Think tenure protects you? With wealthy donors and less public funding, think again

Editor’s Note: Professor Steven Salaita hadn’t even started his new job in the American Indian studies department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when the offer was rescinded. He and his wife had already quit their previous jobs at Virginia Tech, where Salaita was tenured, because this new job came with tenure too. Just what had Salaita done to lose his job, despite having the tenure protection academics hold dear?

During the height of Israeli’s air war against Gaza this summer, Salaita’s tweets about the conflict (some with “vulgar and inflammatory language,” according to the Chicago Tribune) caught the attention of his new employer. The chancellor didn’t think the trustees would approve his appointment, and she’d heard from several donors who said they wouldn’t be giving if Salaita joined the faculty. The university maintains that Salaita didn’t yet have tenure because he hadn’t started the job, and the trustees have stood behind the chancellor, saying the school “values civility as much as scholarship.”

But to academics, Salaita’s dismissal two weeks before starting the job is a strike against academic freedom. At least 16 academic departments have voted no confidence in the chancellor, and the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association have taken stands against the university.

One of those angered academics is Denise Cummins, who taught psychology and philosophy full-time at the university from 2005 to 2012 as an adjunct professor. In the following column, she argues that tenure neither affirms the value of the professors on whom it’s bestowed, as she argued previously on Making Sen$e, nor does it protect their academic freedom. That’s especially the case when the economics of higher education is in flux. Here she identifies some of those shifts and how they’re threatening academic freedom.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

In October of 2013, Steven Salaita, a tenured professor at Virginia Technical Institute and respected scholar, was offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). After accepting the position, he fired off a series of passionate tweets highly critical of Israel in the current Israel-Gaza conflict, including one that read “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing.” In August 2014, the UIUC trustees rescinded the job offer, citing a failure of civility as justification.

Their decision to renege on the job offer has ignited a hailstorm of controversy concerning academic freedom of speech. In the ensuing and ever-growing controversy surrounding the case, five observations about the state of higher education have become increasingly clear, all the result of the changing economics of higher education, beginning with the increased power of wealthy funders in the face of decreased public funding.

Wealthy donors are becoming powerful

In the Salaita case, wealthy donors overrode faculty governance in order to control faculty hiring. They did this because they vehemently disagreed with the job candidate’s political beliefs as expressed on Twitter. Professors in American universities develop their own courses and select their own curricular materials. So this means that these wealthy donors exercised direct control over curricular content — what students can and will learn in the classroom — when they decided who should be hired to teach at UIUC.

One business school alum told the chancellor he was “disappointed in the rhetoric” coming from Salaita, the Chicago Tribune reported. “Having been a multiple 6-figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” he wrote, referring to him and his wife. “This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35-year career,” he continued.

The Salaita case is not an isolated incident. Florida State University has received $1 million of a promised $1.5 million grant from rightwing billionaires Charles and David Koch. In exchange, the brothers demanded appointments for ultra-rightwing economics faculty. And FSU initially gave in to these demands, as explained in a memo drawn up by the chair of the university’s economics department and reprinted in The Guardian:

They want to expose students to what they believe are vital concepts about the benefits of the market and the dangers of government failure, and they want to support and mentor students who share their views. Therefore, they are trying to convince us to hire faculty who will provide exposure and mentoring. If we are not willing to hire such faculty, they are not willing to fund us.”

FSU set up a three-person advisory board to liaise with the Charles Koch Foundation over faculty hiring in economics. In the face of widespread criticism, however, the university released a statement on May 9, 2014 saying that it had changed the advisory board guidelines “to eliminate any role whatsoever of the advisory group in the hiring of tenure-track faculty members in the department of economics… the role of the three-person advisory group was switched to one of stewardship.” As to the essence of the original deal, however, the group was “tasked with making sure that donor intent was met.”

Tuition has risen as public funding has dried up

One reason wealthy donors have more sway these days is that the reduction in funding for public education has put administrators in an impossible situation. According to a report from the College Board, public colleges and universities received about $9,000 per student in state funding in 2007 (in 2012 dollars). By 2012, state funding had dropped to about $6,500 per student, roughly a 27 percent decline. Meanwhile, enrollment in public institutions increased by 11 percent over these same five years.

To address the deficit in state funding, administrators sought to increase income and cut costs. One avenue to increase income was to raise tuitions, which they did, but not so much as to put public higher education out of reach of the middle class: inflation-adjusted average tuition, fees, room and board costs increased 20 percent from about $15,000 in 2007 to roughly $18,000 in 2012. In 2007, student tuition covered about 36 percent of the actual costs involved in running a university. By 2012, that had increased to over 47 percent.

As a result, more than 40 million Americans now have some form of student loan debt, totaling an estimated $1.2 trillion, coupled with iffy job prospects. Student loans cannot be reduced or wiped away in bankruptcy and Congress has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to allow students to refinance this debt at lower rates. The philanthropic group StrikeDebt, economic activists from the Occupy Wall Street movement, has stepped in to purchase and eradicate $3.9 million in private student loans. As one of their organizers eloquently told NPR, “Some debts are just and others are unjust. Providing affordable, publicly financed, world class education is a moral debt we are failing to pay.”

But the $3.9 million covered by the StrikeDebt initiative thus far covers less than one-third of one percent of college debt outstanding. Thus students remain vulnerable, as do administrators when donors with deep pockets and political agendas come calling.

Faculty and students have protested Salaita's dismissal. Photo by Flickr user ,a href=>jeffrey_putney.

Faculty and students have protested Salaita’s dismissal. Photo by Flickr user jeffrey_putney.

Financial duress has been exacerbated by the growth of administrators and their staff

When faced with shortages, people fear for their own survival and tend to hoard resources for themselves. That would be one explanation for why administrators, faced with budgetary crises, actually made the situation worse.

According to a report released by the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes college finances, new administrative positions drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher-education workforce from 2000 to 2012, while the average number of tenure faculty and staff per administrator tenure faculty declined by 40 percent between 1990 and 2012. There are now only 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator

The salaries of tenure faculty, whom the report calls “full-time faculty,” were essentially flat from 2000 to 2012, yet to cut costs even further, tenure faculty were replaced by professors who are not allowed to compete for tenure (instructors and adjunct professors). Nontenure faculty now comprise over two-thirds of instructional staff at American colleges and universities, and they work for substantially lower salaries than their tenured faculty counterparts.

Administrators increasingly devalue the expertise of their own faculty

Because of their expertise in their teaching and research areas, university and college professors often serve as expert witnesses in court proceedings or as expert consultants in news and other media. Yet when deciding whether or not to rescind the job offer Salaita had already accepted, Chancellor Wise apparently did not consider consulting her own faculty, even those whose expertise was directly relevant to charges that the professor was anti-Semitic.

Michael Rothberg is the head of the department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, director of its Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies and author of numerous books on the Holocaust. In a letter to Chancellor Wise on August 7, 2014, Rothberg wrote:

I already wrote to you over a week ago to express my misgivings about the way shared governance and faculty autonomy were overridden in the decision to rescind a good faith offer of a tenured position to Professor Salaita. Here I want to emphasize my surprise that faculty members with expertise in areas relevant to your decision were apparently never consulted…While I continue to believe that political speech—no matter how controversial or extreme it might be considered—is protected by the First Amendment and the core values of Academic Freedom, I have also observed many interpretations of Professor Salaita’s protected speech about the Israeli bombing of Gaza that I consider misguided and that deserve to be refuted. I strongly believe that neither Professor Salaita himself nor the tweets that are at issue are antisemitic…I find these writings to be sincere and observe that nobody has brought a single piece of evidence to bear that would contradict Professor Salaita’s explicit personal opposition to antisemitism.

The public does not understand what colleges and universities are

Over 100 local businessmen and businesswomen signed a petition in support of Chancellor Wise’s right to rescind Salaita’s job offer. Illinois is an “at will” employer, meaning that employees can be fired for no cause at all, so why, those businesspeople wonder, is this firing being treated so differently?

To most of the public, a college or university is just a big high school. It is where you send your children after they graduate high school so they can acquire more job-relevant knowledge. But that isn’t what colleges and universities are.

University and college professors aren’t just teachers. They are scientists and scholars. They don’t just pass on knowledge. They create that knowledge. The digital computer began as an abstract idea published in a scholarly journal by professor of mathematics Alan Turing. The internet was the brainchild of academics, most notably researchers at MIT and UCLA. The entire enterprise of science depends on the work done by university professors and their graduate students, everything from designing and running experiments to publishing the results in readily accessible venues (like PubMed, which the public can search for free) to serving as reviewers and editors of the work submitted for publication. All of these tasks are considered part of a professor’s job.

And for this important work to happen, academic scholars and scientists must be free to pursue their intellectual interests without fear of political reprisals. When powerful individuals with political agendas curtail that freedom, the results can be disastrous. Soon after Hitler came to power, Jews were summarily dismissed from academic positions, and an attack was launched against “Jewish physics” — relativity theory and quantum mechanics. These ousted scientists (including Albert Einstein) came to the U.S. where they were free to pursue their work, resulting in the development of the atomic bomb and the Allies winning World War II.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities puts it this way:

Academic freedom to explore significant and controversial questions is an essential precondition to fulfill the academy’s mission of educating students and advancing knowledge. Academic responsibility requires professors to submit their knowledge and claims to rigorous and public review by peers who are experts in the subject matter under consideration; to ground their arguments in the best available evidence; and to work together to foster the education of students.

The Salaita case has opened up a Pandora’s box of conflicting issues in American academe. The tenure faculty are outraged that the rights, freedoms, and privileges of one of their own have been so summarily curtailed, and faculty governance so casually brushed aside. Yet they are remarkably silent when these same offenses are committed against the new faculty majority of adjuncts. Academic freedom is indeed a cause worth fighting for, a vital necessity in a free and productive society. But as these two parallel stories – the abuse of adjuncts and the fall of Salaita — so plainly demonstrate, tenure is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee such freedom.

Watch Paul Solman’s report on the struggles of adjunct faculty, below, followed by his earlier report on how older faculty are holding onto coveted tenure positions.