(The following article appeared in the 15 March 2000 edition of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes and will be removed as soon as the Post-Dispatch indexes it electronically for free public retrieval via the Internet.
Academic Free Speech Doesn't Seem to Exist Without Job Security
By Diana Umali
AS an undergraduate student, my grasp of tenure and its specifics at St. Louis University is not as firm as I would like it to be. Academic freedom refers to what I have been fortunate enough to experience -- faculty members who not only teach the curriculum but also exercise the freedoms of thought, communication and action in their classes and their lives.
I know that tenure is a contractual agreement to a professor's continual employment. Only in extreme cases, including criminal or immoral actions, can a tenured professor's contract be terminated. Granting a professor tenure guarantees that individual the freedom to determine his or her own teaching methods and materials, no matter how much they may deviate from the norm.
The connection between academic freedom and tenure is more complex.
Last spring, a series of related events shaped my understanding of how academic freedom and tenure are connected.
In March 1999, a sudden and hefty increase in parking prices prompted an examination of shared governance -- not only by students but by faculty members, including those of tenured rank.
Following the wave of protests and criticism aimed at upper administration, a Riverfront Times article quoted Kim Tucci's view on academic tenure. Tucci, a member of the Board of Trustees, defended the administration and criticized anonymous faculty who condemned President Lawrence Biondi, S.J. "I don't believe in tenure," Tucci stated. "It's the biggest joke in the whole world."
When I later spoke with Tucci, he clarified his statement, saying that he did not believe in tenure for those faculty who publicly denounced the administration. However, he stated that he does believe that there are professors who earn respect in their academic fields and thus should he granted tenure.
For a faculty member's view, I spoke with Ellen Carnaghan, associate professor of the political science department at SLU. "Tenure puts faculty in a position where they don't have to worry about what others think. We are free to be critical without having to worry about repercussions for what we say," Carnaghan said.
THIS brings us back to the connection and comparison of academic freedom and academic tenure. No faculty member should feel that he or she cannot introduce new ideas into the classroom, especially those ideas that challenge students to consider new perspectives.
In this sense, I agree with Carnaghan's view that faculty should not be punished for their academic opinions. At the very essence of education is the development of one's ability to think.
Since when did examining and questioning even the most fundamental truths conflict with a university's commitment to academic excellence?
Indeed, Tucci's statement that tenured professors have earned that contractual status because of research and excellence in their respective fields can hardly be refuted. And it is a professor's responsibility to continue that excellence for the remainder of his or her career.
Nontenured faculty may well choose to remain anonymous when criticizing the university because they fear being reprimanded. Should they fear being reprimanded? Ideally, no. But in reality, nontenured faculty have a long ladder to climb. At the risk of sounding trite, the phrase "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" fits all too well, as nontenured faculty face the scrutiny of those perched on the ladder's upper rungs. The fear of losing one's job is more than sufficient reason for a nontenured professor to exercise caution. The true advantage of tenure is freedom from fear.
The U.S. Constitution is a piece of paper. What makes it invaluable are the ideas written down in ink that boldly states, "This is what we believe." Take away the piece of paper and the ideas still exist. A contract granting tenure is also a piece of paper. It is a safety net, a security blanket for the professor and his or her ideas. But even without it, faculty will continue to form their opinions and share them with students.
The shared governance issue and how that prompted tenured faculty to criticize the administration became inappropriately connected with tenure.
Academic tenure should refer to education. Anyone should have the right to criticize the university, tenured or nontenured. Freedom of speech is a constitutional right. Denying anyone the right to scrutinize administrative processes and express his or her opinions, no matter how unfavorable, is taking away that basic freedom.
Diana Umali, a junior at St. Louis University, is news editor of The University News.