Why Harvard Can't Just Give Cornel West Tenure - And Why That Shouldn't Matter

 by Diane Klein

Noted public intellectual, best-selling author, and co-chair of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign Cornel West is threatening to leave Harvard, for a second time.  He has stated that "the administration disrespected him by denying his request to be considered for tenure."  A statement like this was crafted carefully, and it has to be read carefully.  First of all, West has not been denied tenure.  It would appear that he was turned down after requesting "to be considered for tenure."  Why would he have to make such a request? Presumably, because he holds a position that is not eligible for tenure.  Is turning him down a sign of "disrespect," as he claims?  Or did West voluntarily accept a position that was ineligible for tenure - only to complain a few years later that Harvard refused to consider him for a status that was never part of the job? And why does it make such a difference?

West has a long and somewhat contentious history with Harvard.  He began teaching at Princeton in 1988, after earning his Ph.D. there in 1980.  He was at Harvard from 1994 to 2002, with a joint appointment in the Divinity School and the African American studies department.  In 1998, he was appointed the first Alphonse Fletcher University Professor.  At Harvard, "University Professors" are a select group permitted to teach across departments and schools. West was popular, his classes were huge, and his disagreements with then-President of Harvard Lawrence Summers made headlines.  When he left Harvard the first time, a boyish Ross Douthat '02 (!) eulogized his departure in the Crimson.  He returned to Princeton, and in 2012, he retired as the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies.

In November 2016, West accepted an offer to return to Harvard.  The position he accepted was a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School and the department of African and African-American studies within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  The appointment was as "professor of the practice of public philosophy."  The magic word here in academic-speak is "practice" - professors of "practice" of one thing or another are generally, including at Harvard, not tenure-eligible (also known as "tenure-track").

As most people know, so-called "tenure track" positions are ones which follow a set promotion plan.  Generally beginning with an appointment as an assistant professor, the faculty member is reviewed and considered for promotion after a set number of years, usually to a position called "associate professor."  Faculty members can also be hired into that rank.  In some institutions and departments, there is tenure in the associate rank.  In others, including most law schools, "associate" is an intermediate tenure-track position, followed after a set period of years by consideration for promotion to "full" professor and tenure.  Those two promotions may be consolidated or may happen separately.  It is also possible for someone to be appointed with tenure, and avoid this entire process.

What most people outside academia (and perhaps too many within it) do not know, however, is that tenured and tenure-track appointments are no longer the norm, even for full-time faculty.  Most (perhaps as many as 70%) of the faculty members providing instruction in higher education institutions today are doing so "off the tenure-track," meaning, they neither have tenure nor are eligible ever to earn it.  Some of these faculty are on long-term contracts; others are appointed semester-to-semester with no job security at all.  Some non-tenure-eligible contract faculty are highly compensated, and some have endowed chairs; others teach full-time and yet are eligible for food stamps.  Some enjoy the faculty governance rights and full-blooded academic freedom that are hallmarks of tenure, even if their position lacks that title.  Many more are excluded from faculty shared governance entirely (no votes in Faculty Assembly at all, or through a handful of "representatives," no seats on committees or the backhanded opportunity to serve gratis because their contracts don't compensate them for "service").  Most contingent faculty enjoy just as much academic freedom as anyone has, who can be terminated (or not reappointed) at will, on the whim of a Dean, the complaint of a single student, or for exciting the ire of a parent, donor, or trustee.

In declining (as it appears) to consider West for tenure (or a tenure-eligible appointment), Harvard instead offered him (at age 67) a 10-year contract, appointment to an endowed professorship, and a raise - but West "is not interested."  For him, apparently, it's tenure or nothing at all.

But why?  What is tenure, really?  If we look beyond labels to the substance of tenure, we find three crucial aspects of this status: job security, shared governance, and academic freedom.  Job security does not mean, as many laypeople suppose, that a person with tenure cannot be fired.  Tenure actually consists primarily of presumptive reappointment, an institutional determination of competence, and guarantees of full due process in the event of termination.  Tenure as such is not the only way to provide this.  Similarly, a role in shared governance is possible, appropriately included in and compensated for contract faculty, whether full- or part-time.  Finally, the guarantees of academic freedom, including that faculty will not be terminated for unpopular speech made in class, in scholarship, or in public affairs (what the AAUP calls "extramural" speech), can be conferred by an institution by fiat.

West was quoted as saying, "I don't negotiate respect."  Nor should he.  But "tenure" is not and should not be synonymous with "respect" in an academic institution.  To suggest that it is actually licenses the massive disrespect shown to all faculty ineligible for it, and makes a fetish of a label.  If the protections of tenure are so valuable, shouldn't everyone be eligible to earn them?  The American Association of University Professors thinks so.  (By way of full disclosure, I am the Vice President of the California Conference of the AAUP, the organization dedicated for more than a century to promoting academic freedom, shared governance, and economic security for faculty.)  If the AAUP's recommendations were more widely understood and adopted, and all faculty employed continuously full-time for more than six years enjoyed the full substantive protections of tenure - due process upon termination, participation in governance in one's own right, and robust academic freedom - the "tenure" label would mean much less.  This is as it should be.  Of course, if universities had to provide their entire long-term full-time faculty with all of those protections, they wouldn't bother withholding the "tenure" label.  And that shows why it really matters.  A fight about tenure is really a fight about academic hierarchy within the professoriate.  The rights attached to the status of tenure should not be based on job titles, but on the contributions each faculty member makes to the academic enterprise and the nature of that enterprise.

West's protestations, at least as reported thus far, seem both disingenuous and misguided.  Disingenuous because, if this label and status mattered so much to him, a distinguished lifelong academic lured out of retirement by Harvard could and should have negotiated for (eligibility for) tenure (or his allies might have done so).  They didn't.  But his protests are also misguided, because the "respect" he rightly seeks should be accorded to all who teach, research, and serve in academic institutions.