Penn's case raises questions on prof. tenure
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to accurately reflect the length of probationary periods that professors go through before potentially earning tenure.
Earning tenure takes a long time — so does losing it.
English professor William Penn, who has tenure, went on what some are calling an anti-Republican rant during class Aug. 29. He has been relieved of his teaching duties, but remains a full-time employee of the university.
Officials were hesitant to speculate whether he will be fired.
A tenured professor can be fired. But it takes several months to get through the process of notifications, committees and hearings, said Theodore Curry, associate provost and assistant vice president for academic human resources.
He added that it’s very rare to fire a tenured faculty member at MSU, and more often someone under threat of being fired would resign before the process starts — or sometimes in the middle of the process.
“If an employer is doing a good job of getting out there and hiring good people, providing a good work environment that encourages a productive workforce, they don’t have to fire,” Curry said. “The hope and intent is to not have to fire people.”
Richard Lyles, an engineering professor, said he hasn’t seen a tenured professor removed in the 30 years that he’s been at MSU.
But, tenured professors can be disciplined. Curry said there are at least a few professors going through disciplinary action each year — which could range from a reprimand letter to suspension without pay for up to six months.
But university policy on tenure has clear circumstances under which a tenured employee can be disciplined, none of which apply clearly to Penn, said Mae Kuykendall, a law professor and president of the MSU chapter of American Association of University Professors.
“We need the administration to find the wherewithal to educate people about academic freedom … to stand behind faculty and explain why,” she said. “Discipline shouldn’t be a response to a political pressure reaction to one incident.”
But Curry said he’s hesitant to say that Penn’s loss of his classes is disciplinary.
The attainment of tenure affords a certain amount of protection to professors because tenure is a property right under state law, and since MSU is a state institution, it cannot deprive someone of their property without due process, Curry said.
That’s why the process to obtain tenure is rigorous. New assistant professors go through one four-year probationary period and one three-year probationary period before they are eligible for promotion to associate professor with tenure. If they aren’t granted tenure, they no longer have a position at the university. Tenured associate professors can later become tenured full professors.
About two-thirds of assistant professors are promoted to associate professor and awarded tenure at MSU. But about 90 percent of those who apply are granted tenure — yearly reviews give employees an idea on their status. There are about 1,960 tenured faculty at MSU, Curry said.
Final decisions are made by the Board of Trustees.
Lyles said the process of tenure review takes months and the criteria includes performing what is equivalent to peers at MSU and other institutions in research, teaching and publications. The review looks at the assistant professor’s entire career.
“They either say, ‘Here’s a job for the rest of your life,’ or ‘See you later,” Lyles said.