Under Attack

March 3, 2011Dr. Dustin Swanger

These certainly are difficult economic times.  Tight public budgets and fiscal short-falls are increasing the anxiety of the elected officials and the community. In times like these, we tend to look for someone to blame. Currently, that blame is focused on public sector unions and employees – particularly faculty. Fox News seems to blame teachers for the economic downfall of the country.

While it is true that teaching is not the underpaid profession for which it was known, gone is the “schoolmarm” who barely earned a living and relied on the kindness of the families in the area for food and shelter. Indeed, the education profession has come a long way.

However, there are myths that seem to be perpetuated by some of the media. The first myth is that our schools and college are full of bad teachers. Like any profession, there are those who excel and those who are underperforming. Thus, there are good teachers and there are bad teachers. In my experience there are far more “good” teachers than “bad” ones. That is not to suggest that we should allow bad teachers to continue. They should be dealt with like any underperforming employee with the chance to improve. If not, well, they should not be allowed to continue.

Then there’s the myth that teachers have full-time pay for part-time work. This is particularly believed of college faculty. It is true that faculty are not in a classroom teaching for eight hours a day, five days per week, 52 weeks per year. However, faculty have responsibilities outside of the classroom in addition to their teaching. They hold office hours; they serve on committees; they conduct research; and, they must keep current in their field of study. Additionally, they are expected to improve teaching and learning all across the college.

Finally, there is the myth of tenure. Tenure is seen by many in the public as a “job for life” regardless of performance. Recently, a Fox News commentator asked “how hard would you work if you had a job for life?” Let’s talk about tenure. Tenure is a relatively new “benefit” in academia becoming wide spread in the profession in the mid-to-late 1940s.

Tenure was supported by the American Association of University Professors with the intent to protect faculty from public attacks and to protect “academic freedom”. The concept of tenure has been put in place to allow faculty the freedom to explore topics and inquiry that may be unpopular with the public and/or the administration but worth exploring none-the-less. It is designed to protect faculty who teach subjects or topics that might be controversial or with which the administration does not agree. For example a biology faculty member may believe that teaching evolution is absolutely necessary, even though the Dean believes only in creationism.

Dismissing someone with tenure requires the administration prove that the decision was not arbitrary and capricious. However, court decisions have validated that tenure is not a “job for life”. Trotman v Board of Trustee of Lincoln University upheld a dismissal if the faculty member’s conduct was incompatible with his/her duties. And in Johnson v Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System stated that dismissal of faculty may be upheld if the decision is based on an objective rule.

Tenure is not, and never was supposed to be construed as a guaranteed “job for life” once earned (there is a probation period before the granting of tenure). Tenure does not, and never was supposed to, protect “bad teaching”.

Dr. Dustin Swanger is President of FM.

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