Wozniak firing shows that tenure not limitless

By Daily Illini Editorial Board

In April 1960, then-assistant biology professor Leo F. Koch published a letter in The Daily Illini in response to a piece titled “Sex Ritualized,” written by two students. They outlined scenes from a sorority house to highlight the predetermined rituals of male-female relationships, dating and sex on campus.

Koch responded by stating that students, if mature enough, should be able to have premarital sex because contraceptives and medical advice are readily available and accessible. The University president at the time found Koch’s opinion in the letter reprehensible and fired him with the approval of the Board of Trustees, prompting Koch to fight the decision in court. 

The case was the last of its kind that involved the University Board of Trustees until last week when it proved that tenure is not always a guaranteed safety blanket. Louis Wozniak, a tenured engineering professor, was dismissed by the Board following more than 40 years at the University.

Wozniak, distraught after not receiving a student-selected award that he claims he won in 2009, had his tenure revoked for “sending inappropriate messages to students, disregarding student privacy and creating a hostile environment in his class,” The Daily Illini reported Thursday, citing a Board of Trustees report.

After testing the limits of professors’ academic freedom in the Koch case in 1960, the Board of Trustees learned that academic freedom stretches only so far.

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Academic freedom, then, according to University English professor Cary Nelson, often follows a hierarchical pattern, where different tiers of academic workers receive different degrees of security and protection. 

Tenured faculty would inevitably receive the “most secure and protected form” of academic freedoms — such as discretion over course structure and material without influence from the department or other faculty.

Tenure is often the most sought-out status for teachers and professors. It provides select faculty with legal protections against arbitrary dismissal, allowing them to speak, write and research freely without fearing penalties or loss of employment. 

As The Daily Illini also reported last week, non-tenure track faculty members believe that their contracts lack any clear outline regarding what they are permitted to do and how that permission relates to their job responsibilities. The obvious relief of tenured faculty includes job security, salary increases and resource availability.

Wozniak gained tenure in 1972, just five years after joining the engineering department at the University. Testimony from students on the UIUC sub-Reddit recall Wozniak being extremely caring toward his students through his “genuine” yet “eccentric” teaching style.

But students also recall his stubbornness.

In the mid-1990s, Wozniak challenged a requirement that he provide his grade books to the engineering department, something he considered a violation of his academic freedom. In May of 2010, Wozniak sent an inappropriate email with sexual overtones to about 100 seniors he referred to as his “GKs,” or grandkids.

Wozniak’s tenure may have pushed him to test the limits of his academic freedom and freedom of speech, just as much as it was supposed to protect his freedoms.  

Although there may have been serious enough allegations to dismiss Wozniak earlier, his case should serve as a lesson to all tenured faculty that academic freedom and tenure do have limitations. 

Although the joke may be that tenured professors can do as they please, they should also be aware that tenure is not and will not be an excuse for repeated, and inappropriate, misconduct.