Not Much Of An Honor

PSYCHOLOGIST DANIEL Kirschenbaum enjoys an increasingly rare distinction in the halls of academe: he is a tenured professor. That privileged position, generally bestowed after years of teaching and research, usually guarantees lifetime employment. But Kirschenbaum has been locked out of his office at Northwestern University since 1992, when he lost his job running an eating-disorders clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He no longer gets a paycheck from Northwestern and has no university benefits. The only thing he has is tenure, a status that the university claims, in a case currently making its way through the courts, is an honorary distinction that has nothing to do with a paycheck.

Kirschenbaum's suit against the university, which is scheduled for trial in a Chicago courtroom this April, could affect the status of tenure around the country. In an effort to fight skyrocketing costs, many schools have cut back on the number of professors hired in tenure-track positions. Part-time instructors working on one- or two-year contracts have become fixtures on many campuses. A few schools have even directly attacked the concept of tenure, which was originally intended to protect academic freedom. In 1994, Vermont's Bennington College eliminated tenure and fired 26 faculty members (a lawsuit filed by 19 of them is still pending). Bennington replaced the professors with visiting artists, performers and writers. Last year the University of Minnesota was about to abolish all tenure as well, but the effort was stalled by faculty protests.

The tenure wars are no longer limited to faculty clubs. Some state legislators have spoken out against it and proposed periodic reviews at state universities. Why should academics enjoy protection other workers don't get? No other profession offers a lifetime job guarantee and the freedom to criticize the boss without fear of retribution. Tenure proponents insist that academics can't do their job properly without special protection from commercial concerns, administrators' petty whims, political bias and popular trends. They cite dangerous historical examples, such as the dismissal of socialists during World War I and the firing, during the McCarthy era, of professors who refused to sign loyalty oaths.

In the Kirschenbaum case, tenure advocates worry that a decision separating tenure from actual employment could effectively lead to wholesale firings. ""If professors can retain tenure but lose their job and salary, tenure has been effectively eliminated,'' says Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois who studies the state of contemporary higher education.

Kirschenbaum and his wife, Laura Humphrey, also a psychologist, came to Northwestern in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin. They both got tenure in 1990. But in February 1991 the man who hired Kirschenbaum retired and Sheldon Miller became the new department chairman. Miller wanted to make changes, Kirschenbaum says: ""He was on a mission to save as much money as possible. And he was on a mission to decrease the role of psychologists in the department.'' Miller declined to comment, but in court papers, he says that he evaluated the records of faculty members and ""made changes where we thought appropriate.''

Several nontenured faculty members were fired. The only tenured professors to get the ax were Kirschenbaum and his wife, who, he says, accepted her fate because ""she didn't have the stomach to fight it.'' But Kirschenbaum was willing to take on the university. After a year of lobbying within Northwestern, he filed suit. As the case wound through the courts, he built up a lucrative private practice (which now brings him about $100,000 a year, compared with $86,000 in his last year at Northwestern).

Northwestern is trying to avoid framing the case as a tenure fight. ""We've made no attempt to take away his tenure or remove him from the faculty,'' says Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations. ""It was basically just an economic decision on the part of the hospital.'' They also say Kirschenbaum can't claim monetary damages since he now makes more than he did as a professor. And the former department chair, Dr. Harold Visotsky, says that he told Kirschenbaum at the time that his pay would be determined by contracts, so there was always a possibility that he wouldn't be renewed. This is only one case, but if Northwestern wins, other universities could be tempted also to keep the tenure while eliminating the jobs.