We don’t give it to U.S. presidents or to corporate CEOs: Although we install them with great ceremony, in a few years, most are gone. We don’t give it to plumbers or police officers: They have to perform to keep their jobs. Queen Elizabeth II and Emperor Akihito have it, though what they do each day is highly constrained. But university professors can do with it what they wish, without review, for life. We call it tenure.
One hundred years ago, the American Association of University Professors endorsed a “Declaration of Principles” regarding academic freedom and tenure. Academic freedom in the United States has produced 357 Nobel Prizes; 9 of the 10 most innovative universities on the planet, as ranked by Reuters; and a vibrant, creative higher-education system. Academic tenure, meanwhile, produces stultifying intellectual uniformity, protects incompetence, generates mountains of useless “research” and leads to undergraduate teaching done by poorly paid part-time adjuncts and graduate students.
Tenure is not, as was its original intent, protecting the freedom to teach controversial subjects; it is protecting the right to offload teaching onto underlings. This isn’t freedom to pursue research wherever it leads; it’s the right to publish irreproducible studies and uncited scholarship.
Many of my tenured colleagues are excellent undergraduate teachers — when they are not on sabbatical, research leave or an exemption from teaching duty, or leading graduate seminars. Most are outstanding researchers: as good as the untenured staff and graduate students with whom they work, but not worlds better.
Is tenure what motivates and protects their teaching and scholarship? No. Would our universities be more equitable, more agile and more focused on the students who pay the bills without tenure? Undoubtedly. Tenure protects behaviors that diminish our universities. It is an anachronism we can no longer afford. That’s why, when offered, I turned it down.
Academic freedom and tenure are not synonymous. You can have one without the other, and it is high time we did.