The Truth About Academic Freedom and Tenure (at least to me)

For most college professors, the beginning of the fall semester is just now beginning to beckon.  Most of us have turned in book lists; most of us are working up syllabi (either from scratch or refining what’s there); some of us are already fielding questions from eager students, and many of us are starting to hear about the ambitious agenda the department will supposedly address in the coming academic year (although what’s achieved is usually not what’s anticipated or promised).

For a small group of assistant professors, however, the summer has been a time of preparation for an entirely different exercise: that of preparing one’s candidacy for promotion to associate professor with tenure.  For some senior faculty, it’s time to review files and write letters for candidates for promotion at other institutions.  That can be a trying experience, as I can testify.  In my case, it’s also a time when I prepare to hear about grievances stemming out of unsuccessful candidacies from the previous year, because I’m just starting on my third term as a member of ASU’s university-wide Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

My experience with the tenure process goes all the way back to my time as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where, as one of the History Department’s more visible graduate students (and head of an undergraduate history organization), I participated in the process, gathering information on various candidates and interviewing students.  That was, to say the least, quite a sobering responsibility, introducing me to many issues of professional development and behavior.  As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, different political issues drew my attention during my year as a student representative (while Wisconsin may have had a more progressive reputation than Virginia in the immediate post-Vietnam era, that was not the case when it came to student input into this critical process, although in other ways, formally and informally, various faculty sought my input and acclimated me to the profession in other areas).  At Wofford I saw a rather curious process that stressed competence in the classroom, collegiality with peers, and a commitment to bleed gold and black, making the tenure process resemble rushing a fraternity.  When I came to ASU, fresh from earning my PhD, my first monograph (and second book) was already in the publication process, which meant that I escaped the hazing that most junior faculty members have to endure (“How’s the manuscript coming?  Can’t wait to see it.  Has it been accepted for publication?  Can’t get promoted without it …”).  Oh, there was an effort in a few cases to try to play games with my tenure candidacy, because some people were uncomfortable that I was already positioned for promotion, which meant that they could not play games with me any more.  But I won promotion and tenure in my third year, which is about as fast as one could go up at ASU at the time.

There are several arguments advanced on behalf of tenure.  One is that it offers job security.  That it does, although I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  There are a lot of people who once they gain tenure with the rank of associate professor seem to take a very long time to become full professors, and some never do.  I’ve heard an argument that tenure is granted in exchange for cost certainty at a below free market level for faculty salaries, but I don’t believe that, either, and in today’s world, with more part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, that answer’s even less compelling.  The way to get a significant raise in my world is to attract outside interest, and only a limited number of us are marketable in that sort of environment (which, by the way, privileges scholarship and publication over teaching).

But the one justification for tenure that is not often scrutinized is the link between tenure and academic freedom.  The argument is that tenure protects an individual who then has the academic freedom to pursue certain lines of inquiry in research and the classroom without fear of reprisal.  At least that’s the idea.  Some people abuse the notion of academic freedom by claiming it allows them to do whatever they want to do, which is simply not true.  Those irresponsible uses of the term, in turn, endanger the use of the concept for legitimate purposes by arming critics.  Moreover, linking academic freedom to tenure suggests that non-tenured and tenure-track faculty do not enjoy academic freedom.  That would be wrong in principle, although I’m aware of cases where discussion of a candidacy has centered on at least quasi-political issues involving whether folks want someone who thinks differently than they do to receive tenure.

And it is that point which opens up one of the real reasons for tenure.  Yes, tenure can protect a faculty member from reprisals from a hostile administration or pressure from state government to conform to some approach or belief or to refrain from offering criticism in public (otherwise known as the life of the mind versus the life of the mindless).  The case is sometimes somewhat different in private institutions, not all of which embrace the same principle of tolerance or diversity (no, I’m not naming names).  But what faculty members don’t want to tell you is that tenure also protects faculty from each other.  The notion of pitting faculty versus administration (and perhaps government) obscures the infighting that takes place among individual faculty members in the same unit.  Sometimes tenured faculty don’t like the idea of the young upstart with a better record and more promise showing them up; sometimes conformity and subordination (sometimes mischaracterized as collegiality) is what’s at stake.  Sometimes someone just doesn’t like someone: sometimes they just don’t want to be shown up.  When it’s come to promotion, I’ve never had problems with administrators, but I have encountered half-hearted resistance from senior faculty, including department chairs, who in no case could give me a reason for their ambivalence that had to do with my professional performance (and dared not offer any other reason to my face).

The truth is that I had no concerns about my candidacy for tenure once it passed through the department’s P&T committee.  What I had decided to do (and the advice I give others) was to present a record with which any reasonable person could not quibble … although several people did try to quibble, and my tenure vote was only 16-1, which I took as an inside joke about the money question in the late 19th century (the sole dissenter has never chosen to be identified, and I think would now be embarrassed to be known; we now direct people to express openly why they have reservations and objections, so as to put an end to such behavior).  In contrast, my promotion to full professor five years later simply flew through committee, master’s thesis-turned-book and all.  Yet it was that process which offered me far more personal relief and satisfaction than gaining tenure, because, once you’re a full professor, your colleagues can’t really mess with you any more.  When I learned I had been tenured and promoted, I shrugged my shoulders (that was to be expected); when I was promoted to full professor, I suddenly (and quite literally) felt that a weight (one I had not sensed but vaguely, if at all) had been lifted from those very same shoulders.

Academic freedom remains to me a very important principle.  I’m not as sure about tenure.  On one hand, I’d have no problem competing based upon performance, and I think that in principle that’s a good idea.  On the other hand, I don’t know who would be assessing the performance: the very colleagues whose potential capriciousness is one of the reasons I find tenure useful?  Moreover, strip tenure away, and in this era of cost-cutting and packaging education almost as a form of social promotion, ignoring the function of universities as sources of research, inquiry, and (for lack of a better term) knowledge and understanding production, and the result will be that no one will want to teach.  Thus I have to say that, absent a better system, it should remain.  But please don’t tell me that it’s all about academic freedom, because it’s not.

12 thoughts on “The Truth About Academic Freedom and Tenure (at least to me)

  1. James F. Epperson July 26, 2011 / 10:33 am

    I had different experiences with tenure, which I am willing to share but only if asked—it is a long story (two long stories, actually). The “academic freedom” aspect of tenure is less important in a math department (although that wouldn’t be the case for someone working in climate modeling). The notion of the “permanent associate professor” is common across disciplines, although it isn’t always the individual’s fault. The notion of getting a pay raise by moving is also common across departments—I know several folks, including my advisor, who have moved around a lot simply to get a raise.

    I gave up a tenured position in Alabama because I knew the political situation there (both in terms of state and university politics) would never allow me to prosper, whereas my position in Ann Arbor, while theoretically less secure and professionally much less satisfying, has essentially doubled my salary.

    • Stephen Graham July 26, 2011 / 10:01 pm

      > The notion of the “permanent associate professor” is common across disciplines, although it isn’t always the individual’s fault.

      Of the three I’m most familiar with, they all have some proportion of political infighting behind them. Such a situation doesn’t help a department, especially when the school’s system doesn’t allow an individual to opt out of the promotion system.

      As a staff member, it was rather interesting to watch the ripples caused by our (an engineering department) first female fast-track promotion.

  2. Kristilyn Baldwin July 26, 2011 / 7:17 pm

    For the record, I am absolutely more terrified than eager. And I saw the book list!

  3. Stephen Mccullough July 26, 2011 / 8:17 pm

    This brought to mind a lot of my fears lately. I am one year into the tenure track and I thought I had three years to bring my book to publication. But I became department chair this month which means I now have to go through an accelerated process (I agreed to this) because its obvious I am in a uncomfortable spot being chair without tenure where everyone else is at least an associate. The good thing is it is increasing my focus on finishing the book. The bad news is that with the added pressure to finish it, the school axed all faculty development funds, making research trips an impossibility.

  4. Terry Walbert July 29, 2011 / 1:01 pm

    How can tenure protect an untenured instructor from the sniping of tenured colleagues? But if there were no tenure, would the snipers be as brave?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 29, 2011 / 1:22 pm

      I’m not sure I understand your first question as framed. Getting tenure means that you are protected from certain options that those faculty who embrace being controlling or abusive have … namely, control over your employment. Of course it doesn’t stop the infighting: it just prevents certain consequences.

      Removing tenure would have no impact on the infighting. Who would then police it? After all, plenty of other professions have infighting. The difference is that your job may always be at stake.

      The real question in a non-tenure situation would be who judges job performance and what criteria are used. This is why I don’t see post-tenure review as particularly effective as a way to police those faculty who use tenure to relax and give half-hearted efforts. The threshold for acceptable performance is set so low that mere competence allows you to pass with flying colors … and guess who does the reviewing?

      True story: one year I was elected to a department committee that assesses faculty performance annually. When the committee met, the other members began ranking everyone but a single colleague as “above average” or even better, as if we were Lake Wobegon College. I observed that this was frankly ridiculous, and that if such practices ever became public, we’d be justifiably subject to ridicule. Guess who was subjected to ridicule? Not long afterwards I was called out of the room to attend to a personal matter (my wife had just gone into [false] labor). I never returned to continue the deliberations, and I have never been elected again to that committee. And when did this incident take place? April 1.

      And now you know the rest of the story.

  5. Terry Walbert July 29, 2011 / 1:34 pm

    What I meant to say but said poorly was that if tenure protects a tenured professor from certain kinds of abuse from colleagues, does tenure also protect the abusers from retaliation and unwittingly facilitate it?

    Put another way, what would relations be more on an equal level in a department if none had tenure?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 29, 2011 / 1:51 pm

      Not really. It protects them from being judged by the same standards, however. Many institutions have a generational problem whereby the younger faculty are more accomplished in terms of research and publication than the older faculty.

      I don’t know what would happen if there was a balance of terror. 🙂

  6. modlux September 4, 2011 / 11:57 am

    @Brooks As far as the ‘above average’ idea, am I wrong or is that an absurd sort of rating system to apply to professionals who are presumably not competing for their jobs? Why create a comparison? The question is whether one is doing one’s job well or not, not how one performs relative to everyone else.

    It is certainly possible that everyone in a department may be doing their job well. I would expect that is the norm in most places.

    I am a little late on this thread but I am sad to see that one is unable to relax until one attains the rank of full professor. Good grief.

    I don’t see it as a terrible thing that people have less productivity when they are older if they are doing other parts of their job well. It may be good for a department to have different people focused on different elements of teaching, service and research. So a balance of terror would make the troublemakers even worse. I don’t think people should spend their lives in terror.

    It’s not always wise to generalize from one’s own experience. Certainly, there is infighting in departments but my department did not have anything like the situation you describe.

    However, I find it interesting that wherever you go, you hear about these people who try to undermine their imaginary rivals. Academia is riddled with such people. The sad thing is that they are probably less than 10% of the faculty in most cases–sometimes the jerk is only one person out of a dozen–and yet they can make our jobs so much worse. I resent the energy I spend fending off a few neurotic idiots or trying to protect others from being damaged by them. What a waste of time! If I’d known this was inevitable, I’d have opened a restaurant or become an insurance agent or something.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 4, 2011 / 12:11 pm

      First, do I think the rating system is absurd? It has its absurd elements. It is devised in part for external consumption. It also helps in distributing merit pay, although I note that meritorious accomplishment is rewarded by administrators, not colleagues.

      You can relax as an associate professor with tenure. Many people do. It’s actually not hard to do your first book. After all, usually that’s your dissertation. That’s been a manuscript that several faculty members have helped you complete; it’s the manuscript that gets you your degree; it’s usually the manuscript that gets you employment as a tenure-track faculty member; in short, the first book/dissertation serves a lot of functions and gets a lot of support. That’s not true when it comes to the second book, and it is amazing how many people can’t get that second research-based manuscript to press. Some institutions require it for promotion to full, while others do not, but in the latter case you have to make a case for value and merit.

      I’ve heard enough about other departments to suggest that these observations transcend individual experience; the troublemakers are usually in the minority, but it is the apathetic middle that allows the troublemakers to wield power disproportionate to their numbers. So much depends on whether people are happy where they are, and the degree to which they feel that they can shape their own career.

  7. Noma September 5, 2011 / 7:51 am

    It seems like this post may be of even more interest now than it was a couple months ago. I’m thinking of the downside of the tenure system, in which an institution grants tenure to someone who then endorses reckless scholarship and thereby becomes a liability to the reputation of that institution. I’m thinking of Henry Louis Gates’s apparent endorsement of John Stauffer’s claims of widespread instances of black Confederate soldiers.

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