censored this member for alerting others to the US DOL posting of the AAUP financial filings which were inconsistent with reports made by the leadership to the membership at an annual meeting. The same AAUP which attacked an adjunct member at this blog who dared to assume that the AAUP leadership should hold jointly-affiliated AAUP unions to the same 1940 Statement standards which are used in these universioty investigations.

    The reader is, by these contradictions, welcomed to the AAUP Animal Farm where some members are more equal than other members — as the organization approaches its centennial.

    Dewey and Lovejoy are turning in their graves.

    • The Houston Chronicle link still works for me without any paywall, but I have added the pdf link you found. Obviously, an article publicizing this letter on the AAUP blog is not a secret attempt to suppress it. As for Dewey and Lovejoy turning in their graves, I believe that makes them active members, which the AAUP can always use more of.

  2. Indeed, the AAUP Blog host is to be commended for covering this matter. As for the original link, this reader tried it several times before making the comment, and each time received a page indicating that one must subscribe for access. Perhaps when the blog host first opened the link, it was an open Webpage later transferred to subscribers only.

    I am also having difficulty finding coverage of this matter in Inside Higher Education, a publication like The Chronicle of Higher Education: both been reticent to cover matters which the AAUP leadership would disapprove of. Indeed, one of the IHE editors is a regular participant on panels at AAUP-sponsored conferences and proffered comment submissions at IHE are regularly censored when they criticize AAUP.

    Finally, as for the most active AAUP members being those who have passed on and left the earth, this reader/member couldn’t agree more.

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