Professors in Utah say ending tenure would stifle academic freedom

Published: Thursday, Feb. 17 2011 2:48 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to end tenure for professors at Utah's public colleges and universities is generating buzz in higher education circles, and not surprisingly, the reaction is overwhelmingly negative.

But while the focus of HB485 is on the cost of guaranteeing employment for tenured professors, faculty leaders say it would also stifle academic freedom, a cornerstone of institutions of higher education that has traditionally kept scholars free from censorship and political interference.

The bill, introduced this week by Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, would eliminate tenure for anyone hired after July 1. Current tenure-holders would keep it.

Brad Taggart, an art professor and president of the faculty senate at Snow College, said his department frequently uses live models, or even cadavers, for figure-drawing classes. The practice is standard art instruction throughout the world, but Taggart said some in the community questioned it.

"We have had some pressure, but we have been able to push back against that," he said, adding that without tenure, "we would be in fear of potentially losing our jobs."

"Administrators come and go, but it's faculty that tends to be what makes a college," Taggart said. "Sometimes we have to be a little more experimental."

Communications professor Dennis Wignall, faculty senate president at Dixie State College, called academic freedom of speech "the bastion of higher education."

Vincent Wickwar, a longtime physics professor and faculty senate president at Utah State University, said tenure means "you can do your research and follow it wherever it leads you."

And he rejected the notion that professors coast after they receive tenure.

"When people are in that position and love it, they're not going to quit," he said.

Tenure, obtained after at least five years in the classroom and a rigorous review process, is about more than job security, the scholars say. They can still be fired for cause and must undergo reviews every three years, but tenure guarantees their ability to push intellectual boundaries — and to push their students.

"The capacity of faculty to challenge convention and extend our ways of thinking into unproven domains is what makes our system of higher education among the best found anywhere," said David Malone, head of the faculty senate at Weber State University.

Alan Hamlin, a business professor and head of Southern Utah University's faculty senate, said tenure affects "the ability of faculty to research and lecture about sometimes controversial issues and topics, without fear of external pressures."

Herrod said he sponsored the bill to start a policy discussion about ways to trim costs in light of waning federal funding for higher education. He said he believes professors would not need the prospect of tenure to want to compete for a job.

But the faculty leaders said that beyond making it impossible to recruit quality faculty, ending tenure would actually be more expensive for the state because anyone taking a job without tenure would demand a higher salary.

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

Twitter: pbkdn

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