Why tenure is important

The real importance of tenure these days is not protecting academics from being fired for political viewpoints. The real protection of tenure is in allowing faculty to oppose governance actions without retaliation. And a judge in Charleston so ruled.

Charleston Law School started about a decade ago. It's a private school, created by a few local investors. They did very well for themselves. Some already sold off their investments. Indeed, the "founders" pulled out millions of dollars from the fledgling school, and now the remaining owners of the school have sought to sell out to the for-profit behemoth Infilaw.

Only one problem. The faculty refused to approve the deal. Oh, those pesky academics getting in the way of the investors' ability cash out! What happened next is the real interesting part. 

First,  the school declared a financial exigency. Huh?  What happened to the $10+ million drained by the owners?

Second, the school sought to rid itself of one original faculty member, Nancy Zisk, amongst others, because she "cost too much." Read: a longtime tenured faculty member feels able, indeed compelled, to undertake her moral and professional responsibility to share and vote her informed views on what's good for her institution — and the far-better-compensated investors decided that she, the professor, was the economic problem, not their dramatic dividends.  Zisk sued, and the court granted her a temporary restraining order.

Zisk was a financial detriment, for sure, but not because of her salary. She dared to challenge the owners' plan to monetize the institution. And her right to say so will only been protected because she has tenure — indeed, only, after litigating to enforce that right.

Of course, faculty opposing the actions of those in power is not unique. I've seen various examples of faculty voicing informed dissenting views, including:  faculty questioning decisions to spend public funds on private vendors; faculty challenging the expenditure of government dollars on a school gymnasium rather than student scholarships; and faculty suggesting during economically difficult times of declining enrollment that filling empty spots for administrators should be a lower priority. Unsurprisingly, none of these sound suggestions were made by untenured faculty.

Tenure may have its problems, but they are outweighed by ensuring that higher education institutions are ultimately governed by academics, not venture capitalists and others. That doesn't mean, of course, that the institutions' books don't have to be balanced — even after an enormous conveyance of capital to investors. They do. It simply means that educational priorities will continue to be in the hands of teachers, where they belong.

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