Academia's Dirty Little Secret

How Tenure Stifles Intellectual Expression in a Major Way

Posted Jun 12, 2014


So my good friend and fellow PT blogger, Gad Saad, posted a great piece on how the tenure process in academia (which is essesntially the idea of making it very difficult for a professor to lose his or her job after he or she has achieved certain outcomes in his or her position) serves the function of preserving intellectual freedom and expression. And how this fact is essential in allowing new knowledge to emerge. I don't disagree with Dr. Saad, but I would like to comment on the underbelly of tenure, which isn't so awesome.

As a department chair and long-time member of the academy, I will say this - there's a real liability associated with tenure that stands in the way of intellectual expression - and I think people should know about it - and Saad alludes to it. But I'd like to elaborate.

The problem (as I see it) is this:

Tenure has turned into such a highly coveted entity, that "untenured faculty" (people who are "probationary" or, more simply, "trying to get tenure") so often say "I can't do this or that because I don't yet have tenure."

And, this attitude is often (implicitly and/or explicitly) integrated into academic systems - with implicit or explicit policies as follows:

- untenured faculty often are not allowed to "review" the dossiers of other untenured faculty at various levels
- untenured faculty often are typically not "allowed" to serve as department chair (as they may be put in "compromised positions")
- untenured faculty are typically discouraged from being chairs of university-wide committees
- untenured faculty are typically discouraged from doing research that might possibly have some controversial angle

On top of this, we should note that the "probationary period" (or "untenured period") for academic faculty is typically like 7 years. So the current system makes it so that many (most?) professors feel like they can't, in these ways, "speak their minds" for 7 years. That's almost a decade.

Untenured faculty often use phrases like:

- I can't do that because I don't have tenure yet
- If only I had tenured, I'd ...
- Gee, when I get tenure, I'll ...
- My chair discouraged me from doing that because I don't yet have tenure
- and so forth

And me? I think this is a shame. A real shame. And a real problem with modern colleges and univeristies. I'm not making a statement against tenure, but, rather, I'm pointing out a glaring liability of tenure that folks outside academia often are unaware of. And those within the academy keep this, I think, as something of an inside little "that's just how it is in this field" kind of thing. This is like academia's dirty little secret.

If you've followed his work, then it's obvious to you that in Dr. Saad's case, he's done a great job of just doing his best and speaking his mind from Day One as a member of the academy. This has resulted in great success. And this is the approach that I like to cultivate in young academics whom I work with.

But I do have to say, from my experience, that sometimes, for a good 7 or so years of one's career in this field, "tenure" translates into "not speaking one's mind when it matters." Not everyone is aware of this irony regarding the "great intellectual protector" that is tenure. I figured I'd point it out (hey, I can do that - I have tenure!) ...