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  • “60 Minutes” at the University of Arizona: The Polemic Against Tenure*
  • Annette Kolodny (bio)

On a sunny November day in 1994, advance staff for CBS television’s “60 Minutes” began contacting faculty in different departments at the University of Arizona. The CBS staffers were uniformly polite, asking faculty what they thought about teaching, research, and tenure. Although a few faculty were skeptical, most found the “60 Minutes” “team . . . very patient and willing to listen.” 1 Some professors even hoped that the resulting program might highlight the unique achievements of a public research university.

A week later, the full “60 Minutes” crew arrived in Tucson. Producers and cameras followed reporter Lesley Stahl as she strolled the campus, chatted with students, examined scholarly journals in the library, and questioned the faculty who had been selected for on-camera interviews. Once the cameras began rolling, however, the questions no longer sounded neutral. As Keith Lehrer, a Regents Professor in the department of philosophy, described his experience to me, Stahl arrived “with a preconceived script in her head. She already knew what she wanted to hear.” 2

Judging from the twelve-minute segment, “Get Real,” that finally aired on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, 26 February 1995, what Stahl wanted to hear was the current litany of popularized misconceptions about large research institutions: Professors don’t teach because they prefer to pursue research. Undergraduate courses are relegated to graduate teaching assistants who have no training as teachers. Much of the research is frivolous, pursued only for the sake of receiving tenure. And parents subsidize this research with their precious tuition dollars. The program’s opening trailer perfectly predicted what was to follow. After [End Page 679] admiring “all these famous names” in the university course catalogue, Stahl then declared, incredulous, “And the kid gets there and these professors don’t teach at all?” Taking on the role of an outraged parent, she continued, “What I’m doing is subsidizing some guy’s research. I thought I was forking out this money to educate my kid.” As the trailer closes, an unnamed professor tacitly agrees, offering his own solution: “I’m waiting for some powerful parent to sue a university for consumer fraud.” 3

University officials were quick to respond. In a 3 March 1995 letter to the entire campus community, university president Manuel Pacheco refuted Stahl’s claim that, as a parent, she might be “forking out $15,000 to $20,000” a year to send a “kid to a school where what—what I’m doing is subsidizing some guy’s research” (GR 15). “Tuition at the University of Arizona is one of America’s best bargains,” insisted Pacheco, “$1,800 for in-state students, and $8,000 for out-of-state students.” 4 And, as he emphasized in italics, “tuition dollars are not spent to subsidize research. To the contrary,” Pacheco continued, “research dollars support undergraduate education. Eighty percent of the equipment used by our undergraduates in science was paid for by research. Research dollars have constructed buildings, outfitted laboratories and supported thousands of students with on-campus jobs” (2).

The president’s office also circulated a fact sheet entitled “Quick Response to 60 Minutes,” aimed mostly at answering Stahl’s claim that “teaching assistants, or TAs, have little or no training as teachers. And what’s worse, in the sciences, some can barely speak English” (GR 9). The fact sheet identified the graduate students filmed for “Get Real” as lab assistants—rather than course instructors—and made clear that all international students “must pass a spoken English test before being allowed to teach.” 5 Repeating an emphasis in the president’s letter, the fact sheet noted that “the majority of our [freshman] lectures are taught by professors” (1).

Unfortunately, the president’s letter and the three-page “Quick Response to 60 Minutes” saw only local distribution as compared with “60 Minutes’” national audience, so that damage control was limited, at best. Equally unfortunate was the muted tone of the two documents: tempered and reasonable, when much more could have been said. For example, why not address the subtle racism—or was it only xenophobia?—suggested by the camera’s exclusive focus...

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