Tuesday, January 20th, 2009, marked the day when an out of touch, complacent, and corrupt Washington D.C. was to be transformed by a series of campaign promises, most notably that of hope and change. Ten months later the winds of Obama's campaign slogans have long since passed, leaving behind a bitterly partisan and business-as-usual Washington D.C.
Last week a concrete and tangible measure of hope and real change was introduced on Capitol Hill by Senator Jim DeMint and several of his Republican colleagues. DeMint’s proposal came in the form of a constitutional amendment that would place term-limits on members of the House and Senate. Simple yet compelling, the amendment would oust those deemed "permanent politicians."
Mirroring the problems associated with permanent politicians is another arena of American society that could also benefit from change in its permanent ranks. Our system of higher education must take another look at that old fashioned and deficient policy of tenure.
DeMint summed up the disparaging condition of Washington D.C. perfectly in support of his amendment: “As long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buy off special interests, covering over corruption in the bureaucracy, fundraising, relationship building among lobbyists, and trading favors for pork – in short, amassing their own power.”
Apply a similar litmus test to higher education in the United States, and the policy of tenure draws stark comparisons. Emboldened by increased control over curriculum, position in high-level committees and seemingly impenetrable job security, tenured professors have little or no accountability for their actions or words. And, just like a permanent politician, a tenured professor's incentive for achieving success becomes exclusively self-controlled and self-serving. Whether that is to gain notoriety, receive more funding for pet projects, or to pursue an agenda, the measurement of success is left to the individual.
Take for example the now infamous case of Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado tenured professor who compared World Trade Center victims in an essay to "Little Eichmanns." With his permanence of position, success for Professor Churchill evolved into the pursuit of his own radical and fringe agenda. Ultimately, the institution had no recourse against Churchill except a research-misconduct allegation that was unrelated to his perverse essay.