Virginia Legislator Crusades Against Tenure
By Karen Lewis, Special to Stateline
A world-famous sculptor who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University is laid off in the midst of state budget cuts because he lacks tenure. Other less accomplished, tenured professors keep their jobs.
A young graduate student is left alone to work for two years on his dissertation only to be told by his advising professor that he doesn't like the topic. The student must restart a massive undertaking from scratch.
Undergraduate students have to endure uninspiring lectures and professors who don't keep office hours and devote themselves more to their research than to teaching.
These circumstances, said Delegate David Albo, R-Fairfax, led him to introduce a bill this session to eliminate the offer of tenure for any professor hired after July 1, 2003, at Virginia's public colleges and universities.
With the proposal, Virginia joined a nationwide debate over tenure, an academic status selectively awarded to faculty members as protection from summary dismissal.
Albo's friend, Isidore Batu Siharulidzer, was the sculptor. Siharulidzer was an assistant professor in VCU's communication arts and design program and is considered one of the world's outstanding sculptors, Albo said. He said Siharulidzer lost his job when the department slashed its budget.
"You have to get rid of one of the best 12 sculptors in the world because he doesn't have tenure?" Albo asked. "At that point I realized tenure had a problem."
Currently, 37 states have some form of review for tenured professors. In such states as California, Arkansas and Texas, state legislators have mandated post-tenure reviews.
Albo's bill goes far beyond post-tenure review by dismantling the tenure system entirely. This has won him few friends in the academic world, where professors cling to tenure like ivy on a brick wall.
"That is the worst idea to come down the pike in a long time," said Esther N. Elstun, a foreign language professor at George Mason University. "I think proponents of that bill ... simply haven't considered the long-range harm that such a step would have everywhere in Virginia."
Not only would the bill damage the quality of education, but it also would put Virginia's schools at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting new faculty, Elstun said. "Nobody would want to come to teach at a college or university here if there was no prospect of ever achieving tenure."
In addition, she said, tenure and academic freedom go hand in hand. "The robustness, health and welfare of any educational institution is dependent on academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, which is supposed to prevail in a college. Without tenure, there is no real academic freedom," Elstun said.
Albo's legislation has also earned the displeasure of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents faculty.
Mark E. Smith, director of government relations for the organization, said the proposal was the most extreme measure he'd seen regarding tenure. "I don't know of any other state that's abolished tenure," he said
Such arguments hold little water for Delegate Albo, who is a lawyer.
"These are modern times," he said, noting federal law prohibits a wide variety of discriminatory hiring and firing practices. "You have a lot more protection in law now."
To Albo, getting rid of tenure is a matter of basic justice, a way to equalize the professions. "Why should a college professor get any more protection than the average working guy?" he asked.
Albo's bill has been tabled in the House Education Committee, but that was solely for financial reasons, the Fairfax Republican said.
He said he hadn't considered the difficulty Virginia would have attracting faculty if other states continue offering tenure. To compensate, Virginia would have to raise faculty salaries -- and that's not possible with the state facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
"It was the economics of the question," Albo said. "Its fiscal impact stalled the bill."
Albo isn't giving up. He said he might reintroduce a bill next session.
"The next step is not to eliminate tenure but to change it dramatically, to make it so professors have to conform to a certain level of performance," he said.
"I think the negatives from tenure outweigh the positives. We're going back to the drawing board to try to modify tenure."