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Faculty Tenure and Civil Rights

THE unanimity of the US Supreme Court in deciding last week that universities should not be given a special shield of confidentiality in the tenure review process belies the fragile and explosive relationships that exist on campus today. The decision, which means that federal investigators may open up personnel files in cases where discrimination is charged, is not surprising. There is a certain correct, rough-and-ready fairness to the Supreme Court ruling that colleges should have to play by the same civil rights rules as any other business or institution. We support that ruling, especially in the hope that it will help end lingering bias and bigotry among college faculty.

Yet it isn't that simple. Like it or not, college departments are a cut-glass world. Power shifts take place, and careers are made or destroyed on campus not by corporate takeovers or mergers, but by academic trends, offhand remarks, Byzantine politics, and subtle distinctions. Candor in academia is already in retreat - from faculty discussions to book reviews. Nobody wants to risk offending anyone else for fear of reprisal and of being branded. A further erosion of honesty because of a lack of confidentiality could hurt not only the college, but ultimately those persons who feel open review is in their favor.

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It is up to the universities to see that doesn't happen. The new ruling can be seen as a challenge to professors to examine more strenuously and fairly their own convictions, and to express them appropriately.

The downside is the way the academic game is often played on campus these days. Honest differences of opinion on scholarly content, or even the presentation of objective facts, can bring a charge of ``racism'' or ``sexism.'' Often, especially in humanities and social sciences departments, those charging bias hold all the cards.

Suspicion and distrust could force tenure review further into the dark - where opinions are given over the phone or in small unrecorded meetings.

The progress of women and minorities on campus has been significant, and should remain so. Open records can help ensure fairness - but will need to be carefully and wisely administered.

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