Is Tenure Really Necessary?

The primary rationale for tenure is to protect academic freedom–the ability of scholars to pursue truth and take unpopular stands without fear that it might cost them their positions. Not just the professors, but society in general supposedly benefits from that protection. Professor Donald Downs, in a Pope Center paper in 2009, wrote that liberal democracies tend to see academic freedom as valuable “on the grounds that open pursuit of knowledge and truth provides substantial benefits to society.”

There is a counter-argument, however. Some scholars, including Columbia religion professor Mark C. Taylor, Hope College English professor William Pannapacker, and Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, have said that tenure actually does more to inhibit freedom of thought than tenure does to liberate it. 

Taylor claims that the long, anxiety-producing process of acquiring tenure actually suppresses free expression. He notes, “In almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before. In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.” This is particularly harmful since the chase for tenure makes many young faculty members reluctant to say controversial things during what could be the most productive years of their lives.

Pannapacker (who writes under the pseudonym Thomas H. Benton) concurs. He argues that tenure yields “hyper-competitiveness [that] has resulted in a stultifying culture of conformity.”

In a similar vein, Vedder believes that those with tenure tend to use their power and security to squelch dissenting opinions. “Many ideologically driven tenured professors,” he says, “use their job security to aggressively thwart efforts to increase alternative viewpoints being taught. Hence conservatives often feel that they are frozen out of good academic jobs simply because the tenured faculty dominating departments simply do not want alternative perspectives given academic prominence.”

I recently talked to some professors and administrators at schools without tenure, the better to evaluate the competing claims about it.

Florida Gulf Coast University does not have tenure. At FGCU, all new faculty are hired on fixed-term contracts. According to Hudson Rogers, associate provost at FGCU, this has not inhibited free inquiry: “FGCU has a very strong adherence to the notion and practice of academic freedom.”  He knows of no instance where a faculty member was pressured to abandon an area of scholarship. Susan Blanchard, professor and director of FGCU’s school of engineering, agreed that the university strongly adheres to academic freedom. “Academic freedom is separate from tenure,” she says. It’s noteworthy that she left a job at NC State with tenure in favor of one at FGCU without it.

To be fair, not all faculty members were happy with the situation. One professor I spoke with at FGCU said that, although faculty have a union and three-year contracts, they still have only “about six seconds of job security.” This professor, who chose to remain anonymous, complained about micromanagement from the administration, especially concerning his teaching methodology.

Although administrative micromanagement may be a problem, it isn’t really a matter of academic freedom. Despite the alterations to his teaching style, the professor did not mention any restrictions placed on his research or any internal or external pressure he had felt following something controversial he had said.

David Shiner, professor of the humanities and dean of Shimer College, another school without tenure, said that he doesn’t think tenure is necessary for academic freedom.  “I don’t think [job security] is unrelated” to academic freedom, he said, but Shimer provides enough security without tenure for professors to feel free to speak their minds without it.

Two recent books examined schools without tenure and came out strongly  against the idea that it’s essential for academic freedom. Edward L. Morris, dean of the management division of Lindenwood University (which hasn’t tenure since the late 1980’s) and a former professor, wrote in The Lindenwood Model that abolishing tenure “had no apparent adverse effect on [academic] freedom.”

“In nine years at the university, as a faculty member and more recently as a dean,” he told me, “I have not heard a single instance of a professor who felt his or her academic freedom was curtailed or threatened.” To buttress his case, he pointed out that Lindenwood was named one of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2010 “Great Colleges to Work For.”

Morris also cited a study on Lindenwood in 2003 by the Higher Learning Commission, part of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, a regional accrediting body. According to the study, “faculty overwhelmingly stated that their academic freedom rights in the classroom had not been infringed upon.”

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, co-authors of the recent book Higher Education?, argue convincingly that tenure is not necessary for academic freedom. In their opinion, “intellectual freedom on a campus depends more on the political climate of the time—or the region—than on tenure.” New York University’s School of Global Liberal Studies, for example, operates on a three-year contract system, but professors feel secure enough to openly oppose administrators’ positions on things as important as the unionization of adjuncts.

Hacker and Dreifus also list a multitude of cases when tenure has failed to live up to its stated purpose, from suspected communists with tenure fired during the McCarthy era to the sacking of Ward Churchill.

Regarding McCarthy, they quote University of Buffalo sociologist Lionel S. Lewis as saying that when universities came under pressure from the notorious senator, “Faculty with tenure appointments were fired with nearly the same abandon as those without tenure.” Institutions that fired tenured professors included Tulane, Temple, Reed, Fisk, New York University, Jefferson Medical College, and public universities in Ohio, Vermont, Minnesota, and Kansas.

Hacker informed me about some other cases he researched but only mentioned briefly in the book, showing that tenure doesn’t guarantee academic freedom.

  • “At Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a professor of business gave an interview to a local newspaper, where he blamed his college president for declining enrollment and poor student and faculty morale.   He was subsequently dismissed on grounds of “malicious gossip or public verbal abuse.” He had tenure.
  • At Idaho State University, an engineering professor incurred the wrath of his president by actively seeking a vote of no confidence in him.  He was dismissed for “insubordination coupled with a complete lack of collegiality.” The professor, with 22 years on the faculty, had tenure.”

In sum, when tenure is held up to its original and still most important rationale—academic freedom—it appears neither necessary nor sufficient.