Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Joel Westheimer denied tenure after supporting graduate students to unionize

In September of 1999, Joel Westheimer, then assistant professor at New York University (NYU), testified at the National Labor Relations Board hearings on behalf of NYU graduate students. These students, who were also teaching and research assistants, were seeking the right to form a union. 

Joel Westheimer was the only professor without tenure to testify at those hearings. Joel had joined NYU in 1996, and by the time he submitted his application for promotion and tenure, his prospects for being granted tenure were very high. He had consistently received excellent ratings on his annual reviews, with his performance ranked as “exceptional merit” year after year. He was granted a university award for excellence in scholarship, and had published a book (Among School Teachers: Community, Autonomy, and Ideology in Teachers' Work) that was being used by education professors in many universities. In spite of his youth, Joel Westheimer was already an influential scholar in the field of citizenship education, and by all academic standards applied in his university, he deserved tenure. At least this was the opinion of the members of his tenure committee. After reviewing his file, both internal reviewers at NYU and all seven external reviewers unanimously recommended to the university the granting of tenure for Professor Westheimer.

However, a few months after his testimony, Westheimer was denied tenure and his contract was terminated. Much to his surprise (and to the surprise of many his colleagues), the denial of tenure was based on ‘insufficient scholarship’. Westheimer thought that he was being punished for defending the rights of graduate assistants to organize in a union, an act that he did in accordance to his principles and his civic responsibilities. In an interview with Marc Bousquet in the journal Workplace (published at the University of Louisville), Westheimer shares memories from those days: “I remember that, shortly after I testified, I got a letter from an associate dean about something saying that he was "shocked and disappointed" at my behavior.” Then, university authorities encouraged Westheimer to withdraw his tenure bid "for his own good," so he wouldn’t have the "embarassment" of being denied tenure on his CV. That would have inhibited Joel from appealing or taking legal action. He chose not to do that. “Instead, immediately, I made this whole issue public,” recalls Westheimer in another part of the interview. “I don't think they were expecting that.” Although those were difficult times for Joel and his family, he was heartened by the amount of support and inspiration he received from many colleagues.

The case of Joel Westheimer should be a reminder that one of the purposes for the creation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was to advance the notion of tenure for college professors. That was in 1916, the year after economics professor Scott Nearing was fired from the University of Pennsylvania for his progressive views, his support for workers’ rights, and his opposition to the war and to child labour. With the passing of the years, tenure became an important tool to protect academic freedom. At its 1925 conference, AAUP set forth a Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which was restated with minor modifications in 1940 and in subsequent conferences. One of the principles that is more relevant to Westheimer’s case states that  “college and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” This paragraph of the 1940 Statement should also be interpreted in keeping with the 1964 "Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances" (AAUP Bulletin 51 [1965]: 29), which states that as a guiding principle,

a faculty member's expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member's unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member's fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member's entire record as a teacher and scholar.

This guiding principle is relevant because Westheimer’s record as a teacher and scholar (particularly the reviews of his work from 1996 on) did not provide grounds to demonstrate that he was unfit for his position. His ‘extramural utterances’ (in this case, his testimony in favour of graduate assistants to organize) had no bearing upon his academic work.

By the beginning of 2002, the federal government charged NYU with illegally firing Westheimer in retaliation for his testimony in favor of allowing NYU graduate students to unionize. Following a five month investigation, Celeste Mattina, Director of the Labor Board’s New York region reported that “after balancing the information, we concluded that the real reason for [Professor Westheimer’s] denial of tenure was because of his union activities.” (Fogg 2002). A few months later, a settlement was reached.

And what about the NYU graduate students, whose plea for unionization prompted the situation in the first place? Well, they are now affiliated with the International United Automobile, Aerospace and Agriculture Implement Workers of America (UAW) and have recently negotiated their first contract, which included better salaries, health benefits, paid professional development courses, fee waivers and appointment procedures. The outcome of this story is that after all the time and resources put forward by the university to avoid raising the working conditions of graduate students’ working conditions, not only they lost Professor Westheimer, but students finally won the right to unionize.

In between his two university positions, and in the middle of travels from Ottawa to New York to meet with lawyers and prepare his court case, Joel found time to reflect on his personal experience and to relate it to larger issues of democracy and managerialism in higher education. These reflections were translated into a short piece entitled "Tenure Denied" that was published in the winter 2002 issue of the journal Social Text. Some of the most shocking parts of this article are the ones that make references to electronic messages exchanged by senior university administrators. This correspondence, which was disclosed to the public after a settlement between NYU and Westheimer was reached, are certainly disturbing for any junior professor who was committed to ideals of democracy, social justice and civic engagement. "Tenure denied" includes Joel Westheimer’s account of what happened as a result of that testimony in the fall of 1999, the context of this situation (e.g. the working conditions of graduate assistants and the corporatization of university structures), and his reflections on the implications of this case for the advancement of democracy in educational institutions. Here are the last two paragraphs of this article:

I do not yet know how my case against NYU will end.  I do know that I do not regret testifying on behalf of graduate teachers’ right to organize. I do not regret speaking out for the rights of adjunct faculty to make a living wage and be offered respect and dignity.  These issues are too important, not just for me, but for the hundreds of thousands of academics—graduate students, adjuncts, and tenure-stream faculty—who are still engaged in the struggle over the right to organize, and who need to know that we cannot be cowed into silence by the unprincipled behavior of a handful of administrators.  It is up to all of us—tenure stream and part-time faculty, administration, students, and staff—to ensure that we move toward rather than away from the pursuit of democratic governance, of free and open inquiry, and of just working conditions for the entire university community.

We need to remind ourselves and the university administrations where we work of American education’s historic ideal: to educate a democratic citizenry ready and able to pursue the common good.  And how does one go about teaching democracy?  By example, to start with. Albert Einstein—a founding member of a faculty union in Princeton, New Jersey—put it this way: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.”  There may be many approaches to pursuing education in the service of democracy, but they must all begin with reflection on ways we can remain democratic in our daily practices.  That requires the strength to speak out that can come from joining together in the common cause of improving the conditions under which all of us work.

Indeed, as Einstein reminded us, there are very few pedagogical methods as powerful as a pedagogy of example. Joel Westheimer believes in the importance of democratic education and active citizenship, and he not only teaches and researches it. He also lives it.

After being dismissed from New York University, Joel Westheimer was hired by the University of Ottawa (Canada), where his wife Barbara was already teaching. Now Joel and Barbara live in Ottawa with their two children. Soon after being hired, Joel was granted tenure, and became both associate professor and director of Democratic Dialogue: Inquiry into Democracy, Education and Society.


Fogg, Piper (2002, February 28). NLRB Readies Complaint Against New York U. for Firing Professor Who Backed Union. Chronicle of Higher Education.

2003. Marc Bousquet interviews Joel Westheimer. Workplace 5. 

Westheimer, Joel (2001). Tenure Denied. Social Text.  (then select ‘publications’)

Fighting for Workers Rights and Academic Freedom: Dr. Joel Westheimer's Victory Over New York University.  

Prepared by DS, 2003

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