Another Salvo in the Tenure Debate


Should professors have tenure? The question, debated recently on this blog, misses the mark—as do the usual answers, whether “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.”

On the “no” side, it is argued that tenure protects incompetent spongers. A very reliable (tenured) colleague, at a university that shall remain nameless, tells me of professors whose interests are no longer intellectual and who spend their time playing the real estate market. Their research productivity, measured in grant dollars or papers, is low; thus, the university is angry. Their teaching is also substandard, yet not quite abysmal enough to get them fired. To urge them to resign, the department punishes them… by assigning extra teaching!

On the “yes” side, it is argued that tenure protects academic freedom. That point is made by my colleague on this blog Dan Hamermesh. Ten years ago I agreed with him. I would not have imagined my future self happy as an associate professor at Olin College of Engineering: Olin offers six-year renewable contracts instead of tenure. Now I see Olin’s system as a reasonable alternative to tenure, for I no longer believe that tenure supports academic freedom. In this I have been influenced by the thought-provoking chapter on tenure and academic freedom in the book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It.

I may have also changed my view because of the cognitive dissonance created by teaching at an institution without tenure. However, it cannot be the whole story. Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The facts have changed in the almost 100 years since the origins of the tenure system, when the impetus was academic freedom.

The key case in the creation of the tenure system was that of Scott Nearing. Then an assistant professor in economics at the Wharton School of Business, he was fired by the University of Pennsylvania for, among other progressive views, opposing child labor. (The firing happened in 1915: “Hold no view before its appointed time.”) Explaining the dismissal, the University Provost said, “I do not believe in muzzling any member of the faculty. I do believe, however, that no man may go too far.” One trustee, J. Levering Jones, when interviewed about the dismissal, said, “When I dismiss a stenographer, do I have to give a public reason?” Nearing won his lawsuit. His case led eventually to the American system of faculty tenure whereby professors could hope to be more than stenographers to power.

However, tenure cannot protect academic freedom if the freedom is not exercised. I therefore propose the following test for the academic-freedom benefit of tenure: the prevalence of tenured professors using academic freedom, i.e. doing intellectual or social projects for which they would be fired without tenure. Here’s my list of such faculty:

Howard Zinn (now deceased), longtime history professor at Boston University. One of the most popular teachers on campus, he was said to be loathed by the university’s former president John Silber (which may be why Zinn received no raises for many years until his retirement in 1988).

Isaac Asimov (now deceased), professor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. In his autobiography It’s Been a Good Life, he tells of how he was an outstanding and popular teacher and hated research; having grown up reading his wonderful science books, I can easily believe in his amazing teaching ability. Even though it benefited students, his choice almost got him fired, despite his having tenure; without tenure he would have certainly been fired.

John Belcher, a physics professor at MIT, who has focused his recent research on improving the teaching of first-year university physics. The physics department is supportive, but elite research universities are generally hostile to teaching and, as with Asimov at the Boston University School of Medicine, that focus might have cost Belcher his job if he did not have tenure.

I don’t include Noam Chomsky: As the most cited living scholar, he was not likely to be fired by MIT even if he did not have tenure. The resulting list is very short, partly due to my ignorance (please suggest additions!). However, even with additions I expect that the list will be short. Of the list of three, only one, John Belcher, is alive and active. Tenure hardly protects academic freedom, for hardly anyone is using that freedom.

In contrast, there have been several public examples of professors who lost their jobs before tenure, likely for exercising their academic freedom:

David Noble (now deceased), who was denied tenure in the Science, Technology, and Society department at MIT. He eventually settled at York University in Canada.

Ignacio Chapela, who at first was denied tenure at UC Berkeley. He eventually received tenure after a lawsuit, a public campaign, and the arrival of a new chancellor, Robert Birgeneau (a native of Canada).

Joel Westheimer at NYU’s School of Education. After a lawsuit and public campaign, NYU expunged their denial of tenure and gave Westheimer back pay. Westheimer has since settled at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University, for his feud with Alan Dershowitz. He has no current academic position.

David Graeber, denied pre-tenure reappointment at Yale’s anthropology department, despite being called “the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world” (quote from Prof. Maurice Bloch’s letter). He has since settled at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The existence of tenure, rather than protecting academic freedom, turns the pre-tenure years into a long political vetting. (In the preceding list, I am struck by the tolerant influence of Canadians and Canada. This tolerance has a long history: After the American war of independence, Canada, then called British North America, accepted tens of thousands of Loyalist emigrants.)

The long vetting selects for someone who can usually be trusted not to use his or her freedom (for what the British call “a safe pair of hands”). However, even if politics works that way, universities should not. Universities are a resource for a society to challenge its habits and beliefs. This challenge cannot happen if the challengers are cut off at the knees by a system of political and cultural vetting. The tenure process has become an outsized and even more secretive version of the peer-review process, whose success in producing conformity has been eloquently criticized by Thomas Gold.

What should we do? First, recognize that tenure is no protection from an enraged public. Howard Zinn lost his tenured position as chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta, because of his civil-rights activism in the 1960s. Instead of debating the meager protections that a few people have and even fewer use, we need a system that spreads freedom of speech throughout the society. We need everyone to have free speech so that, as self-governing citizens, we may hear and decide based upon the widest diversity of ideas—a philosophy of freedom eloquently expressed by Alexander Meiklejohn in Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government (1948).

The United States indeed has the most legal freedom of speech of any country that I know. The Constitution entrenches this right. Court rulings have mostly uprooted impediments such as sedition and libel laws.

However, the United States offers far less actual freedom of speech. At-will employment, the legal doctrine that one can be fired for pretty much any reason (with a few exceptions), means that many Americans have limited speech in the workplace. (See for example Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.) Another example is my friend Jeff Schmidt, who, despite excellent job performance, was fired as an editor at the journal Physics Today likely because of the ideas in his book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives.

With the workplace such a large part of the day (of the wealthy democracies, Americans’ work hours are among the highest) and a job so essential to survival (among the residents of wealthy countries, jobless Americans depend on one of the thinnest social safety nets), the ethics accepted in the workplace become the ethics of the society.

Perhaps I am interested in freedom of speech because I am often outspoken. When I lived in England, being outspoken meant others would listen and argue. That was fine. Returning to America, I started hearing a new phrase, “But tell us what you really think.” At first it puzzled me because I was doing just that. Then the penny dropped: It was an ironic way to say, “If it is anything controversial, please under no circumstances tell me what you really think!”

If the populace does not value free discussion, constitutional provisions or tenure policies protecting it are mere legal tissue paper. Instead of debating whether faculty should have tenure, we need a debate about how real free speech can be extended across American society far beyond the university.

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  1. Scott Templeman says:

    I can’t say with confidence about Belcher, but Zinn and Asimov would not have needed tenure to ensure a long and successful career in teaching. They were good teachers and brilliant, and wouldn’t have had to move far to find an equal or better job in Boston. Which matters more in academics: collegiate brand names or the people doing the work.

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    • James says:

      If I compare Asimov’s salary as a teacher to his probable income from writing, I have to wonder why on earth he’d worry about tenure.

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      • Sanjoy Mahajan says:

        If I remember right from his autobiography, he had a boss who hated him and he was worried about getting fired. His friends in the medical school were worried too, so they made sure to get him promoted to Associate Professor (i.e. with tenure) before the boss himself got promoted and was in a position to fire Asimov.

        Asimov wrote that he wanted to keep his title as a biochemistry professor. Besides the feel-good factor, it was also probably helpful for an author of scientific nonfiction. I remember reading the dust jacket bio and seeing that he was a biochemistry professor and being impressed.

        Eventually he worked out a deal with the medical school whereby they stopped paying him, he taught once a year (I don’t know if that meant one lecture or one course), and he kept his title. Which, he said, forced him to do what he should have done before that anyway because it was what suited him best: commit to being a fulltime writer.

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  2. Mike says:

    Very good article. I find it an interesting take that the system designed to protect academic freedom is instead rarely used to protect it, in part because so many professors are molded into conformity by the pre-tenure process. A wonderful case of the (frequently) perverse results of incentives.

    I wish that we as a society could be more like Keynes regarding changing our minds to meet the facts of the day. I think it would be a great thing if we could more easily discard that which does not ‘work’. But it seems these types of programs quickly become sacred cows, and the dogma associated with challenging them casts those arguing for change into the worst sort of people.

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    • Mike B says:

      I hardly think that’s an exhaustive list of cases. My mother who was one of those “lazy” public school teachers everyone keeps talking about went 30 years in her profession before she had to file a complaint with her Union because her new principal was trying to force everyone into mandatory before school “social” meetings without any form of compensation. The whole working for free issue aside I don’t think the administrators realized some people had an hour commute to get into work. Anyway the meetings were a pointless waste of time that had nothing to do with teaching kids and because she had tenure and was close to retirement she was able to put the kibosh on it. She was free to do other unpopular things as well like tell parents their “perfect” kids weren’t working hard and ban junk food from her classroom.

      Under any other system the angry parents could have start making calls to have her pressured to into giving her kids an easier ride, but instead she was free to raise the bar and demand performance from both children and parents, like it or lump it. Giving management control assumes that management has the best interests of the organization in mind. Hell in the case of education making students out to be consumers has resulted in massive grade inflation. ( ) Woe betide the non-tenured professor that dares to grade his students rigorously.

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  3. sam says:

    Perhaps the answer is making “academic freedom” something akin to a protected class in employment law. I’m an “at will” employee, which means I can be fired for any reason, EXCEPT the fact that I’m a woman – because Civil Rights law protects me from gender discrimination. So professors have to do work/teach well/etc., and their jobs aren’t protected by tenure, but if they can prove that they’ve been fired or let go specifically because of hostility to the direction of their research (or something broader, but I’m sure you get the idea), then they’d have grounds for challenging the decision.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      An elegant solution. If the top 50 or so schools all did this I bet the rest would follow suit as well.

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  4. Thos. Collins says:

    Being muzzled at work (which has been the norm for 99.9% of all workers everywhere for history). Sorry proletarian reality has caught up to the Ivory Tower.

    Btw, I’ve noticed over the years that debunkers who expose tenured frauds and plagiarists find themselves unable to find unable employment anywhere in academia.

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    • Enter your name says:

      Since he’s currently at a non-tenure institution, and is essentially touting the merits of its over the old-fashioned approach, then I doubt that his current employer will mind at all. But you’re right that he shouldn’t expect to be hired into a tenure-track position at any institution dominated by the lazy sort he disparages here (which, to be fair, isn’t all of them, although “any” is “too many”).

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  5. robyn ann goldstein says:

    Heh- there are no absolutely free lunches. Never thought in terms of absolute tenure, but relative tenure. The problem comes when the matter of standards arises. It is so subjective as to who meets them and personal preferences, issues, likes and dislikes, resentments, politics, even religion and gender etc. abide. (I recall having told you about a chair who admitted to me that the city colleges won’t hire ny trained, jewish female sociologists. Still, I would rather see tenure as continuing (allowing those who take it seriously to do their work and not have to worry about tomorrow) and those who don’t to eventually be phased out or to phase themselves out. I was an adjunct for 30ish years and research consultant (not altogether by choice since there were moments when I applied and sought and had some sort of full time position) (the closest I came to one was at lafayette college for one year) and let me tell you the stress was enormous when I did not know whether I was working tomorrow or not. so I say, they should limit college teaching to tenured- (including part-timers) and phase them in when the full timers get their breaks. At the moment, I have no intention of going back to teaching as an adjunct. (unless I get paid as a full-timer. I was not treated well or with all the respect due to a PhD. or to me. The thing is I really did not care. I had my freedom and still do. I paid a price though, as previously stated. I love to teach and would like to continue at some point- but on my terms or on terms mutually agreable too all parties concerned.

    Students deserve so much more or better than they tend to get.

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  6. Ryan says:

    The quality of teaching at American universities really needs to be looked at, regardless of the tenure situation. Teaching seems to be the lowest possible priority from the perspective of all levels of faculty. I know from experience; I’ve failed out of half a dozen universities and I must say the teaching quality at each of them was abysmal!

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  7. yad says:

    To me, academic freedom is not just about the freedom to pursue ideas that are politically unpopular. It’s also about the freedom to pursue risky ideas that take a long time to explore — ideas that will either be very important or totally useless.

    Progress in science is often driven by someone who tried something risky and unproven, that nobody thought was likely to work, over the course of years. The converse of this is that often things don’t work out. Without tenure, that would mean the end of your career, so most people are focused on people doing safer, more community-approved work. By definition, this is unlikely to lead to revolutionary discoveries. Tenure helps with this problem by giving people the academic freedom to risk failure in the pursuit of success.

    Now, of course we can’t just pay everyone to go out and try risky unproven ideas that nobody thinks are likely to work. There’s a reason why nobody thinks they’re likely to work, after all. So it does make some sense to have a system of making people prove that they have excellent scientific judgement and a record of success, then giving them tenure to allow them more freedom to try out their more speculative ideas.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      Except replace “science” with almost any other human endeavor and your argument still flies. So why don’t I have tenure where I manage finances? Surely I should be encouraged to take the long view and not be in constant fear for my job?

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      • yad says:

        I don’t know about that. Science seems to me to be a bit unique in that people taking on risky projects which are unlikely to work is essential to long-term progress of the field. Is this true in managing finances?

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      • Joshua Northey says:

        It is true in terms of the institutional approach to managing them. Organizations routinely calcify and become less function exactly because of this “academic freedom” issue.

        For example we save thousands and thousands of page of paper documents, and spent tens of hours of staff time a month make and maintaining them. It is completely unnecessary as we have electronic records. But the old line employees are just too nervous to allow change. Exact same mechanism.

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  8. Derick says:

    Freedom of speech is a political, not an economic concept. While it can be a good thing for Universities to create procedures that stop professors from being fired for their ideas, it is not an issue of freedom of speech. The right to speech is not the right to have an audience and a microphone provided for you at the cost of your opponents.

    The problem with tenure, like all variants of guild socialism, is that it creates a much more harmful autocracy than the one it was designed to oppose.

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