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Attacking Tenure Threatens Democracy

Beware! A Threat to Tenure is a Threat to Democracy

At a time when our nation is still reeling from witnessing brazen acts of insurgency, we must remain vigilant to any potential threats to our democracy, even in respected institutions of higher learning.

Universities across our nation have always been beacons of democracy. Intellectual freedom has always been at the core of our nation’s higher education system. Free thought and free speech without reprisal are the norm and are the very qualities that make universities great, whether in research, in teaching or expressing informed opinions about university and public matters.

Academic Freedom Must Prevail

The rights of faculty to teach, or to speak about or publish their research findings need no justification. Free expression and open, vocal dissent and debate are a critical part of the learning process. Faculty take on the responsibility to advance and transfer their knowledge and expertise. Any threat to freely explore and share their expertise would be unthinkable.

That is why tenure is so critical to proper functioning of a university. Tenure safeguards academic freedom. No special interest group, business interest, or government agency should influence which faculty should or should not be tenured. Any attempt to eliminate tenure or tamper with the tenure process should be regarded as a threat to academic freedom.

The Rigorous Tenure Process

Tenure should not be treated lightly. It is not given out freely like service awards for years of dedicated service. It is a long arduous process that can take up to seven years, akin to being on an extended probation. By contrast, the length of a standard probation for newly hired government civil service employees is six months. The tenure process is also extremely rigorous: it involves extensive peer reviews, and audits of research and publications. Faculty work hard to attain tenure, and rightfully deserve the professional respect tenure affords.

The Connection to Academic Excellence

Tenure is also intricately linked to academic excellence and the reputation of a university. This is especially important for the University of Hawai‘i. The ability to attract and retain high-quality faculty members is largely dependent upon offering tenure as we compete with the rest of the country and world for such faculty.

Faculty involved with great research projects can easily be lured away by other universities, if there is no offering of tenure. This means their extramural funding and accompanying job creation opportunities from research projects would be taken away by faculty recruited by other competing universities out of state, putting the University of Hawai‘i at a disadvantage.

Eventually, our status as one of the 131 R1 universities in the country, defined as those with very high research activity, would also be negatively impacted. We continue to strive to become a top-tier university, and must continue to aspire and maintain the standing and respect we have all earned.  

Exacerbating Hawai‘i’s Brain Drain

It’s easy to see from this scenario that a tenure-less university would further exacerbate Hawai‘i’s brain drain, as students who would prefer to remain in Hawai‘i for school and subsequent work will have second thoughts about making the University of Hawai‘i their school of choice.

A Poignant Example

History has shown the value of tenure. In 2015, Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, found high levels of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan. He shared his findings with the public. His tenure status protected him from being disciplined or dismissed. He refused to be silenced at risk of offending powerful business or government interests. Edwards’ commitment to transparency paid off six year later: just two weeks ago former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight other officials were indicted on criminal charges related to their handling of the Flint water crisis, and rightfully charged with willful neglect of duties.

Faculty Must Remain Vigilant

Threats to democracy come in many forms. It may not be a mob attempting to disrupt democratic processes, but may be more subtle bureaucratic forces. A threat to tenure could be cleverly disguised as a way to address the state’s budget deficit without harm or to “right size” the university. Faculty must remain vigilant to threats of democracy occurring in their own backyard.