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Another Salvo in the Tenure Debate

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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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