Tenure and the Illusion of Freedom

I’ve had an on again, off again back and forth with Chad Pecknold on twitter about the value of tenure. Twitter is a hard medium to engage in any rigorous discussion, so I figured I’d put down a longer form version of my thoughts on the topic of tenure and it’s relevance today. Just to be clear this is not a historical assessment of tenure, I don’t care how valuable it was even 10 years ago. As a young academic, I can only assess how valuable it is to me at this moment.

My conclusion is, perhaps cynically, that not only is it valueless, the reliance on it as a protection mechanism for conservative thinkers is counter-productive. I want to start with a few rough (i.e. as I remember them) quotes from various mentors:

An interesting idea, but I’d set it aside until you have tenure.

Have you considered tacking more libertarian rather than conservative? It would help you find space in the academic world.

I turned down [chair of the IRB]. I won’t take it until I have tenure.

In passing on the blog I’ve made jokes about my “career suicide status.” I’ve even gone as far as to have a short post headlined by it. Every joke, however, has behind it the nugget of truth and these are no different. By speaking my mind, no matter how civil the discourse, I put my academic career prospects in danger. (Although I did just get my panel on animal research accepted at this year’s annual meeting in DC so there’s that.)

All of this leads up to why I am somewhere between cynical and hostile to the idea of tenure. Put simply: if I require permission from a board before I can speak honestly, than I’m not free to speak at all, even if that permission cannot be rescinded. (Plus, it can be rescinded anyway.)

The way I see it, I have two options:

  1. Toe the academic company line for 7-10 years until I get tenure (assuming I do in the first place), effectively hiding my actual beliefs and then finally speak my mind.
  2. Skip the line toeing, speak my mind now, and recognize that what jobs I can find may be semester to semester or I may just lock myself out entirely.

Given that my field of choice is ethics, specifically in the ever secularizing/rotting field of healthcare, I simply cannot do #1. To do so in my mind would be unethical! I’m not going to let the Julian Savulescu’s (Savulesci?) of the world run around unchecked and unopposed merely because they have tenure and I don’t. By the time I arrived at the fight it’d be long over, my side having lost. This may seem overdramatic, but my field is a fickle one, conservative withdrawal from it leads to the perception that issues (such as abortion) are “settled” and need no further discussion. (They aren’t settled in our favor either.) Let you still think I’m exaggerating: “we have settled [solved?] the abortion issue” is more or less a direct quote from Ruth Macklin during her acceptance speech for the American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities lifetime achievement award.

But let us assume that I could carry out #1. What then do I get? Presumably, having gotten my peers to grant me access to the hall of free speech, I’m in a friendly-ish department. But department’s change. Faculty turn over. What’s friendly now may not be friendly in 5 years. Sure they can’t fire me, but they can make my life at work miserable. Just ask Carl Elliott about his banishment. As a “gadfly” (as one colleague affectionately called me once) I might find a hard time moving elsewhere.

So what’s the end result here? I’d summarize thusly: Tenure is only as good as the institutional support around it, most importantly perhaps institutional culture towards free speech. But this culture also eliminates, to a great extent, the need for the shield of tenure. I’d much rather be untenured somewhere I’m welcome than tenured somewhere I’m not. And above all, I’d much rather be free to speak than be muzzled until I’ve met some arbitrary requirements that favor publication over teaching. (And I haven’t even gotten to the part about how the publication requirements shape those eligible for tenure in the first place!)