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Beryl Lieff Benderly

The real purpose of tenure?

We often hear that the tenure system is essential to defend academic freedom.  But, as an article in yesterday’s Harvard Crimson reveals, the inalienable right of faculty members (or at least those officially recognized as having produced the requisite number of adequately impactful publications within a 6-year period) to advance knowledge by uttering opinions contrary to prevailing scholarly or political orthodoxy is not the only thing being protected.

The reporters set out to determine the likelihood that psychology professor Joel Hauser will be stripped of his tenured position for research misconduct. The American Association of University Professors considers falsifying research a justified reason for revoking tenure, they note.  But those who think Hauser deserves to join the ragged band of miscreants banished from their prestigious posts for violating the norms of science “should not hold their breath” until that happens, the authors write.  Apparently that dire fate awaits only those not yet anointed by a tenure committee.
Their investigation of past academic scandals in Cambridge, the student reporters continue, found that “tenured Harvard faculty have kept their jobs, whereas junior faculty resigned from their positions.”
Some of Harvard’s “peer institutions,” specifically MIT and Columbia, have axed tenured faculty for research violations, the article continues. But it appears that, at least at Harvard, tenure protects professors’ right to say anything they want, even if they know it’s false, and to retain their high-paid lifetime sinecures while doing so.  Now, that’s what I call academic freedom.

2 comments on “The real purpose of tenure?”

  1. Richard Weibl says:

    The Crimson story does posit interesting questions. Several parts of the article are particular critical:
    ““If the administration and the faculty believe that a professor has engaged in research misconduct, certainly according to our standards, they would be in a position to initiate dismissal proceedings,” said Gregory F. Scholtz, director of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. “Tenure is not supposed to protect academic misconduct or academic incompetence.””
    “A copy of Harvard statutes revised in 2004 states that only the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, can dismiss a permanently appointed faculty member for “grave misconduct or neglect of duty.” …. It is unclear whether the statutes have been revised since 2004, and a request to Neal for information on Harvard’s procedures on terminating tenure was not returned in time for this article.”
    “The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has never begun dismissal proceedings against a faculty member because of research misconduct, according to FAS spokesman Jeff Neal.”
    Nothing here says that tenure, as a general concept, or the rules of Harvard prevents dismissal of tenured faculty for misconduct.
    What it does suggest is that even after a clear finding of misconduct, the presumably tenured faculty of Arts and Sciences are unwilling to further engage or otherwise discipline their colleague.
    To some, this might say more about the social practices of faculty and their degree of tolerance for misconduct than it says about tenure. The Faculty of A&S presumably have a procedure, they just do not elect to use it against one one of there own.
    How does this behavior suggest that the tenure protections of academic freedom are somehow suspect. What may be suspect is a academic culture that finds other, less open and transparent means for disciplining its own. And in doing so, perhaps it is more humane. Certainly failing to be open and transparent does lead outsiders to make suspect allegations.

  2. Richard Weibl says:

    Marc Hauser, the Harvard University psychology professor who the university determined committed scientific misconduct, will be barred from teaching for 2011-2012, The Boston Globe reported.
    While the university has announced that it found Hauser guilty of misconduct, it has been vague about the nature of the misconduct. Hauser had previously been scheduled to teach in the fall.
    From The Boston Globe
    “A large majority of the members of the Department of Psychology voted in February to not offer courses taught by Professor Hauser during the 2011-2012 academic year,” Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said in a statement. “Dean Smith supported this decision and, in that light, he will not condone Professor Hauser teaching in other FAS departments or schools.”
    When asked what Hauser’s precise role would be at the university and within the department when he returns in the fall, Susan Carey, the chairwoman of the psychology department said those details were being worked out.

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