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October 24, 2014

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Teachers’ tenure on front burner

UNLV history professor Andrew Kirk has spent the last 18 1/2 years of his life working toward one illustrious goal -- tenure.

The centuries-old designation is a coveted milestone in the life of a professor, and it honors and affirms a scholar's work.

More importantly, the job security that comes with tenure gives professors the freedom to research and teach topics that may be controversial or unpopular.

It's also a misunderstood milestone, Kirk and others said, that's often attacked by those outside academia who think it gives professors a blank check to do or say whatever they want.

"Anytime you encourage critical thinking you risk offending somebody," said Kirk, one of 41 professors in his first semester with tenure. "... I think the basic idea of tenure is to shelter people from political ups and downs."

The role of tenure is one of the issues being discussed Friday during UNLV's first conference on academic freedom.

The conference was sparked by nationwide controversies last spring, including attempts by UNLV administrators to censure economics professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

The criticism that swirled around Hoppe, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado and Larry Summers at Harvard University fueled debates about tenure, academic freedom and academic responsibility, said Jonathan Knight, chairman of the American Association of University Professors tenure and academic freedom division.

Tenure is supposed to allow professors to say things that are politically incorrect without their having to worry about repercussions from their employers, Knight said. But tenure does not give a professor an absolute right to say anything he or she wants. A professor can't teach that the Earth is flat, for example.

Tenure has always been revokable if a professor is proved incompetent, but proving incompetence has been problematic.

The Nevada System of Higher Education mandates annual reviews of all faculty and pursues termination proceedings against anyone who receives two unsatisfactory ratings in a row.

The reviews have safeguards to ensure academic freedom issues are protected while also ensuring accountability to the public, UNLV executive vice president and provost Ray Alden said.

The reviews are "a way to make sure people are doing their jobs," Alden said.

Post-tenure review is becoming increasingly common nationwide, Knight said, but Nevada is extremely rare in conducting the evaluations every year and in tying the results of the evaluations to automatic termination proceedings.

Both the American Association of University Professors and UNLV's faculty senate say the two-strikes policy undermines tenure.

Many professors believe the regents' policy makes it too easy to "get rid of tenured faculty in a short period of time," faculty senate chairman Clint Richards said. Even some administrators questioned the validity and cost of yearly evaluations.

At the same time, most faculty realize there needs to be some mechanism for removing "deadwood" faculty.

Only one professor, Richard Sutton, is known to have been fired under the policy in the last 20-plus years, and he was reinstated and given back pay by the courts after successfully arguing that it was unfair because the standards by which he was judged were not in writing.

Most of UNLV's college deans said it was extremely rare for a professor to receive even one negative evaluation, much less two, and professors argued that the pathway to tenure is so difficult that it weeds out weak candidates.

Only about 60 percent of those entering a tenure-track position actually make it to tenure, Knight said.

So-called tenure-track professors must have a top degree in their fields, usually a Ph.D., and must prove their teaching, research and service abilities over a six-year period.

For Kirk, that pathway included nearly 12 years of college education and seven years of teaching, including one year at Syracuse University before coming to UNLV.

He has written two books, including "Collecting Nature," a history of environmentalism; is founder and director of UNLV's public history program; and is director of Preserve Nevada, which advocates saving local historical buildings. He also is a researcher working on the Nevada Test Site oral history project.

"It's so much work to get tenure, it's hard to imagine that more than a tiny minority of people would somehow make it through that incredibly arduous process and then decide to flake out on their whole career," Kirk said.

Most newly tenured professors, in fact, said their workloads increased after receiving tenure. They are now senior faculty responsible for serving on additional committees, doing more advanced research and mentoring younger professors.

"I think the myth is that once professors get tenure they sit back and don't do anything," said Laura Kruskall, a newly tenured nutritional sciences professor and chair of the nutritional sciences department. "For me it's the complete opposite. ... My research is really taking off."

The ugly side of the tenure process is that if a professor is denied tenure, he doesn't just lose the promotion, he loses his job at the university and will be hard-pressed to find a position elsewhere, several faculty members said.

The fact that it is a do-or-die system is one of the unspoken "incentives" to make tenure, newly tenured sociology professor Robert Futrell said.

Tenure at UNLV usually comes with a promotion from assistant to associate professor and about a 10 percent pay raise. Associate professors at UNLV make about $73,400, or about $13,000 more, on average, than assistant professors.

Most newly tenured professors said the title change was the only change in their routines. After years of working toward the goal of tenure, the end result has been somewhat anti-climactic, Futrell and Megan Becker-Leckrone, a newly tenured English professor, said.

"You have a sense of you've been working so hard for this, now you've gotten this," Becker-Leckrone said. "So now what do you do?"

Christina Littlefield can be reached at (702) 259-8813 or at clittle@ lasvegassun.com.

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