Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jonathan R. Cole Headshot

Why Academic Tenure is Essential for Great Universities

Posted: Updated:

If there is one feature of the academic community that virtually all critics rail against it is the existence of tenure. Thus, Professor Mark C. Taylor, the latest to weigh in on this subject in Crisis on Campus, says: "The single most important factor preventing change in higher education is tenure. The only way for American higher education to remain competitive is to abolish tenure and impose mandatory retirement at the age of seventy... In the case of tenure... there should be no exception - it must end... [O] n the basis of my experience, this argument [that tenure is essential for academic freedom and free inquiry] is completely without merit - in forty years of teaching, I cannot think of a single person who was more willing to express his or her views after tenure then before." (Pp. 204-205) I don't know where Mark was hanging out or what he was observing over those 40 years, but he surely was not considering the repression that has periodically taken place at our great universities, nor was he aware of the scores of faculty members who have suffered from the use of unbridled power in sanctioning ideas and research that offended "the Prince." In taking on tenure, Taylor's book and others that have recently appeared (e.g. Andrew Hacker's and Claudia Dreifus's, Higher Education?) contribute greatly to the mythology about the nature of tenure and its supposed role at our best universities. It is described as a boondoggle for lazy professors who no longer have to work in order to retain their positions - as a source of the clogging of the arteries of the university community. In fact, the tenure system has historically played a critical role in creating the intellectual vitality needed to foster great debates and important new discoveries. Similarly, tenure for federal judges protects them from perverse dismissals by political leaders who may find their legal opinions opprobrious. Whether Professor Taylor would also have us eliminate lifetime tenure for federal judges remains unclear.

Why do the great universities and colleges have tenure? First, academic freedom and tenure should be distinguished from the First Amendment's Freedom of Speech. Tenure grew up in the first two decades of the 20th century in response to the abusive use of power by university presidents and Trustees who were free to fire professors for almost any reason, most often because of their social and political views. This was, after all, the Lockner Age, when rights of contract were sacred and employers could fire employees virtually at will. There are hundreds of illustrative cases and some empirical evidence that chronicles the use of abusive power: E. A. Ross, the noted economist and sociologist, was fired from Stanford University at the turn of the 20th century for his advocacy of free silver and his criticism of monopolies, especially railroads, (the basis for Leyland Stanford's fortune). Such was also the fate at Columbia where James McKeen Cattell, the highly esteemed psychologist, who offended President Nicholas Murray Butler by supporting resistance to conscription upon America's entry into World War I. Less notable junior faculty member were even more likely to be jettisoned from universities if they criticized the powers that be. So academic freedom and tenure were mechanisms put in place to redefine the employment relationships at universities and to wrest power away from Presidents and Trustees (and external political leaders), and place the power for certain types of university decisions into the hands of the faculty. It was designed as well to enhance the chances that our great universities would more closely approximate the ideal of free and open discourse about all ideas - whether they offended the political authorities of the time, or whether they offended one's faculty and administrative colleagues. This core university value is essential for the discovery of new knowledge and the free exchange of ideas in the classroom and on and off campus.

The long history of anti-intellectualism in the United States, which seems to raise its ugly head every 20 years or so and exists today, provides us with countless examples of efforts to fire or sanction - or at least to intimidate - faculty members whose ideas and research reject the prevailing wisdom and the politically correct positions of the day.

Was Professor Taylor not alive when the repression of the McCarthy era hit the universities - shortly after HUAC took on the Hollywood ten? Even before McCarthy, university professors who refused to sign loyalty oaths, who openly supported the Communist Party, or who simply were Fellow Travelers, were subjected to sanctions, including dismissals for their views and their associations. Nothing in industry would have prevented the firing of these individuals, but universities are sanctuaries for the open discussion of any ideas, however radical. Firings and dismissal did take place during these perilous times, and in retrospect were the basis for shame in the academy, but many whose views ran against the orthodox, were protected from dismissals and sanctions. And it is unquestionably true, if you look at the history of American higher education closely, that universities that wished to fire faculty because of their views, picked on junior, non-tenured faculty, before they dared to bring charges against those who were prominent members of the tenured ranks. Harvard fired a number of junior faculty members during the McCarthy period after collaborating with the FBI that gathered information about those "suspect" individuals (people like Professor Sigmund Diamond), but while they might have hoped to get rid of Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, it would have been near impossible because the distinguished economist had tenure. Beyond firings, the set of repressive behaviors had a chilling effect on campus discourse, and, as Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Wagner Thielens, demonstrated in The Academic Mind, over a quarter of social scientists during the McCarthy period pulled their intellectual punches out of fear of reprisal. As Chicago's President Robert Hutchins, a great defender of free inquiry and a marketplace of ideas, said: "The question is not how many professors have been fired for their beliefs, but how many think they might be. The entire teaching profession is intimidated." It's not much different today, at least according to recent surveys.

In the past decade, strong opposition to the War in Iraq and Afghanistan led to sanctions and dismissals of non-tenured faculty at American universities, including Columbia. Mark Taylor only had to look into his own backyard at Columbia to see unsuccessful pressure placed on President Lee Bollinger to fire or sanction Nicholas De Genova for anti-war comments he made about U.S. involvement in Iraq, or the organized and well-financed efforts to deny tenure to two junior faculty members at Columbia who supported the rights of the Palestinian people or who made claims about historical origins of Middle Eastern lands that Jewish Americans found offensive. The Bush administration routinely tried to censure papers and speeches that suggested that global warming was the result, at least significantly, of human activity; it tried to "negotiate" scientific truths; it had the FBI monitor the work of laboratory scientists who were working to develop vaccines and antidotes for diseases, like plague, that could be used by terrorists as biological weapons. Furthermore, they tried to influence the content of the curriculum of area studies programs to make them more favorable to the Bush administration's political positions. It encouraged external conservative organizations to create "black lists" of professors whose ideas these organizations considered "radical." Then, there were annual efforts from external political figures and alumni for me, as Columbia's provost at the time, to fire the internationally distinguished literary scholar, Edward Said, who was also one of the world's leading advocates for the Palestinian people. Not only was Edward protected by academic freedom and tenure - but also to do anything but defend him would have violated Columbia's deep commitment to encourage our students and faculty members to hear all points of view.

If universities are to be open spaces that have the mission of discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge, then they will scrutinize and question all features and values in American society. They are in existence to challenge orthodoxies, political practices, and the biases and presuppositions that abound in the larger society. They are by design intended to be unsettling. If we demand conformity and orthodoxy among our professor, and we fail to protect them when they play the critical role that is at the heart of a great university, then the quality of our institutions of higher learning will inevitably decline.

Of course, we can identify professors at our great universities who do little after earning tenure. But data and experience suggest that the overwhelming majority of faculty members at our best universities and colleges are highly self-motivated individuals who strive to produce new, important discoveries, and to write books that will redefine their fields well after they receive tenure. Without the freedom granted by tenure, the conditions necessary for creativity will be threatened. It is well worth our accepting the few who abuse the privileges of tenure for the greater good that comes from the freedom of inquiry that allows professors to take risks on important problems that have low probabilities of success, and to take the time on important projects that will not bear fruit for as much as a decade. Universities are not the equivalent to business organizations and should not be cast in the same mold. The requirements and values differ and we must recognize those differences.

One final note on tenure: Tenure at our best universities is granted only after the most extensive and critical review. At Columbia, the quality of a professor's teaching and research are reviewed at the end of his or her third and fifth year. Faculty members are assessed and given information about their chances for tenure. After seven years, the review becomes still more rigorous. The academic departments review the work and its quality. It seeks opinions from the most prominent members of the faculty member's field about the quality of the work produced to date and the trajectory for future contributions of note. Perhaps twenty such letters are sent to leading authorities in the field throughout the world. The reviewers are asked to assess the quality of the work against those who have produced the best work in the field. Then, following the gathering of these materials, which includes extensive portfolios about the student assessments of their classroom performance as well as letters from former students, a five person review committee (the ad hoc committee) meets to review all of these materials as well as to hear witnesses. The ad hoc committee consists of faculty members from within Columbia and from other universities. They weigh the evidence, make substantive comments, vote on the case, and make a recommendation to the Provost of the University, who in turn makes a recommendation to the President and Trustees. This is a system that emphasizes accountability before tenure is granted. Not all universities and colleges adhere to such a rigorous system. Those that base tenure simply on seniority or on a cursory assessment of a faculty members research and teaching records after, say three or five years, are part of a very different system. Tenure as a reward for years of service alone is not justifiable in my view. But tenure for those who have demonstrated excellence and world-class results is beneficial for the system of higher learning because it provides the essential freedom necessary at great universities to foster creativity and at times for revolutionarily new thought.

In short, those who perpetuate the myths about tenure do a disservice to the public's understanding of the core values of great universities and colleges and what types of values and structures are necessary for the production of truly path-breaking ideas and the introduction to our student to views that have the potential of shattering their provincial ideas.