Tenure Protects Nothing

And Bunnygate proves it.

Bunny Emeritus
A tenured professor at Mount St. Mary’s University. Images

Recently, Mount St. Mary’s University president Simon Newman, a former Bain executive and private equity CEO, was caught encouraging his faculty to identify struggling freshmen and coerce them to drop out before they harmed the institution’s bottom line. Newman likened it to drowning and shooting “cuddly bunnies.” Unsurprisingly, there was fallout. Just not the kind you might expect.

First, the board of trustees of this Catholic liberal arts school unequivocally stood behind Newman. The people they were mad at, among others, were the brave student journalists at the Mountain Echo for publishing the contents of leaked emails between Newman and then-Provost David Rehm. (The Echo denies wrongdoing in this biting editorial; its author, managing editor Ryan Golden, whom I reached by email, declined to comment on record.)

Then, instead of reconsidering the craven corporate maneuvers that got Newman into the papers in the first place, the university doubled down. The board removed Rehm from his post; as provost, he was openly unsupportive of Newman’s so-called positive change, which includes a ridiculous promise to double enrollment. They also out-and-out fired two professors, effective immediately and with no severance; one of those professors, Ed Egan,  is a former trustee and was the faculty adviser to the Echo, and the other, tenured philosophy professor Thane M. Naberhaus, told Inside Higher Ed he received a letter from Newman accusing him of disloyalty.* (IHE has printed several paragraphs of the letter, and it’s a chilling read.)

The academic community has reacted with swift outrage. The American Academy of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education both issued excoriations. (“We Are All Bunnies,” reads a blog post by Cleveland State University Honors College dean and professor Elizabeth Lehfeldt.) A petition demanding the dismissed faculty members’ reinstatement neared 7,000 signatures at the time of this writing.

With their short-sighted and stupid maneuvers, the upper administration of Mount St. Mary’s is a national travesty. The dismissal of a professor with tenure—for disloyalty to the university—also brings up a vital aspect of the continuing tenure wars. The SparkNotes version of those wars: Many nonacademics (and some academics!) erroneously believe tenure is a job for life, no matter what you do, and should be abolished across the board; many academics believe it is the only thing that protects freedom of speech and thought in higher education; many other academics will never get it or even be eligible for it, so they either don’t care about it anymore or are looking for viable alternatives. (Then there are the nihilists, who recognize that tenure is short for this Earth and thus not worth yelling about.)

What Naberhaus’ firing shows us is that all of the current positions in the argument over tenure are wrong. The assumption that tenure equals a “job for life” is ridiculous, because this professor is still alive and no longer has his job—so please, for the love of all that is holy, let that uninformed argument die already. And the Mount St. Mary’s fiasco is also a blow to the argument that tenure is necessary to protect faculty speech—especially faculty that disagree with actions of their own institutions.

Newman’s ax-wielding spree might not cause too much anxiety for those of us who will never get tenure. Adjuncts are used to being under constant threat of nonrenewal (and even midsemester dismissal), so when someone who’s supposed to be dismissal-proof gets dismissed, our first instinct might be to say, Looks like you and I aren’t so different after all.

But contingent faculty also look to our tenured colleagues to level the institutional critiques that need leveling. Until now, the main gripe of the untenured was that our tenured allies weren’t acting allied enough about faculty precarity—that they were “lifeboating,” or too concerned with their own reputations to speak out against administrative misdeeds when they clearly could. The continuing fallout of Bunnygate is a sobering demonstration of just why so many professors, even those with tenure, keep their heads down and traps shut.

However, Newman’s recent act of corporate fearmongering also points us to an ugly truth. I hate to say this, because it gives ammunition to my enemies, but if the remaining noncorporate universities of America want to avoid a similar Bain-storm, everyone is going to have to admit it: Sometimes—sometimes—tenure protects bad teaching. It just does. And this isn’t the fault of the (bad) teachers so much as of the current madness for overpublication, where even professors at small liberal-arts colleges like Mount St. Mary’s are expected to churn out article after book that nobody reads because everyone is too busy writing.

Another thing nobody in academia wants to admit is that tenure can protect bad behavior between colleagues. Check out this think piece on the different kinds of ways to be late to faculty meetings. Check out this game of “faculty-meeting bingo.” Know what enables the probably-only-slightly-exaggerated behavior of the professor in “I Am the Woman in Your Department Who Does All the Committee Work”? Again, it pains me to say this, but tenure. But along with this carte blanche for obnoxiousness came the ability to teach controversial material and to speak out against one’s own institution without fear for one’s job—i.e., the one important thing that tenure does protect. Except, apparently, it doesn’t.

Yes, again, I understand that you can’t get away with maligning the boss in public at Bain, or any of the other money factories Simon Newman helmed before he arrived to make “positive change” at Mount St. Mary’s. You can’t display open company disloyalty at GM, or Twitter, or Chipotle, or the goddamned Gap. But that’s just the point. Universities aren’t companies. (Well, except the ones that are, and that’s going great.) That’s the reason these firings are so galling, and why I add my name to those who demand Rehm be reinstated as provost, and Egan and Naberhaus be rehired immediately with back pay.

*Correction, Feb. 11, 2016: This piece originally misstated that Ed Egan had tenure at Mount St. Mary’s University; he did not although he is a former trustee of the university. (Return.)