Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep

Written by Alice Dreger

People outside academia often struggle to comprehend tenure. 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? wisconsin

If you look only at the remarks of people like Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker, who has been dismantling tenure as it has existed for generations within his state’s world-class university system, you would be led to believe tenure merely protects the useless and the lazy. But tenure, in fact, does something very important: it frees up researchers and adult educators to try out new, unprofitable and challenging ideas.

Tenure warms the universities that are the incubators of American democracy.

Of course, tenure is neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee of bold and good research and teaching. Some of my own most daring teaching and research has been done while I’ve worked in universities outside of the safety of tenure. But having lived through the decline of tenure, I can see clearly that universities in which the majority of the 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.

When researchers get the message that they better not produce data that might offend the powerful, they end up telling us not what is true, but what we want to hear. Policy separates from reality, and we end up with waste and poor outcomes in education, healthcare, economics, and the justice system. Good policy cannot be built on comfortable fantasies.

When teachers get the message they can’t push or challenge students, we end up with fellow citizens, neighbours, and co-workers who are inflexible, threatened by difference, and lacking in critical-thinking skills. Parents may think they want comfortable intellectual spaces for their dear college-age children, but if they really want their children to grow into strong, capable thinkers, they want professors who feel safe to host unsettling conversations, to provide unexpected lessons, and to go where students need, rather than want, to go in order to develop.

There are plenty of important cases where tenure has protected individuals. But having now spent years studying (and defending) individual academics who have been attacked for doing work that is politically challenging, I am convinced that the real value of tenure is at 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.

Yet, today, a triumvirate of forces are pushing against bold research and teaching, and often purposely challenging tenure in the process.

Fed up with the left-leaning nature of universities, political right wingers,including the Koch brothers, have made reshaping academia a priority. In Wisconsin, Walker has made it easier for programmes and departments to lose funding at the whim of those in political power. Likewise, the Republican-controlled Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina recently closed the law school’s highly-regarded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

The third part of the triumvirate? The corporatisation of universities. I experienced this personally when Northwestern University’s medical school dean censored an article I had edited and published because he was afraid it might violate a ‘branding agreement’ with the corporation who oversaw the running of the university hospital. (The article recounted an academic anthropologist’s story of consensual oral sex with a nurse after he was paralysed in 1978.) Our dean even set up a new ‘editorial committee’comprised of overseers from his office and the PR department to ensure we didn’t publish anything else off-brand.

Corporatisation, social media, political warring – if ever we needed tenure to resist them, it is now. Yet tenured positions are increasingly being replaced with short-term contract jobs. The people in these insecure jobs are not slackers or dummies; they are the people who used to get tenure.

When my husband, an academic internist at Michigan State University, was asked last year to become interim dean of his medical school, his university’s administration hit a snag; he wasn’t on a tenure line. The rules (reasonably) said deans have to be tenured. He took the opportunity to point out to his bosses that the vast majority of his faculty are working without any hope of tenure. Most are physicians, so most would survive economically if fired, but that isn’t true of most academics, the vast majority of whom cannot easily obtain another job in their professional fields.

My husband’s faculty voted to make an exception in his case. He is, we think, the only untenured dean in his university (and perhaps America). Does his lack of job security weigh on his mind? When one of your faculty is the lead whistleblower in the Flint water crisis, and you work at a university funded by the administration of a governor deeply implicated in the same water crisis, you probably have to think about it. (My husband’s wife definitely thinks about it, especially since she quit her Northwestern job over censorship.)

But why would university administrations want tenured faculty? A workforce without job security is obedient and cheaper. If tenure is to be saved in American universities, academics can’t do it themselves. 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, of turning their children’s professors into a herd of terrified sheep.


Alice Dreger is a historian of medicine and science whose work has appeared inThe New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, among others. Her latest book is Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (2015).

Read more at aeon.co