2. “The Tenure War” (1949-1952)

by Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn
August 13, 2016

Table of Contents

  1. Founding and early decades (1916-1949)
  2. >> “The Tenure War” (1949-1952)
  3. The aftermath of “The Tenure War”
  4. Academic freedom, faculty compensation, and sabbaticals (1952-1978)
  5. Reviving the Whitman chapter (2016-present)

Aside from occasional communications received from the national office, evidence of work performed by the Whitman AAUP chapter during the 1930s and 1940s is scant. That would change dramatically, however, when what several faculty members came to dub “The Tenure War” erupted at the College. This event, which concerns what is arguably the single most significant accomplishment of the Whitman College AAUP chapter, is briefly chronicled by its one-time secretary, G. Thomas Edwards, in the second volume of his history of the College (see especially pp. 286-301). The account offered here draws on Edwards’ account, but is supplemented by additional review of archival materials. The present section provides an account of the chapter’s pivotal role in shaping Whitman College’s first formal tenure policy, and the section that follows discusses the chapter’s work over the course of the following quarter century in pressing for adoption of faculty review and dismissal procedures that are consistent with AAUP guidelines.

Toward the end of the 1940s, faculty at many colleges and universities grew increasingly restive under what Edwards describes as “paternalistic” rule by presidents and the boards that appointed them. One key issue concerned tenure policies, which, when absent or in some cases customary but uncodified, enabled governing authorities to exercise more or less unfettered discretion in dismissing faculty members without any avenue for peer review or appeal. This issue came to a head at Whitman when, without consulting or notifying the faculty, the governing board adopted a tenure policy in March of 1949 and, at its meeting on May 28, 1950, incorporated that policy into the College constitution and bylaws. At the beginning of the 1950- 51 academic year, at the first faculty meeting, President Chester Maxey stated that copies of the revised documents were available, but provided no indication that they included a formal tenure policy. The existence of that policy, as well as its implications for the conditions of faculty employment, only became apparent when, in October, Maxey sent letters to assistant and associate professors, including those who had been at the College for many years, indicating when their current appointments would end according to its terms.

The ensuing controversy revolved around several overlapping issues. The first concerned the question of whether certain long-standing faculty members, absent a formal written policy, enjoyed tenure as a result of commitments made by Maxey’s predecessors. The second concerned the question of whether the policy was consistent with the principles enumerated in the AAUP’s historic 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The third concerned the question of whether a policy inconsistent with those principles would harm the overall mission of the College. On each of these questions, beginning with a November 1, 1950 meeting attended by three-quarters of the faculty, the AAUP chapter at Whitman College led the challenge.

On the first issue, the chapter expressed its vigorous objection to retroactive application of the new policy to long-serving assistant and associate professors. For example, like many others, the president of the Whitman chapter, Thomas Howells, received a letter from Maxey indicating that his appointment would “expire at the end of the academic year 1952-53.” On Howell’s understanding, he had been granted “indefinite tenure” in 1943 by Maxey’s immediate predecessor, Winslow Anderson, following completion of a five-year appointment as an instructor and promotion to the rank of assistant professor. In support of this reading of established practice, other faculty members cited passages in letters of appointment and re- appointment that appeared to presuppose Whitman’s commitment to tenure following successful completion of a one to three-year probationary period. Still more evidence was provided by the legendary Stephen Penrose who served as Whitman’s president from 1894 to 1934 and who, in his history of the College, had written: “After a year of trial the new member of the faculty was made to feel that his tenure of office was secure, and that he belonged to the College for as long as he continued to render it faithful service.” On these grounds, the chapter argued that the new policy departed from long-standing custom, and its application deprived many faculty of the employment status they had good reason to believe had been guaranteed to them.

With respect to the policy’s conformity to the AAUP’s 1940 Statement, when Howells explained the unfolding situation to the national office, he was informed that President Anderson had assured its executive director that Whitman’s practices with respect to tenure were congruent with its principles. That, however, was clearly not so. Defining tenure as an indispensable guarantor of academic freedom, the AAUP statement affirmed that “after the expiration of a probationary period” [which, according to the document, should not exceed seven years] “teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause, except in the case of retirement for age, or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.” This provision was adopted in order to ensure that all faculty members regardless of rank, following a demonstration of their qualifications during a finite period, would enjoy the freedoms and due process protections that are essential to the unfettered pursuit and advancement of knowledge, whether in their capacity as teachers, scholars, or members of the larger public. The policy adopted by Whitman’s governing board, however, only established the possibility of tenure for those at the rank of professor. Following initial one-year appointments, by way of contrast, those at the rank of assistant professor would be considered for re-appointment for two academic years, and at the associate rank for three years, but in neither case with an assurance of tenure. On an exceptional basis, the policy authorized the Board of Trustees to grant tenure to faculty members at these ranks, but exclusively at its discretion.

On the question of the policy’s impact on the College more generally, in a letter to President Maxey, the chapter argued that its implementation would aggravate “the serious deterioration that has already occurred in the morale of the Faculty.” This demoralization in turn would impair “that strong sense of identification with the permanent interest of the College long characteristic of the Whitman faculty.” Moreover, by replacing a policy of “indefinite tenure” with one of “indefinite probation,” the policy “puts in hazard the professional investment of time and cumulative skill which characterizes the productive scholar.” The net result, the chapter anticipated, would be to undermine the reputation of the College and, in doing so, render it difficult to recruit and retain the best possible instructors. The chapter’s letter closed by requesting that the policy be reconsidered and that the faculty be afforded an opportunity to participate in its reformulation.

On November 30, 1950, the Faculty Council echoed the chapter’s position in a letter to the Board of Trustees. Quoting from the 1940 AAUP Statement, as endorsed by the American Association of Colleges (re-named the American Association of Colleges and Universities in 1995) as well as many other organizations, this communication explained the rationale for tenure as follows: “Tenure is a mean to certain ends, specifically: 1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and 2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.” Under the terms of the new policy, however, faculty members at the assistant and associate ranks “might remain at the College for an unlimited number of years on annual, biennial, or triennial appointments.” To make clear the scope of the Whitman policy, the Council noted that at the time only a quarter of the faculty held the rank of professor, and that therefore, absent promotion, the remaining 75% would be relegated to permanent status as “temporary” employees of the College. Reiterating the chapter’s complaint that the faculty was neither consulted nor informed during this policy’s formulation, the Council proposed a revision whose language was adopted more or less verbatim from the AAUP’s 1940 Statement, and, specifically, the provision stating that “beginning with appointment to the rank of full-time instructor or a higher rank, the probationary period should not exceed seven years,” and that all faculty members by the end of that period should either be dismissed or granted tenure.

This already tense situation was aggravated when Maxey, at a faculty meeting on December 15, 1950, announced that the drafting of college age men following outbreak of the Korean War was expected to cause a significant contraction of the student body and hence a decline in tuition revenue. He then indicated that the Board of Trustees was unwilling to incur a deficit and that, if necessary, the College would close at the end of the 1950-51 academic year until there was once again a sufficient “demand for educational services of the type provided by Whitman.” Accordingly, Maxey gave all faculty members six months’ notice of “contingent dismissal” so that they could begin to seek alternative employment. Finally, he indicated that in all likelihood it would not be until July or August that they would know whether they would be retained for the 1951-52 academic year.

At its final meeting in 1950, the Board acknowledged receipt of the Faculty Council’s letter and agreed to place this question on its agenda to be considered “as time permits.” When no response was forthcoming, at its January 31, 1951 meeting, Howells proposed that the Faculty Council, of which he was then a member, adopt seven resolutions. Those resolutions included statements of objection to Maxey’s placement of all faculty on notice of contingent dismissal; his refusal to initiate planning for the College’s anticipated financial crisis; the failure of the Board to consult with the faculty in formulating the tenure policy; and its apparent unwillingness to meet with the faculty or its representatives to discuss revision of that policy. Although Howells ultimately withdrew these resolutions, on the following day, the Whitman faculty unanimously adopted a motion affirming its view that the policy was “unsatisfactory” and requesting the Board’s adoption of the revision proposed by the Council.

At about the same time, the Faculty Council sought from the Association of American Colleges information about the number of institutions that had adopted policies congruent with the principles articulated in the AAUP’s 1940 Statement. In response, it learned that only 30 of 300 member institutions, including Whitman, had adopted policies that differed significantly from those principles. Fortified by this information, on December 6, 1951, by a vote of 34 to 4, with one abstention, the faculty voted in favor of a policy that would grant tenure to all members who had already completed seven years of service, and, for new appointments, tenure review during the sixth year of service. President Maxey brought this revision to the Board on February 23, 1952, and, at that meeting, it revised the tenure policy incorporated within the College’s governing documents as follows:

Persons holding the rank of associate professor, and assistant professor, and instructor may be given indefinite tenure by special vote of the Board of Trustees at any time, but any such who have not been given indefinite tenure prior to the end of their sixth year of service shall at that time be notified in writing whether they will be given indefinite tenure at the end of their seventh year of service; and in the event that indefinite tenure be not given, such persons shall not be continued in the service of the College beyond the end of their seventh year of service.

Leaving aside a 1962 modification that clarified the eligibility of those denied tenure to employment during their seventh year at the College, in its essentials, it is this policy that remains in place today.