State senator’s bill to eliminate tenure would damage Nebraska

John Janovy, Jr. is Varner Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, with 45 years of service at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The kindest thing that can be said about Sen. Loren Lippincott’s bill to eliminate tenure at Nebraska’s colleges and universities is that it’s a product of profound ignorance about American higher education. And Gov. Pillen’s position that the “system needs to be reworked” suggests that he learned little or nothing about how the system of American higher education really works while University of Nebraska Regent. As a reminder to both these gentlemen, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents Bylaws are available as a pdf download to anyone with online access anywhere in the world. Chapter IV, “Rights and Responsibilities of Professional Staff,” outlines the evaluation methods and criteria for continuous appointment and termination. The Nebraska State College System board has a similar document, also available online. In terms of performance review, Nebraska college and university faculty members are evaluated far more extensively, far more regularly, and by people far more qualified to judge their work, than are elected officials.

For the benefit of those state senators supporting Sen. Lippincott’s bill, here are a few simple rules that apply to American higher education. My qualifications for proposing these simple rules, provided at the end of this letter, are based on experience. Now, the rules:

1. Colleges and universities are not businesses, even though they may use similar accounting methods. These institutions do not exist to make money.

2. American higher education exists to provide a large, exceedingly diverse, complex, and technology-dependent nation with the human resources needed to understand that nation’s role in global affairs, maintain its supply of highly-skilled personnel, interpret the diverse forces that have an impact on our citizens’ quality of life, and remind us of what it means to be a human being. The latter function is particularly important, given humans’ propensity for dehumanizing their fellow Earthlings for reasons involving power, religious beliefs, and skin color. 

3. Faculty members are, collectively, higher education’s most expensive asset, but without them, colleges and universities do not exist. It is in taxpayers’ vested interest for this asset to be maintained and provided incentive for ongoing engagement with the missions of teaching, research, and service. Continuous appointment and review are also important incentives for this asset to invest its own intellectual power in the institution’s missions over time.

4. Colleges and universities establish curriculum requirements as an attempt to produce both the depth and breadth required for future teachers, health care professionals, engineers, attorneys, business professionals, visual and performing artists, historians, and citizens with enough of an education to move between careers, take advantage of employment opportunities provided by changing times, guide their own children through those same changing times, and participate meaningfully in that discussion of what it means to be a human being and then act accordingly.

5. Tenure also protects the long-term research projects, including those of economic importance to the state and nation, by ensuring that faculty members can pursue that research without constant concern over re-appointment, especially if there are outside funds involved (of which the university collects a fraction as overhead.)

That list of so-called rules is a summary of what I learned from 92 semesters as a UNL faculty member, 88 of them assigned to large enrollment introductory science courses, 38 of them in administrative positions, including a Dean’s level appointment (Interim Director of the State Museum), and all of them (92) actively involved in research and publication (100+ scientific papers and 25 books). During that time, I read approximately 500,000 pages of double-spaced student writing, ranging from first-year students’ essays to doctoral dissertations, voted on numerous tenure review cases, served as my department’s Promotion and Tenure Committee chair, and served on committees that heard tenure denial appeals.

Never during those 92 semesters, did I see a case in which the fact of continuous appointment was so detrimental to the State of Nebraska that it needed to be eliminated statewide, but I saw plenty of cases in which tenured faculty members were deeply engaged with the university’s tri-partite mission of teaching, research, and service to the best of their abilities, resources, and opportunities and to the benefit of Nebraska citizens. Elected officials have a responsibility to truly understand the potential impact of their actions on state agencies, and that does not appear to be the case with Sen. Lippincott’s proposed legislation.

A review of Sen. Lippincott’s record indicates support of a long list of potential legislative actions, most of which are not too surprising for a self-proclaimed conservative. The origin of this tenure elimination bill is a little bit of a mystery, however, unless we interpret it in the most unflattering way, namely as an attempt to convince right-wing extremists in his district that he’s okay with the GOP’s demonstrated fear of education, especially that supported by taxes and delivered by people who can and will talk about human affairs in ways he finds offensive. That’s not enough of a reason to support actions that are clearly damaging to the state’s colleges and universities, which we all know have been major economic drivers throughout their history.

As an aside, Sen. Lippincott’s bio, as presented on his web site, shows clearly that he graduated from UNL and immediately got a job directly related to his major. In other words, he succeeded because of the role that faculty members, quite a few of them tenured, played in his life. Although we tend to glorify his later job as a skilled fighter pilot in the U. S. Air Force, it’s probably a good idea to remember that “fighter pilot” is a government job with excellent benefits and he could easily have finished a government career in the military, retiring with benefits, comparable to those enjoyed by college profs.

In his later career as a Delta pilot, he greeted me at the door of a plane in Ecuador and asked where I was from. Upon hearing “Nebraska,” he gushed that he was a Cornhusker, too, and we had a nice conversation. If I met him today, I’d probably say “Thanks, Loren, for getting me to Houston safely, and by the way, that bill to eliminate tenure at Nebraska’s colleges and universities is a pretty dumb idea.”