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Academic Lawlessness and Pressures to Conform

By Peter Rony, Department of Chemical Engineering

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 17 - January 18, 1996

In the Nov. 9, 1995 Spectrum, it was pointed out that the post-tenure review "procedures currently in draft would seek to minimize both faculty anxiety and additional workload by focusing any new procedures on a small minority of faculty members whose performance had been identified as problematic...."

It was also noted that "The CFA and Faculty Senate are keenly aware that faculty members are concerned about this policy." Although I have not previously informed myself about this matter, as a member of the AAUP--which maintains a continuing interest in faculty members who are dismissed in violation of the 1940 AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure--I would like to add my name to the list of faculty members who are concerned.

My understanding of the "alternative sanctions version," as the post-tenure review draft is currently called, is that it is targeted against an individual who exhibits the following types of characteristics: "a member of the faculty who has been professionally inactive for many years, is a dreadful teacher, takes no interest in or responsibility for the broader life of the department, etc." "...truly irremediable cases of chronically deficient performance...." "...many faculty members have expressed intense frustration with having to `carry' under-performing colleagues in such hard times."

I would expect and hope that there indeed are "a small minority of faculty members whose performance" fits such descriptions.

A fundamental problem--a currently fatal one, in my opinion--with the "alternative sanctions version" is that it exudes vagueness and non-specificity. Who is the targeted faculty member? According to the current "alternative sanctions version," it is someone who exhibits, "Failure to meet the minimal obligations and standards the department has stipulated for its faculty...."

I am once again reminded of a wonderful passage in The Academic Marketplace, by Theodore Caplow and Reece J. McGee (Science Editions, Inc., New York, 1961) in the section entitled, "Some Observations of Power in Universities": "The solution to this dilemma which has evolved in the American university is to let power lodge pretty much where it may. The fundamental device by which stresses in the university are resolved is a kind of lawlessness consisting of vague and incomplete rules and ambiguous and uncodified procedures...."

If the "minimum obligations and standards" phrase were removed completely and replaced by a much more specific statement concerning lack of performance by a faculty member targeted by the "alternative sanctions version" draft policy, I would be less concerned. As it stands, however, the "alternative sanctions version" is a wonderful example of academic lawlessness.

At the Wingspread Conference on Evaluation of Tenured Faculty (August 24-26, 1983 . . . yes, 13 years ago), the distinguished Harold T. Shapiro, president of the University of Michigan, warned of the following in his address, "The Privilege and the Responsibility": "The problem is that the due process procedures that now frame our understanding of tenure do not speak adequately to many of the external and internal pressures to conform. What protects the particular faculty member against those `nonadministrative' pressures to conform, some subtle, some less so, which are now part of the university and of the larger community within which it exists? Such pressures come, for example, from the need to secure and maintain grant funding from governmental and other agencies; from the attempt to shape one's work to perceived institutional goals and values; from the desire to secure the approval of colleagues and peers, from public opinion, and even from the students themselves. There are, for example, rapidly escalating demands from many faculty members and students that colleges and universities take official positions on various issues. This trend towards the establishment of `orthodoxy' is inconsistent with ideas of academic freedom and, therefore, tenure. Internal pressures toward conformity are great in many of our institutions, undermining both the creative potential of our universities and colleges and, therefore, the rationale for academic tenure. It is a sad fact that faculty members are often as guilty as `the community' in their intolerance for alternative ideas...."

My fundamental concern is for Shapiro's "pressures to conform" that exist in many departments and probably all colleges at this university. My concern for the current wording of the "alternative sanctions version" is that the vague "minimal obligations and standards" phrase will sweep up five to 10 times more faculty members--for example, those who do not "conform"--into the post-tenure-review net than would a more specific statement involving words such as "professionally inactive for many years, is a dreadful teacher, takes no interest in or responsibility for the broader life of the department." If the targeting of non-conforming faculty members for dismissal becomes a reality, it would be a disaster for the university and would drag it down immediately into third-rate university status at the beginning of the new millennium. Such targeting would be a terrible legacy left by the Torgersen administration, and I sincerely hope that it does not occur.

The last paragraph of the draft policy, "The committee's report fulfills the requirement in Section 2.11.1 for an informal inquiry by a standing personnel committee, when dismissal for cause has been recommended...." also troubles me. I suggest that this post-tenure-review draft policy is nothing of the sort. The mountain has labored unimaginatively and uncreatively, and has produced the proverbial mouse. The entire draft policy can be better described as a refinement of Section 2.11.1 of the Faculty Handbook: Dismissal for Cause. Perhaps we should call this "alternative sanctions version" the "Post Tenure Dismissal for Cause Policy Refinement" in an attempt to engage in truth in advertising for the Virginia Tech community. The politically correct words "post-tenure" would be present, yet the intention of the policy would be truthfully stated.

For a continuation of the discussion of this subject, I propose to place such commentary on a World Wide Web site associated with the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Within the next 30-45 days, the local chapter hopes to inaugurate a Web site that is addressed by the following URL:

http://www.vt.edu:10021/aaup.