What is Tenure?

What is Tenure? (The Good Morning Show — KFAB)

This morning at about 8:40, I spent about 12 minutes as a telephone guest on a morning talk show on KFAB in Nebraska, where I was brought in to provide context for the Ward Churchill controversy at the University of Colorado. My role was to explain tenure.

A Google search for “tenure” brings up an informal “What is Tenure” handout that I created in 2000 and posted to the “Frequently Asked Questions” of my website. When the host first contacted me, he mentioned having found my work online.

I presented myself on-air as a guy who happens to earn a living being a college teacher, and tried to described the process in simple terms. When discussing how tenure might differ at different kinds of institutions, I managed to work in some good references to SHU’s faculty-student interaction and small class sizes (I mentioned that I teach one class with 30 students, three with about 13, and one with five). In response to a hypothetical question about how my school would respond to the presence of a holocaust denier on our faculty, I worked in a reference to our National Catholic Center on Holocaust Education.

At one point, I noted that there are some cold and insensitive people who are great teachers; there are some kind and loving people who are not; and there are some people who say offensive and odious things who meet the terms of their employment contract. That was the main thing I tried to emphasize – that tenure is a contract, with terms that both ends have to hold up. I noted that tenure would not protect the employment of a faculty member whose scholarship and teaching did not continue to meet the appropriate criteria.

After one of the hosts offered the hypothetical scenario of a rich donor saying that he would donate $10 million to SHU, but only on the condition that Dr. Jerz be fired for voicing an opinion that he finds offensive, I explained the importance of academic freedom.

When I noted that there’s a line in our faculty handbook that specifically states that tenure will not be revoked as a way of clamping down on academic freedom, I heard music start to play in the background, and the host thanked me for my time.

Personal Reflection

During the interview, I was consciously thinking of a Salon article I blogged about years ago, “Ambushed on Donahue,” in which MIT scholar Harry Jenkins describes being invited on the show to have an intellectual discussion about videogames in culture, but instead found himself facing angry mothers who had been spooked by Donahue’s repeated screening of video clips showing the most violent, out-of-context scenes in Grand Theft Auto 3.

Jenkins kicked himself afterward for not sticking to a simple point and hammering it at every opportunity. So I offered a quick answer to the direct questions posed by the host, and then tried to shift as soon as possible back to the narrative I had prepared in advance. I was delighted to hear that music in the background just when I got to the line about the faculty handbook, because I had aimed for that to be the climax of my prepared remarks.

I had a few things in reserve, in case I needed them. The station has a lot of sports programming, so I was also going to use the analogy of a pro team paying big money in order to recruit and retain superstars, or colleges offering athletic scholarship for a similar reason. Had the environment become a little hostile, I was going to say “Hmm” thoughtfully, and then suggest that someone in Nebraska start a university that doesn’t offer tenure, and publish a report on what other benefits they needed to offer in order to recruit and retain qualified faculty members. But the need never arose. In fact, the hosts gave me a few generous softballs to speed things along, and when it became clear that I wasn’t going to speculate about Ward Churchill, they offered some hypothetical questions in order to keep me talking.

I tried to record it via the station’s website, but I couldn’t get through. Perhaps angry mobs called in to mock me after I went off the air, but I’m satisfied with the experience.