Few may have noticed an amendment to the Georgian Law on Higher Education, passed in December 2015, which potentially ushers in a new era for Georgia’s higher education system. As of January 2017, (some) Georgian professors and senior research staff will be appointed for an indefinite term (i.e. given "tenure"). Offered decent compensation and protected from political pressures and job insecurity, they will be able to indulge in academic endeavors, nurturing a new generation of Georgian academics and promoting Georgian science onto the global scene.
This is, of course, the dream scenario. Unfortunately, there are also many options for this reform to go awry, with the good intentions behind it paving yet another road to hell. The devil is in the details, which the recent amendment to the Law on Higher Education is lacking. The most important details are the “who” and “how” of granting tenure (or indefinite term) contracts. If these are to be granted by Georgian universities according to their individual statutes and, furthermore, voted (for or against) by existing university staff, then instead of progress, this reform might lead to a further entrenchment of incumbent academics in the comfort of the protections afforded by tenure. Not exactly the Georgian lawmakers’ intent.
This blog post is but an attempt to start a process of a broad public discussion of the pros and cons of the proposed reform, its key principles and practicalities. We begin by providing a brief overview of two relevant concepts – academic freedom and tenure – and how they have evolved over time.
TENURE AND ACADEMIC FREEDOM: FROM SOCRATES TO PRESENT DAY
Tenure is a twentieth-century invention, yet it has deep historical roots in the Western world, often seen as a means of protecting academic freedom: freedom of inquiry, as well as freedom “to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.”
The trial of Socrates at the hands of Athenian democracy (of which he was highly critical) probably represented the first major instance of political repression used against a scholar. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that a systematic conflict emerged between academic freedom and politics, with the Roman Catholic Church (and, later, secular rulers) trying to force their religious dogma and political ideology on the first European universities (of which they happened to be the founders and sponsors).
While the Church’s influence weakened in the Age of Enlightenment, it took until the 19th century for the modern concept of academic freedom to be first formulated in Germany. This concept was further developed in the US, culminating in the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure". As discussed in J. Peter Byrne’s “Academic Freedom: A Special Concern of the First Amendment" and elsewhere, the institution of academic tenure sought to protect academic freedom by ensuring that teachers may only be fired for causes such as gross professional incompetence or behavior condemned by the academic community itself.
While the initial function of tenure has been to protect academic freedom, its role started changing in the age of capitalism and globalization. For example, selective lifetime appointments have become an instrument for competing universities to attract and retain top talent. Moreover, the economic security provided by the tenure system gave academia a competitive edge over the private sector, which could afford higher salaries.
However, the benefits associated with the tenure system are achieved at a cost. For instance, a decision (essentially a gamble) to grant tenure to a scholar may turn out to have been wrong or biased towards yesterday’s scientific truths (espoused by tenure committee members). Moreover, given the limited number of academic appointments in any department, a talented newcomer may be denied a job simply because all positions are filled with no-longer-productive-but-tenured veterans, and the only way to create new positions is to wait for their retirement. Finally, there is the grave risk of (lazy) academics losing their motivation to perform (in either teaching or research) once granted a lifetime employment contract that usually comes with little monitoring.
The fact that most tenured American academics do not spend most of their time on the golf course (some do, though!) is because for a vast majority, teaching and research is a way of life, not a 9-to-5 job. The difficulty of getting tenure in the extremely competitive US university environment is what reduces the risk of mistakes, such as granting life employment to a lazy or mediocre academic, to a tolerable minimum. But how would the same rules of the game workin a different setting, such as Georgia’s post-Soviet universities?
ACADEMIC TENURE SYSTEM IN GEORGIA?
The massive exodus of Georgian educated elites over the past 15-20 post-Independence years has turned Georgian academia into an intellectual desert, with only a few tiny oases in fields such as bacteriophages. Even these oases, however, are to be found in specialized research institutes, not universities.
Brain drain remains the most acute challenge faced by the Georgian public education system. Wave after wave of talented young individuals leave the country to pursue better education and academic careers abroad, and only a fraction are coming back as the “new Argonauts”. Thus, Georgian universities see very little generational change, particularly in fundamental sciences and engineering, which faced very little demand in the post-Soviet de-industrialization period.
One argument in favor of instituting a proper tenure system in Georgian universities is to make them more attractive for aspiring scholars, particularly those who have left the country in previous decades. Indeed, the tenure system, if accompanied by fundamental changes in the way in which universities are financed, managed and governed, could help turn brain drain into brain circulation or even brain gain. Specifically, assurances of academic freedom, economic security and appropriate funding could help attract distinguished scientists who have made a career abroad back to Georgia.
Some Georgian scholars, as pointed out by Zaal Kokaia (Lund Stem Center director at Lund University, Sweden and a proponent of the Georgian tenure system), may not in a position to receive tenure at, say, Harvard or Oxford, but are still brilliant “material” for lower-rated Georgian universities. The best way to get them engaged, according to his vision, would be to offer part-time contracts with Georgian universities, allowing these scholars to stay in touch with the scientific “mainland” abroad.
Another (perhaps surprising) argument for the introduction of a tenure system in Georgia is to circumvent the current practice of political “clientelism” that is quite prevalent in the country’s public universities. Lacking in professional qualifications and, therefore, in job security, Georgian academics tend to nurture mediocre PhD students whom they consider loyal and on whom they count for future protection (when hired as full time academic staff in the same department). Those not demonstrating loyalty and/or daring to challenge their masters’ knowledge and skills, are perceived as dangerous and are not retained even if granted a PhD degree.
If properly implemented, so the argument goes, the tenure system has the potential to end the practice of political clientelism by reducing the importance of personal loyalty as a factor in the process of academic hiring. Yet, what matters at this stage is to make sure that only truly distinguished scholars (at least by Georgian standards) are appointed for an indefinite term. At least initially, this would require an almost exclusive reliance on an external referral system, independent not only of the Georgian government or the Patriarch, but most importantly of the small time academic politicians ruling Georgia’s public university system. In practice, it means that, if implemented at all, initial tenure appointments would have to be made by independent panels of globally recognized scholars in each relevant field. If the selection process is unbiased and transparent, the tenure system has the potential to put Georgia’s education system and Georgia on the global map. If not, this reform will produce a lot of hot air, and not much else.