Colleges and universities generally must disclose confidential peer review records when accused of illegally denying tenure to a faculty member, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Unanimously rejecting ``academic freedom' arguments, the court said colleges and universities enjoy no special privilege to withhold such information.``The costs associated with racial and sexual discrimination in institutions of higher learning are very substantial,' Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote for the court. ``Few would deny that ferreting out this information is a great, if not compelling, government interest.'
He added: ``If there is a 'smoking gun' to be found that demonstrates discrimination in tenure decisions, it is likely to be tucked away in peer review files.'
The decision is a key preliminary victory for a University of Pennsylvania professor challenging her denial of tenure, a lifetime appointment.
And it represents an enormous defeat for the nation's universities and colleges, united in the contention that disclosure of confidential statements about professors considered for tenure would inhibit candor by those who make the evaluations.
Penn's appeal from a federal appeals court ruling that disclosure is required had been supported by Princeton, Brown, Stanford, Harvard, Yale and the American Council on Education.
Those lined up against Penn in the closely watched case included the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Association of University Women's Advocacy Fund.
Blackmun said past court rulings extending constitutional protection for so-called academic freedom only applied to government attempts ``to control or direct the content of speech engaged in by a university or those affiliated with it.'
The court refused to recognize what Blackmun called ``an expanded right of academic freedom to protect confidential peer review materials from disclosure.'
William Rogers, president of Guilford College, calls the ruling a defeat for the quality of higher education.
``Any person who feels that they have been prejudicially treated is the winner,' Rogers said. ``But I think the loser is the quality of higher education nationally because tenure is both an incentive and a reward as well as an insurance of academic freedom.
``In other words, it is the single most important checkpoint for quality in building of a faculty.'
Furthermore, Rogers says, the ruling could put the whole system of tenure in jeopardy.
``That is to say, colleges and universities may move away from the granting of tenure at all if they don't have the discretionary capability to make honest negative as well as honest positive decisions about tenure.'