Texas Tech University professor James Wetherbe's plan was to write some thought pieces at the end of a long academic career. He would hold himself up as an example of someone who had managed to be successful despite refusing tenure and raise questions about the value of tenure.
But in a lawsuit that is already drawing national attention, Wetherbe's opposition to tenure has taken a more combative turn. Wetherbe filed a federal lawsuit against Texas Tech, his alma mater and employer, contending that administrators stifled his career advancement because of his public opposition to tenure. University officials counter that by choosing not to receive tenure, he made himself ineligible for certain positions.
“I’m hoping this is a landmark case,” Wetherbe told The Texas Tribune. “I’m really hoping to accomplish something here.”
He said he hopes to establish that academic freedom, which tenure is intended to protect, is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, and that the chief benefit of tenure is merely job security.
A Wall Street Journal report noted that the university's stance had prompted Tech donor Bobby Stevenson, for whom Wetherbe's endowed chair in information technology is named, to withdraw scholarships and pull back a planned $9 million gift.
Wetherbe, a professor of business and information technology, held tenured positions at the University of Houston and the University of Minnesota earlier in his career, but he decided to give up the distinction roughly two decades ago.
As he began doing more speaking engagements and consulting, he found himself increasingly dealing with business people who he said looked askance at what they viewed as his guaranteed job for life.
“It felt like an albatross around the neck of my credibility,” he said.
Even before that, he said, he had been uncomfortable with the notion of tenure and felt it did little to support academic freedom.
“That’s the rhetoric that’s used,” he said, "but behind closed doors, quality professors will tell you it’s more about job security.”
And that’s how he had felt when he was first granted tenure, he said.
“I didn’t say, ‘Wow! Now I can finally tell the truth,’" he said. "All I thought was, ‘Well, I’ve got more job security than I had before.’”
When he returned to Texas Tech in 2000, he continued his boycott of tenure, setting the stage for the legal fight.
In the lawsuit, he alleges that his controversial stand caused Bob Smith, Tech’s provost, to block Wetherbe’s nominations for two prestigious posts: a Paul Whitfield Horn professorship and the deanship of Tech’s business school.
Wetherbe contends that violated his freedom to speak out against the policy.
Chris Cook, a spokesman for the university, said of the deanship that the best candidate — Lance Nail — was chosen. As for the professorship, Cook said it was an honor bestowed exclusively upon tenure-track professors.
“He elected not to be tenure track, and that was his decision,” Cook said of Wetherbe. “But all of our Horn professors are tenured.”
Some professors expressed concern about the notion of having a dean who opposed tenure, but Wetherbe, who said he supported the dean who was selected, does not believe that would have been an issue.
He said he might have delegated tenure decisions to other faculty members and approved their decisions unless they looked suspect. He also said that, in the past, he has supported other qualified candidates’ efforts to secure tenure despite his personal opposition to it.
Wetherbe would prefer that professors have three- to five-year rolling contracts, which he said would also help universities reduce costs by making it easier to remove ineffective instructors.
Wetherbe has pledged that if his lawsuit produces any financial judgment in his favor, he will donate the money to the university for scholarships.
“I love Texas Tech,” he said. “It breaks my heart to file a suit against them, but I had no other way to get a level playing field where they couldn’t use hierarchical power to squash me.”