For Debate:

Is Tenure Biblical?

The purpose and function of tenure generally in academia is to cause the trustees and administration of the University to abdicate their God-given responsibility to set and direct the Vision and Mission of the University, which lapse they achieve by granting to designated faculty members the power to force the institution to continue paying their salary after they have ceased to support that Mission. Every defense of tenure that I have ever seen or heard makes this point clearly, albeit using somewhat more positive terms such as "protecting the faculty from the president riding roughshod" over their rights. What exactly are they being protected from? Getting fired. That is the bottom line, and everybody knows it.

The mission of the pagan universities in our culture is to promote the established and state-funded religion of this country (which is personal autonomy, also known as anarchy or atheism), and which pagan mission is well-served by the practice of tenure because it prevents the university administration from restricting the autonomous rights of the faculty. The Mission statement of Christian institutions tends to stand in stark contrast to its pagan counterparts by its explicit focus on modelling and teaching "servant leader[ship]" (emphasis mine) as taught also by Jesus Christ in Luke 22:25,26 and John 13:13-16 and elsewhere. It is the nature of a servant (Greek douloV, usually translated "slave") that he does not tell the Master what he can and cannot do, but rather the other way around.

It is remarkable that whatever protection afforded by tenure is a thin veneer anyway. Like all modern employers, the university administration I am most familiar with -- including the Provost in my hearing -- has made it clear that the university is not overly restricted by tenure, non-descrimination laws, or any other such "protections"; there are ways around such restrictions and every competent employer knows how to invoke them. In my experience, they not only can, but do. What this really means is that if they want to fire you because they don't like the color of your hair or skin (both reasons forbidden by Federal and state laws) or they don't like the content of your teaching (which tenure presumably prevents), they must fabricate some more politically correct accusation to bring against the faculty member so opposed; sometimes the mere threat of such a fabrication is sufficient to coerce a "resignation". If anything, tenure, like the anti-discrimination laws, tempts the administration to lie about their reasons for termination, which puts us in jeopardy of the condemnation of Luke 17:1. It also makes termination a lot more unpleasant for everybody than it should be.

Furthermore, tenure is a worthless protection for a different Biblical reason, namely that God's servant doing God's work in God's way is invulnerable from all hazards, including death and/or firing, as Jesus and the Psalmist both point out [Ps.33:17-19, John 11:9]. And when that work is done, nothing -- not horses nor armies nor bank accounts and lawyers nor even tenure -- will protect you from God giving you a new assignment and insisting that you take it.

As for those people not operating in the center of God's provident will, I suppose that tenure provides a form of sedative against the worries therefrom, much as alcohol and drugs are God's gift to the wretched poor who have no other benefits nor obligations of their own [Prov.31:4-7].

A definition of academic freedom is the liberty to pursue truth wherever it may lead. However, on 2003 November 29 I learned that the highest value held by the faculty and staff at a small Christian college is not truth, but something diametrically opposite from it. The tiny minority of us who honor the God of Truth (in which it is impossible for God to lie, and all liars are excluded from Heaven) by valuing truth and integrity over "relationships" (and thus seeking authentic relationships not based on innuendo, hypocrisy and gossip) are left with no objective (that is, truly honest) feedback other than the annual reappointment letter; take that away and you take with it our academic freedom. Ralph Wood in the January 2004 issue of Christianity Today [p.59] argues that "To be free is to conform our lives to the will and way of God."

So I am not arguing that we should take tenure away from those people who (wrongly) believe in its protection; but let's not use it as a bludgeon to take away the academic freedom from those people -- few though we may be -- for whom tenure interferes with our ability to accountably serve God in the work to which He has called us.

Tom Pittman
1st draft 2003 March 5
Rev. 2004 March 5

Postscript. Obviously I never had a chance to do battle with the forces of tenure at this university. The Provost was careful to describe my involuntary termination as "contract not renewed" (which technically I suppose it was), but technically he also violated the provisions of the Faculty Handbook to do so. All of which makes not a whit of difference, because I have always been very public about my policy not to overstay my welcome. They wanted me gone at just exactly the time God was ready for me to do something else.

I didn't get a chance to try this out here, but it occurs to me that there is a very simple way to nullify tenure: On the first day on the job, hand the administration a letter of resignation, effective whenever they choose to accept it in writing. The fact that they get this on the first day makes it clear that it is a formality, not a real resignation. It also puts the burden back on them to terminate the employment honestly, because if they try to coerce a resignation, I can point out that they already have it.

2004 July 30