The Essential Nature of Tenure
The institution of tenure has long been a lightning rod for criticism of academia, often coming from those outside the academic sphere. Writing in Aeon, Alice Dreger, a historian of medicine and science, argues for the importance of tenure, citing primarily its critical role in allowing faculty to pursue work that may be politically risky or otherwise challenging but necessary.
Dreger acknowledges that critics of tenure may find the concept unfair. “We live in a society where job security is in decades-long decline. Contingent and precarious employment is increasingly the norm. Why should professors who receive tenure get a special kind of lifetime job security?” she writes. What critics of tenure don’t understand, Dreger contends, is that it is a crucial component of allowing faculty members to do their jobs. “Universities in which the majority of faculty feel unsafe in terms of job security become places where no one feels safe to do anything that might risk upsetting someone. And that’s a recipe for generally useless research as well as impoverished teaching.” What university faculty members need, says Dreger, is to feel comfortable producing research that might “offend the powerful” and to feel that they can safely “push or challenge students,” thus building students’ critical thinking skills and ability to discuss ideas with someone who might think differently. But ultimately, Dreger argues, tenure is most necessary for its value on a global level: “When the tenure system is functioning well, it creates intellectually healthy environments that allow professors to challenge automotive and pharmaceutical industry claims, to hold our government and our military accountable, and to be at the vanguard for positive social change.”
Dreger points to several factors that have come together to create a climate in which tenure, and “bold research and teaching” in general, is under siege. Political pressure from both the right and the left have heightened tensions on campus, leading to circumstances in which faculty members feel insecure in doing their jobs to their full capacity. Dreger highlights political situations in Wisconsin and North Carolina in which state leadership has influenced the public university system in ways that make colleges and universities less autonomous and more vulnerable to decisions made by state legislature. Dreger also points to efforts made by “identity-politics activists” to “shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous,” creating conditions in which faculty members might be concerned about speaking their minds. What Dreger refers to as “the corporatisation of universities” also plays a role in the corrosion of tenure’s safeguards. Universities concerned with “branding” might be more sensitive about articles published by their faculty —a situation Dreger found herself in as a professor when she edited and published a potentially controversial article.
In the face of attacks on tenure and the rights of faculty to pursue unconventional and challenging research and teaching methods, Dreger asserts that those advocating in support of tenure must go beyond members of academia. “If tenure is to be saved in American universities, academics can’t do it themselves,” she writes. “It will likely happen only if non-academics come to understand the tremendous cost to our society of turning our universities into places of fear.”
For more on intellectual diversity and its role in scholarship and teaching, see AAC&U’s statement on Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility.