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The Historical Roots of Tenure

Editor’s Note: UHPA is currently working collaboratively with the UH administration to develop a senate resolution which will result in a report on the value of tenure to present to legislators before the start of the next legislative session in 2022. Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, requested this at a recent legislative committee hearing after deferring SB 1329, which proposed eliminating tenure for non-instructional faculty.  UHPA takes this assignment seriously. In today’s Monday Report, we present the first in a series of articles on tenure to ensure faculty have a thorough understanding of this important topic so that we can speak with one voice as we move forward together.

The Historical Roots of Tenure

Mention the word “tenure” today and chances are most people — including fellow faculty members — will immediately associate it with “job security” or “indefinite appointments.” However, the concept of tenure was initially introduced to protect academic freedom, support the common good and provide a quality learning experience for students.

A Brief Overview

How did the concept of tenure develop? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a number of prominent faculty in our country were being dismissed by university administrations and governing boards for advocating and teaching unpopular views. It would be the equivalent of you being dismissed by UH administrators or the UH Board of Regents because they did not agree with the premise of the research you were pursuing or because the books you selected for your students to read for your class made them uncomfortable.

It may seem incredulous that something like this would happen today, but decades ago, this was not unusual. Those highly-publicized cases caught the attention of professors who were critical of those dismissals, but remained powerless to fight back.

Tenure Linked to High-Quality Higher Education

Those incidents prompted professors to found the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. The focus of this new organization’s mission: to protect academic freedom. This led to the development of AAUP’s Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. This defining landmark statement outlined the connection between tenure and academic freedom, and why academic freedom was essential for high-quality education, research and service to benefit the public. That statement has been updated over the years, but its underlying principles continue to serve as the foundation for the current tenure system in universities.

Tenure protects against censorship or discipline of faculty from special interests, religious organizations, corporations, and government entities, including elected officials. Ultimately, this safeguards against the abuse of power and upholds the integrity of the academic institution. This allows UH faculty to teach students without commercial or political pressure and allows students to explore academic subjects without constraints.  

Academic Freedom and Constitutional Freedom

Some have attempted to argue that tenure and academic freedom are unnecessary because the First and Fourteenth Amendments already protect freedom of expression and equal protections under the law. However, it is important to note that while the First and Fourteenth Amendments may protect faculty from government interference when expressing their views outside a university setting, the Constitution does not protect them from what may occur within the university — namely from administrators and governing board members, or even other faculty members. In other words, Constitutional protections are not adequate to protect academic freedom. Tenure fills this void.

Ensuring Quality

Some may hold the misconception that tenure condones mediocrity or complacency among faculty. Some may even say a tenured faculty member can never be terminated. This is simply not true. The tenure system is not designed to protect professional incompetence. The purpose of tenure is to prevent faculty from being terminated for wrong or arbitrary reasons, such as pursuing unpopular research, teaching about controversial points of view relating to instruction, holding high academic standards, or even speaking out against the university’s administration or governing board.

The value of tenure also extends to students as it ensures a high-quality educational experience. UH students — Hawaii’s next generation of community and business leaders — reap the benefits of tenure as they learn from faculty who are the best in their fields. The lives of students are touched and transformed by faculty in and outside of the classroom as learning occurs from researchers, instructors, specialists and extension agents. 

These and other critically important points will serve as the basis of our report that we are collaboratively developing with UH administration.

Watch for “Five Reasons Tenure Benefits the University of Hawai‘i and the Community” in next week’s Monday Report.