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Humans have long been viewed as the most complex life form, which has made understanding where our species came from a particularly pressing issue. Of the many attempts to explain how humankind came to exist over time, one theory seems to outshine all others, especially in modern America – none other than the theory of evolution. This theory provides an explanation of the progression of life forms and their behaviors. While the list of life forms it applies to is very extensive, it is unsurprising that the majority of the human population seems to be solely interested in the evolution of the animal at the top of the food chain – us. Charles Darwin and many other extraordinary scientists have contributed to the theory of evolution which is commonly taught in secondary schools today in order to give students an understanding of the development of humanity. In fact, not only is the evolution of humans from other organisms studied by most high school students, but also the development of humanity throughout recorded history. What eventually becomes obvious to many high school students is that, despite the fact that history tends to repeat itself, humanity gradually changes in order to adapt to the environment. If this is so, then it seems to follow that as humanity adjusts so too should the creations of humanity. Such developments are evident in one of the most important establishments in human education – the university.

Organized higher education came about in ancient Greece, later appeared in the Muslim world in the form of Al-Karaouine, and eventually took shape in European specialized schools, such as the Bologna law school, during the Middle Ages. While many changes have taken place in the structure and curriculum of universities over time, one development which continues to spark nearly as much political debate as the funding of higher education is the concept of academic tenure. There are many factors in the current controversy surrounding tenure including the security of professors and the quality of teaching and research. While the many pros and cons of academic tenure continue to be debated, and the introduction of such security for public secondary school teachers is considered, one critical aspect of the university begs to be remembered: the students. The University of Bologna, a school founded by students who sought and hired professors on their own, acted as a major stepping stone for modern European and American universities. Despite such a student-established foundation upon which the American university has grown, many undergraduates might argue that tenure has actually abolished the mentality that the university exists for the student. In fact, some undergraduates might go as far as to say that the tenure of professors has hindered higher education for their sake because of the rarity that students pursuing Bachelor degrees are ever even exposed to a professor’s research. This conclusion, however, doesn’t take into consideration the observation that academic tenure seems to have accompanied or acted as a response to the further evolution of higher education which has taken place in America in the last hundred years. While an undergraduate student’s perspective might cast negative light on academic tenure, the existence of such an institution in many American universities not only reveals its associated benefits for all university students as well as society, but also represents further evolution in the world of higher education.

Academic tenure has been described by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as “an arrangement whereby faculty members, after successful completion of a period of probationary service, can be dismissed only for adequate cause or other possible circumstances and only after a hearing before a faculty committee (Tenure). It is a concept which largely developed out of the need for freedom of research and protection against censorship or dismissal due to religious or political stances (Fuchs 437). In fact, the need for such freedoms is what gave rise to the AAUP:

Because of concern among professors over dismissals that had taken place, coupled with the belief that it would be desirable to have a national organization of college and university teachers similar to the associations of physicians and lawyers, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was formed in 1915 by a group of prominent faculty members in leading institutions… Although the purposes of the new Association were broadly professional, its most noteworthy early pronouncement was the 1915 Declaration of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, specifically related to that subject (Fuchs 438).

The current concept of academic freedom in America, largely influenced by the AAUP, developed out of a nineteenth century German view on the matter. It was there that “the idea of the university as a place where scholars are to pursue truth, as well as to formulate and transmit it to students, who at the same time learn to pursue truth for themselves” came about (Fuchs 435). Through the words of University of Berlin professor Friedrich Paulsen written in 1902, academic freedom at the time ought to have meant that professors should not experience censorship or discipline by the institution for their written or spoken work, are allowed to discuss their subjects freely in the classroom, and of course, are given the freedom to do research and publish findings (436). The need for such freedoms at the University of Berlin is especially understandable given its notoriety as “the first university whose professors in all faculties were statutorily expected to pursue research as well as teach” (Brockliss). While the mentality at Berlin which advocated research in addition to teaching was emulated by many other German universities, and would eventually be adopted by the majority of European and American universities (Brockliss), the original foundations of the modern university did not involve such dynamic systems of teaching.

It is especially evident how higher education has transformed over the years when a modern American research university is compared to centers of monastic learning during the Dark Ages which prevailed as the main link in education from ancient times to the Middle Ages (Pederson 66). There is a stark contrast between the learning and activities which take place at universities today and the limited study of classical literature at monasteries of the time(66), but the developments took place gradually and arose from differing societal needs over time.

By medieval times, a form of higher education which could qualify as a university by today’s standards had come about, and was already much more dynamic than the practices of education used in monasteries. In Salerno, Bologna, and Paris, guilds of students and/or teachers came together to form universities and, rather than solely reading the works of ancient Greeks for the sake of being educated, did so for the intended outcome of producing trained physicians, lawyers, and clerics (Pederson 124-130).

At these medieval universities, students typically held more control than either professors or the townspeople, as they could pose the economical threat of leaving for another university (Pederson 138). This is a threat that could still be used by some students today, though primarily only at universities in towns whose economies would essentially collapse without a university. Take, for example, Ellensburg, Washington – a small agricultural based town in central Washington which is home to Central Washington University. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Ellensburg is about 18,000 (State & County QuickFacts). Meanwhile, the number of students attending Central Washington University in Ellensburg has been about 8,400 (Student Medical & Counseling Clinic). Thus, university students account for nearly fifty percent of the town’s population, meaning that if they were to abandon the university in Ellensburg for, say, the University of Washington, then not only would Central Washington University faculty and staff positions be threatened, but also many of the jobs within the town and outside of the university. While this may be true of the effects of potential threats made by Central students, a threat made by Seattle University students would not be nearly as critical. The population of Seattle is approximately 609,000, (State & County QuickFacts) yet the number of students attending the Seattle University is only about 5,900 students (University News). This indicates that the students account for even less than a mere one percent of the population of Seattle. The influence that students have on universities and society has clearly decreased since the Middle Ages and this reduction in student authority is somewhat represented by the current conception of academic tenure which gives students minimal control over which professors are granted such freedoms.

In addition to the reduction in student influence over professor positions, these differences between universities today and in the Middle Ages are also indicative of the new role that universities play within society. While students during medieval times were often placed under the protection of the emperor (Pederson 139), it would be impractical for local, state, or federal governments to issue such decrees in order to protect small group of students, as was done for the traveling scholars of the 1100s who were to be able to decide who was best to judge them – the bishop’s court or their teachers (140). This type of measure would be particularly inefficient because a much larger percentage of people have the opportunity to attend university today than was common in the times of the Bologna, Salerno, and Paris universities.

These medieval schools eventually paved the way for the German model universities already mentioned (Brockliss). “The University of Berlin, established in 1810, was founded on the policy of a greater academic freedom” (Van Scoyoc 332). It was at this time that the German system of education truly opened the door for research and dynamism in the university. “By the middle of the century there was a stream of American students to Germany. The German-educated scholar brought back to America the key which helped to establish the ideal of productive research which became the guiding light of American higher education” (333).

As indicated by Marthellen van Scoyoc, the proactive learning of both students and professors has played a critical role in the American university since Humboldt influenced German higher education in the 1800s. It was the opinion of Humboldt and his followers that “the scholarship and excitement of higher education can only be understood by active participation in the inquiry process” (Robertson 531). This has been a very influential view. In fact, “a strong relation between research and teaching is generally understood to be a defining feature of a modern university and of academic identity” (509). Proponents of university sponsored research might even suggest that “together, academics and students constitute a community of practice in which ‘teaching’ encourages learning through the practice of research” (511). However, many American universities still rely on a liberal arts approach typical of English universities which gives students a well rounded and comprehensive understanding of a wide range of subjects (Van Scoyoc 333). Such well-roundedness is often believed to be most effectively taught through basic classroom instruction and it is this type of education which many undergraduate students receive. Van Scoyoc thus declares that “the American university is a hybrid, the undergraduate structure took its form from the English college system, while the graduate school of arts and sciences has taken its pattern from the Faculties of the German university” (333).

This observation of the American university can allow one to better understand the student stance on academic tenure. Although a university education was rarer in earlier times than it is today and was mostly restricted to the upper class, an education of the same level as that provided at Bologna or Paris in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is much more accessible today. In fact, as education has become more common and affordable, it seems that the undergraduate education has almost been reduced to an extension of second schooling whereas graduate school is more on par with the level of specialization received in Berlin for example. Over time, students pursuing Bachelor degrees seem to receive educations with less focus on their specialization and less attention from professors who appear to be more interested in the research they do with graduate students than lecturing to undergraduate classes. Under this impression, people will “position research and teaching as competitors for time and resource rather than as complementary aspects of scholarly endeavor” (Robertson 510). While it seems fair that an undergraduate student in such a position be angered by the fact that their professor that can rarely be reached is tenured, the behaviors of such professors are merely a reflection on the advances of higher education in modern America, not on the lack of importance of undergraduate students.

“The present American conception of academic freedom… evolved…along with specific protections to academic freedom, from the organizational forms and educational policies that arose in colleges and universities, and from struggles over recurring infringements of freedom or tenure, which sometimes took the form of faculty dismissals” (Fuchs 437). This indicates that despite the suggested insignificance of a university professor’s research on his or her undergraduate class, the need for academic tenure truly did evolve in cohesion with the evolution of the American higher education system which has come to hold separate places for undergraduate and graduate level studies. While undergraduates may not be personally involved in a tenured professor’s research, it is widely believed that students do “benefit from the academic freedom of the faculty and perhaps the atmosphere of freedom which should prevail on a campus” (Haag 515). Jane Robertson and Carol Bond outline the ways in which these benefits are received by students:

Three ways in which the relationship between research and teaching is currently enacted – through the transmission of research findings, through the modeling of a research approach to learning and by engaging students as active participants in the inquiry process. All three approaches are important and all are necessary. Presently, and particularly in the sciences, it would seem that undergraduate teaching relies heavily on transmission. Students are treated as peripheral participants (Lave and Wenger 1991) for much of their undergraduate experience. However modeling plays an important transitional role between ‘telling about’ and having students ‘participate in’. It offers students a glimpse of the research culture of the community prior to their own engagement in disciplinary inquire (Robertson 530).

Though the relationship between research and teaching at American universities has yet to reach its full potential, academic tenure has, since the early twentieth century, evolved in hopes of providing an environment to do so. Tenure systems provide numerous benefits not only to universities, but society as well (McPherson 85). America has long been a country at the forefront of scientific advancement and as the country’s history and triumphs such as the Cold War indicate, research and expansion of knowledge have been critical to its success. The most appropriate place for this type of research was at institutes of higher education. “Unlike European institutions, American universities have a strong inclination to expand,” (Haag 518) and this inclination is fulfilled through research, which is best protected by academic freedom and tenure of professors.

The debate over tenure will surely continue for many years to come as a few unfortunate examples abuse their freedoms and as exceptional examples contribute fame to themselves, their university, and their country. Regardless of which side wins at each university, it is critical to realize what the existence of such a debate indicates about the American university. Since ancient Greece, higher education has continually transformed by means of curriculum changes – from the Trivium to the Quadrivium and specialized law and medical schools to liberal arts colleges – and structural changes – from sitting with fellow monks and copying texts to collaborating side by side with professors on new research. These changes have culminated in the American system of today, and the fact that academic freedom is so widely debated reflects the influence that German research models and English liberal arts models of universities have had on those in America, as well as the significant developments that higher education has made. As humanity continues to evolve, so too does the university. This evolution becomes especially apparent in the differences between higher education systems of various countries and regions. The rapidly growing and expanding nature of America combined with its education system’s emphasis on well-roundedness is what brings about the nation’s debate over tenure. Academic freedom protects the rights of professors and gives them the ability to pursue an expansion of knowledge which will be passed on to others. Academic freedom and its associated emphasis on research can also be seen as a hindrance to the teaching at universities. Most importantly, academic freedom signifies the advancements that higher education has made and continues to make today in a nation that is a leader in scientific advancement.




Tenure: A Representation of the Evolution of Higher Education


Page Author: Cloe McDonald

Saturday, 17 March, 2012



Brockliss, Laurence. “Universities.” Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. Ed. Alan Charles Kors. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Fuchs, Ralph F. “Academic Freedom: Its Basic Philosophy, Function, and History.” Law and Contemporary Problems. 28.3 (1963): 431-446.

Haag, Ernest van den. “Academic Freedom in the United States.” Law and Contemporary Problems. 28.3 (1963): 515-524.

McPherson, Michael S. and Morton Owen Schapiro. “Tenure Issues in Higher Education.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives. 13.1 (1999): 85-98.

Pederson, Olaf. The First Universities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
30-66. Print.

Robertson, Jane and Carol Bond. “The Research/Teaching Relation: A View from the
‘Edge’.” Higher Education. 50.3 (2005): 509-535.

State & County QuickFacts.” United States Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau, n.d. Web. 6 Mar 2012.

Student Medical & Counseling Clinic.” Central Washington University. Central Washington University, n.d. Web. 6 Mar 2012.

“Tenure.” American Association of University Professors. American Association of University Professors, n.d. Web. 5 Mar 2012.

University News.” Seattle University. Seattle University, n.d. Web. 6 Mar 2012.

Van Scoyoc, Marthellen R. “Origin and Development of the University.” Peabody Journal of Education. 39.6 (1962): 322-333.



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