Overprotected Academics

For the past few months, students at The University of Texas have organized sit-ins, protests, forums, and conversations to express their discontent with the administration’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct against professors Sahotra Sarkar and Coleman Hutchison, who were both found guilty of violating the university’s policies. UT has taken steps to limit the interactions between these professors and undergraduate students, but student leaders demand consequences more severe than temporary suspensions or reduced pay. The undergraduates at the heart of this movement want Sarkar and Hutchinson fired, but their status as tenured professors has protected them thus far. 

Tenured professors can only be dismissed in the event of financial emergency, program closure, or “cause.” Sarkar’s and Hutchinson’s behavior would fall under “cause” as grounds for dismissal, but this can be incredibly difficult to prove and justify. The vague, often subjective nature of severing a tenure agreement for “cause” requires a lengthy and expensive legal proceeding that can sometimes pressure universities to retain incompetent or unethical professors, even under allegations of misconduct. Though celebrated for its protection of academic freedom, tenure also protects faculty from experiencing the full consequences of inappropriate actions.

When the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities established the principles of tenure in the 1940s, neither its role in promoting the freedom of ideas within academia nor the possibility that it could be used to protect problematic professors were realized. Higher education in America was undergoing a period of growth and development following World War II, so universities decided to offer lifetime appointments in order to attract scarce professors. Even after the academic shortage ended, tenure remained as faculty began to realize the value of permanent positions in protecting academic freedom. With the strict conditions for termination, tenure allowed professors to offer a comprehensive education that addressed controversy and a variety of perspectives, even as public opinion changed dramatically during the late 20th century. Tenure ensures that university curriculum does not have to be rewritten to reflect changes in political power and that faculty can conduct research or teach material that may be controversial. For example, a scientist with a tenured position did not have to worry about losing her job simply because her research supported evolution. 

Tenure also protected higher education from the whims of university founders. When the first elite U.S. universities were founded, the philanthropists who provided funding wanted to be able to control the professors whose salaries were paid with their money. Under this system, faculty could be fired for minor offenses like criticizing the industry in which the philanthropist made his money, which created a culture of caution and promoted an ideological approach to education. Tenure helps to separate the wishes of the philanthropist from the interests of the educator, which is becoming increasingly important as private foundations continue to supplement government funding for higher education. It is difficult to fire tenured professors, and that is necessary considering the rapid evolution of our political climate and our history of weaving religious or political ideology into education. Tenure, for all of its faults, has protected academic freedom for decades. 

However, opposition to tenure has been growing recently. In addition to frustration over the extensive process required to terminate faculty who act inappropriately, some administrators worry that tenure causes complacency among professors. The process of earning tenure is notoriously difficult, requiring a combination of success in research, teaching, and service and a positive reputation within the department and institution. Professors must prove that they have contributed enough to the university to deserve a permanent position, but once that position is granted, many feel that they no longer have to maintain the same high standards for their work. 

Though Sarkar and Hutchinson have committed offenses far more serious than complacency, their tenured status still offers a source of protection. President Fenves has not handled their response to the enraged student body very well, but it is true that it will be difficult to administer the punishment that students want because of Sarkar’s and Hutchinson’s tenured status. Immoral behavior, including sexual misconduct, is mentioned as an adequate cause for dismissal by the AAUP, but sexual misconduct can be difficult to judge and in past cases has been reduced to “unethical behavior” during termination proceedings. The process for firing a tenured professor varies based on the institution, as does the interpretation of what constitutes adequate cause for dismissal, but it typically involves testimonies from fellow faculty and a long deliberation period before a decision is delivered. Additionally, dismissal is viewed as a last resort measure with most tenure courts preferring attempts at remediation or intervention before terminating the tenure contract. 

Students have a right to be angry at UT administration’s lack of response to the sexual misconduct allegations, but deciding to fire Sarkar and Hutchinson will not be the quick fix that they want. Even if UT decides to begin severing connections with the two professors, the proceedings will not be short. However, firing Sarkar and Hutchinson could allow UT to set a precedent for future sexual misconduct cases. Decisive action might not only assuage the student body but also represent a positive step forward in an era characterized by a growing refusal to tolerate sexual misconduct. Tenure protects the integrity of higher education in the United States, but the inability to act in cases like that of Sarkar and Hutchinson proves that it does not necessarily protect students. 

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