New Philistines set their sights on academic tenure at Emporia State and elsewhere

A statue of Corky the hornet stares down from wall

A statue of Corky, the Emporia State University mascot, is shown Sept. 9, 2022, at the university campus. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Leota Coats was a teacher in Wellington when the administration asked her to change the failing grade of a high school football star so he could play in a big game. Coats refused and was fired for it. She fought her dismissal to the Kansas Supreme Court and was reinstated.

This is the purpose of tenure. Academic tenure means that educators can be dismissed only with just cause and through due process, including the right to appeal as Coats did. Tenure does not guarantee a job for life. A tenured educator can be fired for reasons like misconduct, dereliction of duty or financial constraints, and in my more than two decades as a professor, I have seen many tenured faculty members fired.

Academic tenure is essential to the mission of educators. Tenure helps maintain academic freedom, the freedom to pursue truth without fear of reprisal. Unorthodox ideas and controversial opinions will always exist, and educators must be free to investigate those ideas and opinions, whether they are apolitical or fall somewhere on the political spectrum from liberal to conservative.

A free society must protect those in pursuit of truth even if the path is unpopular, which in an American academy that leans left, may be most important to conservative thinkers. In fact, two conservative professors at the University of Wisconsin, Donald Downs and John Sharpless, have argued that they would be at great risk without tenure. Educators must be free to dissent and to engage in the free exchange of ideas. These advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of tenure.

Is firing a tenured faculty member a demanding process? Of course it is, and it must remain that way. As I said, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. However, a competent administrator can follow the process to dismiss a tenured faculty member for just and legally sound reasons. I have seen it done.

The problem is not that tenure makes it difficult to fire faculty. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer competent administrators, especially in American colleges and universities.

– Gregg Primo Ventello

The problem is not that tenure makes it difficult to fire faculty. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer competent administrators, especially in American colleges and universities.

A new brand of “leader” emerging throughout the United States is one who has not followed the traditional trajectory, starting with rigorous academic pursuits, research, teaching and ending with selfless administrative service. Today, we have created a shortcut. To be “qualified” for a position in college administration, all a candidate needs is a doctorate in “educational leadership,” or any of its synonymous titles.

These programs are steeped in business theory, like the work of Peter Drucker. His philosophy of business management has proven effective in corporations, but it is rarely suitable for nonprofit institutions of higher learning. These questionable doctorate programs promise their underfunded institutions a new stream of revenue as adult students clamor to enroll in their quest to obtain an inflated administrative salary.

And it’s getting worse. Recently, some colleges are hiring “leaders” with little to no teaching experience and no graduate degrees whatsoever. They have taken a shortcut into their overpaid positions, and now they wish to take a shortcut to fire faculty, as if faculty were their employees. But colleges are public trusts, not businesses, though powerful people see it differently.

Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Regents, has described recent changes at Emporia State University as “an opportunity to be able to take some of the best practices from the business world and bring them over to the higher education world.” Yet the reality is diploma mills are producing pseudo-administrators who think of themselves as CEOs but who have no context or experience to lead a college.

Tenure enables teachers to speak truth to power without fear of retaliation. The elimination of tenure forces faculty to self-censor.

Out of the fear of losing their jobs, few will argue in the best interest of students. Few will be willing to try new and innovative pedagogy. Few will speak out in the interests of their community, or in the interest of our country. Few will oppose an administration even when it is clearly necessary. Without tenure, teachers will become the obedient toadies that these philistine administrators want, administrators who think, as Coats put it, “A winning football team is more important than what is going on in my classroom.”

If this happens, maybe the football team will win the big game, but we all lose.

Gregg Primo Ventello is a former tax accountant, corporate auditor, and university administrator turned English professor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Gregg Primo Ventello
Gregg Primo Ventello

Gregg Primo Ventello is a former tax accountant, corporate auditor and university administrator turned English professor. He has taught at Kansas City Kansas Community College for the past 23 years. He lives in Lawrence.