A few days ago, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal in which two writers argued for and against the granting of tenure in academia. For those who are unfamiliar with the process, a tenure-track professorship is one where at some future date (typically varies from four to nine years from the time of taking up the position), an academic must submit his/her dossier to a tenure committee. The dossier is typically made up of three components: research productivity (and quality), teaching quality (and innovativeness), and service (e.g., serving on administrative committees, sitting on journal editorial boards). Various departmental, faculty, and university-wide committees then vote on whether the applicant should be granted or denied tenure. By being granted tenure, the applicant is effectively granted job security for life, which could only be revoked if he/she commits one of several possible professional violations (or the applicant’s department is closed down).
Every few years, politicians seeking to arouse public sentiments about those “fat, entitled, and lazy” professors (a cheap populist stance), will make fiery speeches about their wish to abolish tenure within their jurisdictions. Many lay people will accordingly join the anti-tenure fray especially during difficult economic times. The logic behind anti-tenure sentiments is that tenure promotes laziness and lack of accountability to key constituents (e.g., students), and as such it should be abolished since few other professions are guaranteed job security for life (American Supreme Court Justices have such security).
It is undoubtedly true that there are bad apples that misuse the tenure system. That said, they constitute a minority of professors. Most professors do not spend ten or more years getting a university education, followed by one if not several post-doctorate positions, followed by an average of six years as an assistant professor, so that they can eventually “scam the tenure system.” The great majority of academics (and certainly the most productive ones) view their profession as a calling; they are intrinsically motivated individuals who happily go about their work irrespective of their tenure status.
Unlike elementary and high school teachers, most professors are typically required to do more than teach. This in no way implies that teaching is unimportant, but since time immemorial, advanced societies have recognized that a defining role of the intellectual/scholar/academic/scientist is the creation of new knowledge. Humanity’s greatest accumulated resource is its knowledge capital. This collective wisdom, from the most practical to the most theoretical and arcane, defines our shared humanity. Nearly all actions that we take on a daily basis possess the indelible marks of a researcher who worked 18-hour days to provide us with the particular comfort, product, service, or benefit.
So why is tenure necessary for knowledge creation? The intellectual history of mankind is defined by the never-ending tension between intellectual trailblazers and the status quo orthodoxy. The most important intellectual ideas that have ever been proposed are precisely those that have altered our heretofore-accepted worldview (e.g., the theory of evolution; the Copernican revolution, relativity theory). No scientific breakthrough is worth its salt if it does not unnerve the gatekeepers of the status quo. That’s what makes them such important ideas. Socrates, Galileo, and Spinoza were punished for holding intellectual positions that were contrary to the reigning powers. Writing an academic treatise that is critical of Islam in contemporary Saudi Arabia will likely get you imprisoned if not killed. Fortunately, the renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the enlightenment were instrumental in reducing the likelihood of getting killed for holding contrarian intellectual positions. Of course, there are more “benign” ways by which those holding the reins of power can punish those who challenge the accepted orthodoxy. Imagine if academics had to worry about the real possibility of losing their jobs each time that they proposed a daring idea or argument. One need not be a sophisticated epistemologist to understand the chilling effect that this would have on intellectual innovation. I should add that the great majority of worthy research programs require many years prior to bearing fruit. Such long-term research initiatives could never be tackled if professors were operating under limited-term appointments. Try mapping the human genome, solving Fermat’s last theorem, exploring the global epidemiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder, engaging in an archaeological excavation, or writing a scholarly biography about Genghis Khan whilst under a two-year contract. Those who criticize tenure are seldom academics, and as such they have little to no understanding of what academic scholarship entails.
My personal scientific path is a telling example. More than two decades ago, as a young doctoral student, I had identified my scientific calling, namely to systematically Darwinize the field of consumer behavior (which heretofore had had no infusion of evolutionary psychology within its theoretical toolbox). This has been a very risky professional endeavor, one for which I’ve had to pay dearly (e.g., by being ostracized from some of the relevant “in-groups"). Luckily, science is an auto-corrective process, and accordingly many of my staunchest critics are now strong supporters of my research program! Suppose that I did not have tenure. How could I have been assured that the president of the university, the provost, the dean, or my departmental colleagues would not have decided to fire me? After all, many detractors detest evolutionary theory, and I certainly have drawn my fair share of ire. However, I was able to persist in my long-term research agenda unencumbered by fears that I might lose my house if I took such an intellectual risk.
Let’s take my blogging experience at Psychology Today as a second example. I have published numerous articles on highly controversial “hot button” topics (e.g., feminism, pornography, penis and breast size, death penalty, healthcare, etc). Perhaps most vividly, I have authored numerous posts highly critical of religion. What if an administrator at my university did not appreciate my highly public positions on a particular topic? What prevents him/her from firing me? Tenure. I know for a fact that in sharing some of my opinions on these sensitive matters, I have been punished professionally in various ways (e.g., having a job offer retracted at the last minute). Humans do not appreciate having their intellectual positions and belief systems challenged. The system of tenure protects academics from losing their shirt and house in the pursuit of risky intellectual positions. Notwithstanding the “deadwood” problem inherent to tenure, the system must be maintained if we are to remain a knowledge creating civilization. It’s the proverbial cost-benefit tradeoff.
Two final points: (1) it is a fallacy that there is a tension between research and teaching. As a matter of fact, many of the most accomplished scholars and scientists happen to be pedagogically gifted; (2) the greatest predictor of a university’s prestige is the quality and quantity of research that its professors produce. Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Chicago are prestigious universities because they possess highly accomplished researchers. This does not mean that teaching should be ignored or relegated to a secondary role; however it is important to stress that it is great scholarship that defines prestigious institutions. Of course, how much weight is assigned to the three professional components (research, teaching, and service) will depend on the university. A comprehensive doctoral-granting research institution such as Stanford University will rightly place a greater import on research when evaluating its professors than say a largely undergraduate liberal arts college such as Pitzer College.
I hope that I have offered a compelling case for the benefits of academic tenure. Next time that your local politician suggests the abolishing of the long-held system, you’ll know that it is the sole means by which those who espouse unpopular and controversial intellectual ideas are protected. In the same way that freedom of speech is the bedrock of a liberal democracy, tenure is the lifeline that feeds unfettered intellectual pursuits.