Editor’s note: If tenure protects predators, it must go
In assigning blame for the horrors Larry Nassar inflicted on hundreds of girls and young women while he was a sports doctor at Michigan State University, the role tenure played can’t be dismissed.
Tenure is the unique seniority system that protects college professors who earn it against dismissal and nearly any other form of discipline. It was designed to assure academic freedom, but in reality also serves as a shield to protect incompetence, laziness and even subversion.
Nassar didn’t have tenure. But his boss, William Strampel, the Osteopathic College dean, did.
That explains why Strampel was still in his supervisory role despite what should have been very disturbing revelations in an extensive 2010 performance evaluation.
Commenters in that review painted Strampel as a sex obsessed misogynist who made lewd comments to students and colleagues and suggested he was open to sexual favors in return for his assistance.
In private industry, it would have been considered a damning assessment that would have led to severe consequences, most likely firing.
Instead, Strampel was given a letter recommending he be retained as dean and commending him for exhibiting leadership consistent with the MSU culture.
The sense you get is because of his tenure status, the university did not have the stomach for the grueling process of removing him.
And that’s the danger presented by such iron-clad employment protections. If it’s impossible to discipline an employee, why even bother attempting to hold him or her to a standard of accountability?
So Strampel held his position, and no one appeared eager to look any further into what was going on in his department.
As we’ve learned from the criminal charges filed against Strampel for sexual misconduct, the dean may have been engaged in inappropriate sexual activity similar to that of Nassar. No wonder he didn’t act to stop him.
Even after Strampel was criminally charged, his tenure still held. Though on leave, he remains on the MSU payroll and will collect his $217,000 annual salary while the lengthy tenure revocation process unfolds.
In my interview with interim MSU President John Engler last week, he said tenure reform is very much on his radar screen.
“We have begun to discuss with the faculty what that procedure might look like,” Engler said. “There’s definitely more work to be done.
“The faculty itself will want to make changes, I believe. This is going to be reviewed and I think it will change.
“I do not believe the current system can stand.”
It’s hard to believe it will, at least to protect sexual misconduct, given today’s cultural shifts.
But I’m not as confident as Engler that faculty will lead the reform. Once tenure is cracked to allow the dismissal of sexual deviants, it will make it easier to hold professors accountable for other offenses, including behavior that damages the credibility of the university.
There’s a clear difference between expressing in a classroom ideas and opinions that are unpopular, and using tenure as a license to behave inappropriately.
Bottom line: If tenure prevents a university from ridding itself of a sexual predator, then tenure must go.
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