What Is the Point of Tenure?—A Roundtable
Spanish academic dress, Wikimedia Commons

What Is the Point of Tenure?—A Roundtable

Tenure creates a dual world where some professors enjoy more freedom than others.

Bo Winegard, Charles Negy, and Alexander Riley
Bo Winegard, Charles Negy, and Alexander Riley
12 min read

Editor's note: Following the firing of Princeton Classics scholar Joshua T. Katz, Quillette asked three scholars to reflect on the value of tenure. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please send a response of ~800 words to pitch@quillette.com.

I. Tenure is not a substitute for a spine

Bo Winegard is an essayist and holds a PhD in social psychology. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187.

The ostensible purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom, which includes freedom of inquiry and speech. These are important freedoms to protect, of course, because science (and, to a lesser degree, the humanities) often produces controversial material, results, and discoveries, particularly during the study of taboo topics. Sometimes the answers are reassuring to orthodoxy; sometimes they are not. We should therefore generally promote policies and norms that protect academic freedom to pursue the truth wherever it leads. But it is no longer clear that tenure accomplishes this goal more effectively than reasonable alternatives.

Tenure is generally granted to professors (if it is granted at all) after a five-to-seven-year probationary period, and this time lag undermines its effectiveness. If this were my only complaint, I would support it even so. But tenure may stifle academic freedom today by promising a better tomorrow: Wait until you have tenure and then will you be free to speak and research freely. But most (about 55 percent) professors do not enjoy the of protection tenure, so the prospect of attaining it becomes an opiate that dulls academics to the erosion of academic freedom, pacifies heterodox troublemakers, and incentivizes conformity.

As political biases become entrenched in academia, graduate students must become more circumspect if they are to get hired. That means self-censoring heterodox views for five to seven years in graduate school and another five to seven years while waiting for tenure. Few academics interested in a controversial topic will want to refrain from studying it for 10 to 15 years of their careers. Instead, many will simply choose a different career path, which only succeeds in making academia even more uniform.

Those that do make it through the gauntlet of graduate school and pre-tenure probation may lose the appetite for iconoclasm that once motivated them. They have graduate students. They have grants. They have reputations to consider. And they have few alternatives. One can hardly blame them for choosing the path of least resistance. But this depressing fact leads to an obvious but appropriate witticism: Tenure is wasted on the tenured.

For most institutions, encouraging conformity is defensible and even necessary. Their purpose is to survive and to promote their respective beliefs and values. Churches, businesses, and basketball teams do not exist to absorb and promote heretics. But academia is uniquely different in this respect. One of its most sacred values is the unbiased pursuit of truth. This necessarily requires disputation and the freedom to disagree, challenge authority, and attack orthodoxy. Therefore, encouraging conformity—especially conformity to an ideologically informed worldview motivated at least in part by political concerns—is pernicious at universities, precisely because it interferes with that goal.

Academic freedom should not be a luxury for the tenured, and professors should protect it as zealously for a first-year hire as they do for a seventh-year veteran. Many professors agree with this assertion, but the promise and pursuit of tenure prevents them from objecting to present impingements on academic freedom. The most important task is to fight for a healthy, robust environment of free speech and inquiry today, not to hope for one tomorrow.

Tenure might be worse than nothing.

Given the above, tenure might be worse than nothing. For if professors were not hostages to the pursuit of tenure, and did not therefore excuse or ignore present censorship in the hope of securing a future in which they would be free from self-imposed manacles, they would be incentivized to fight for an environment of universal academic freedom. They would be as concerned about the firing of a young, untenured professor who decided to study the wrong topic as they are about the firing of a tenured professor who forwarded the wrong data about crime or refused to conform to prevailing beliefs about sex or race.

Tenure is also a clumsy way to protect academic freedom since it makes it virtually impossible to fire (or threaten to fire) a professor for any reason. So, in practice, it is better at protecting indolent professors than it is at protecting iconoclasts. In an imperfect world, this may be a necessary cost to pay for academic freedom. But since many (if not most) tenured professors still self-censor about taboo topics, it is not buying much academic freedom. Most professors do remain active, diligent, and productive into old age; but tenure is a bizarre and unnecessary way to provide job security and to protect the freedoms that all professors ought to enjoy.

Tenure is not wholly bad; it does not produce widespread laziness, nor is it an attack on the free market (or contract). And in some cases, it does succeed in protecting original thinkers from angry mobs. But it also promotes pacifism in the face of illiberalism, creates a dual world in which some professors enjoy more freedom than others, protects a minority of unproductive and incompetent academics, and encourages conformity.

Considered in total, tenure is now more of an obstacle to academic freedom than it is a safeguard. Professors who want to change the culture of academia ought to rely less upon its promises and more upon the uncompromising defense of the liberal principles to which most universities ostensibly pledge fidelity. The solution to diminishing academic freedom is not to wait for tenure; it is to publicly challenge the mobs, bureaucrats, and professors who have turned against it. Ultimately, a policy cannot be a substitute for courage. And professors who are too timid to defend academic freedom will end up inhabiting a world without it, even if they are tenured.


New Haven - May 18: Yale University graduation ceremonies on Commencement Day on May 18, 2015. Shutterstock

II. A necessary evil?

Charles Negy is an associate professor of psychology at University of Central Florida. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlesNegy.

Amid tumult across college campuses, tenure for university professors is once again being debated if not outright attacked. The anti-tenure position contends that tenure is outdated and prevents the elimination of problematic or incompetent professors. The pro-tenure position contends that tenure is necessary—maybe a necessary evil—to provide professors with the freedom to address unpopular or controversial topics in class and beyond. My view is despite the costs (e.g., lazy and unproductive professors, ideologically motivated scholars), tenure, on balance, is worth protecting and defending. It benefits society because it provides scholars with the freedom to study controversial and even taboo topics, thereby increasing our knowledge about the world which in turn allows us to improve society.

Generally, tenure is awarded to professors who have made a steady contribution to their respective disciplines, including in the classroom. A professor is evaluated during a probationary period (typically five or six years), after which various university committees decide whether the professor’s achievements warrant granting tenure. Historically, tenure provided professors with lifelong employment unless they engaged in egregious immoral or inappropriate behavior (e.g., improper relationships with students, fraud, theft, or physical assault).

Tenure is a practical manifestation of two important and abstract values: Academic freedom and free speech. Academic freedom, of course, is itself a manifestation of an underlying commitment to free speech, and those who defend it often use the same adversarial arguments that defenders of free speech employ. It is designed to provide an extra layer of protection for both free speech and academic freedom. Ideally, of course, all professors (and students) should enjoy full freedom of expression. But we do not live in an ideal world. Tenure makes terminating a professor incredibly difficult and controversial, which dissuades universities from punishing controversial professors.

The US has always had “culture wars,” of course, but we’ve entered a new era of explosive culture wars. Not only are we more divided, but the extremes on both the Right and Left are more hostile and authoritarian. Each side demonizes the other for simply holding different values and worldviews. Arguably, the extreme Left (sometimes referred to as “leftists” or “progressives”) are winning the war by being more censorious and punitive, at least on most US college campuses. At minimum, professors and bureaucrats are overwhelmingly on the political Left at most universities.

Professors need tenure more than ever.

Thus, in the era of the leftist ideology of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), professors need tenure more than ever to protect them from compelled speech and thought and from newly defined harassment and discrimination policies linked to DEI. Such policies unequivocally deviate from legal definitions of harassment and discrimination. Moreover, many universities have recently revised their codes of conduct to prohibit comments or ideas expressed on campus that merely offend anyone based on their membership of a protected class.

I will use my place of employment, the University of Central Florida (UCF), as an example. When UCF hired its current president in 2020, he made it clear that he intended to implement all university activities through the lens of DEI. Further, he inserted into the 2020 Code of Conduct the statement that “Language or behavior that is offensive will not be tolerated.” That provision essentially precludes the discussion of a wide range of topics likely to cause some students to feel “offended.” For example, a professor who asks if the skyrocketing increase in youth self-identifying as transgender is a fad, whether biology or culture best explains some racial differences in abilities, or if climate change is truly human-made, could be investigated and disciplined simply because offended students felt “harassed” or “discriminated against.” It is worth noting that this past April, the 11th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ordered UCF to cease applying their “harassment-discrimination” policy because the three panel judges found the policy to be too vague and broad, thus violating students’ (and professors’) constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, there are occasions when even tenured professors are wrongfully disciplined or fired for expressing “offensive” ideas or statements. My own case with UCF, or more recently, the case of Princeton professor Joshua Katz, are just two examples of universities flagrantly violating their contractual commitments. (In my case, after a year and a half of waiting and a four-day hearing with the union’s assistance, an arbitrator ruled that UCF had “no just cause” to have terminated me and ordered UCF to reinstate me with full backpay. The Katz case is more recent and thus ongoing.) A tenured professor at Shawnee State University, Nicholas Meriwether, was disciplined and threatened with termination for failing to conform to campus orthodoxy (he refused to use preferred pronouns on religious grounds and the 6th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor). Another professor, Bo Winegard, was not as fortunate. He was terminated by Marietta College for conducting research and opining on controversial, politically incorrect topics in research articles and on Twitter. Winegard was not tenured; thus, Marietta College exploited his non-tenured status and did not renew his contract. Although his termination appears to have been politically motivated and unequivocally violated his academic freedom and freedom of speech, without tenure, the university easily ended his employment.

In summary, tenure provides professors with an extra layer of protection for free speech and academic freedom. If contractually respected by universities, it shields professors from myriad factions that disapprove of their utterances or positions on matters, including disgruntled or offended students, administrators, politicians, religious groups, and a whole host of individuals or organizations within wider society. Without tenure, many of contemporary society’s most pressing issues cannot be fully discussed and debated, thereby impeding the discovery of solutions to many social, economic, and political challenges.


Medieval tuition, Wikimedia Commons

III. A question of culture

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University. You can find and subscribe to his Substack here.

Academic tenure was a product of an academic ethic—a shared culture among the members of the professoriate. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the AAUP expressed the core value of that culture and its contribution to human welfare with vigorous clarity: “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

The free search for truth and its free exposition. To seek to discover what the case is and then share that knowledge with others. To find, discuss, and expound the truth. That was the cultural baseline of the academic ethic.

Tenure was the attempt to ensure that professors who, in pursuit of that scholarly value of truth, ran afoul of powerful interested parties whose central value was something other than truth—administrators or political officials, for example, interested in bottom lines or intimidated by moralizing publics—would not be at risk of being punished or terminated.

The shared culture that made tenure a sensible, even necessary academic norm is gone.

I use the past tense to describe this academic ethic and the justification of tenure that emerged from within it because I am describing a world that is no more, or that at the very least is now in the process of dying in nearly every institution of higher education (in the US), with little convincing evidence to suggest it can be revived. The shared culture that made tenure a sensible, even necessary academic norm is gone. A new ethic of DEI has emerged in academia, and it is now regnant. It centers on new values.

DEI has nothing in common with the old ethic. In fact, it is explicitly hostile to it, since it contends that the ostensible pursuit of objective truth is fundamentally and perhaps inextricably associated with racism and misogyny. We therefore need to update our values in the interest of more diverse, equitable, and inclusive ways of understanding and changing (the emphasis everywhere now is firmly on the latter) the world.

What does this mean for tenure? It means that tenure, if it continues to exist, will now become a mechanism for protecting the positions of the new professoriate, many of whom are ideologues masquerading as scholars, who have replaced the dispassionate pursuit of truth with the passionate pursuit of social justice. If pressure comes from outside to challenge them in their ideological claims, tenure will secure for them their continued professional ability to castigate the social system that produced the universities from which they speak. It also means that tenure will no longer matter for those who most need it in this environment: the dwindling number of faculty who still adhere to the old, traditional, dying academic ethic.

I have just finished reading a book I am reviewing for another publication that has helped to clarify my thoughts on this. The book in question is It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. Its authors, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, clearly articulate what will almost certainly be the direction in which tenure and protection for faculty speech evolves. The authors fully embrace the DEI transformation of higher education, while claiming to retain the core of the traditional academic ethic by emphasizing the expertise guiding the re-envisioned university. It turns out, however, that this is only a rhetorical ploy, as the knowledge of the new experts is wholly alien to the traditional ethic.

It’s Not Free Speech makes clear that a central administrative and institutional goal of the advocates of the new ethic is to police the speech of their colleagues, and especially those who adhere to the old ethic and have not fully embraced the new one. Will tenure protect them? Tenured professors clearly cannot say just anything with impunity. They are not protected if what they say is inaccurate in such a way as to demonstrate their professional incompetence. Here is the method, then, for removing those insufficiently aligned with the moral agenda of the new academic ethic: Committees of social-justice-dedicated faculty with the power to remove offenders from their professorial positions will be established to evaluate the teaching, writing, and public statements of their colleagues. And if those colleagues make claims that violate the sacred values of the new ethic, then they will be punished, and possibly have their careers terminated.

And who are the experts who will be deciding—purportedly, on the grounds of professional competence—what arguments on hotly contested topics can and cannot be made in classrooms, published, or expressed in the public sphere by scholars? Who will determine, for example, whether the argument that ethnic diversity lowers social trust is so immoral and unreasonable that it constitutes professional incompetence? Or whether the argument that men cannot get pregnant is so bigoted and morally objectionable that it is worthy of termination?

It is the new “experts” who embrace the new academic ethic. These are, of course, the same people—produced in the overwhelmingly progressive graduate programs and new radicalized fields that have emerged in the past generation—who are currently railing against the supposed corruption of all existing institutions, including the university modeled on the old academic ethic, and who claim that these institutions need to be radically restructured according to the principles of DEI.  

Over the past few years, I have noticed on my teaching evaluations accusations of “sexism” (I teach on the biology of the sex difference) and “racism” (I critically evaluate the scientific soundness of structural concepts, including structural racism, that ignore other potential causal hypotheses). These remain rare, but they were entirely absent in the first 15 years of my career, and the content I teach has not changed over that time. As a young scholar, my goal was to discover the truth, and that remains my only goal today. Like the content in my classes, that has not changed.

What has changed is the ethic dominant at the school at which I teach and the students who are being acculturated in that new ethic. Professors who receive such comments from radicalized students will almost certainly attract the attention of these committees and are therefore at risk of serious punishment. Many will recognize this risk and change their materials and teaching style.

If the DEI regime is not prevented from securing still more power, tenure will become irrelevant, a relic of the former academic ethic that remains in name only. It will no longer matter for those who are its intended beneficiaries, and it will instead serve to protect the ideologues of the new academic ethic. The result will be that the universities will become still more ideologically and intellectually homogenous than they already are.

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