Does Tenure Undermine Academic Freedom?

A compelling argument that it does, at See Also…, with a particularly interesting concluding suggestion:

A less-obvious solution is to reverse the tenure clock. New hires have seven years of tenure, starting their first day on the job. Aside from gross negligence, they are untouchable. They can follow their ideas wherever they lead. After seven years, tenure is revoked.

Such an interesting thought experiment. What bravery might that initial seven years of untouchability produce? What creativity would it inspire? And how would our expectations for the post-tenure period change if our careers began in an environment of risk-taking?

6 thoughts on “Does Tenure Undermine Academic Freedom?

  1. What an absolutely fabulous idea. But then my cynical side kicked in and thought about how this would be yet another perk that those who got faculty jobs have and those who are contingent most definitely do not.

    And would that creativity extend into the classroom environment? Would we be free to explore how and what we teach, or would the freedom only be for research production.

    Certainly something to mull.

  2. Thanks for calling it a \thought experiment.\ That’s the spirit in which I wrote the \reverse-tenure\ part of the post. The rest of it is pretty close to how I actually feel, especially regarding tenure vis-a-vis librarians.

  3. There’s literally no need to imagine what a world is like without tenure, or where tenure is abolished–it’s called “America.”

    In my view, the biggest constraint on creativity for junior faculty isn’t tenure-anxiety, but adapting to teaching & service. (This is obviously especially true at regional comprehensive public universities, as well as the even more teaching intensive schools.)

    As far as the thought experiment goes, it seems to me that the knowledge that tenure would be *revoked* would be as panic-inducing as tenure anxiety. (Think of the last few weeks of a sabbatical, in which one feels as though one must get everything done that’s humanly possible–it’d be like that, except for *years*.)

  4. Here’s a different twist on your theme, Kathleen. Being NTT gave me a freedom to leave I would never have indulged if I’d been TT. I loved teaching comp for 9 yrs at USC: bright students, creative and friendly colleagues, the freedom to create side projects outside the mandated 4-assignment design, the vitality of being at a R-1. But in spring 08 hubby was re-lo’d and I left that job. Skip ahead, skip ahead. Now stars may be aligning, and I may be teaching again in a circumstance better suited to my interests and proclivities. (Tho’ one banks on nothing until the ink’s dry.) If I’d felt shackled to a TT job–because it’s the pot of gold, and how could anybody squander it?–I would never have given myself permission, nor had the requisite time, to grow my new media skills and launch in a direction that may well be more creative and gratifying than either the job I had, or the one I trained for (c18 & 19 novel). NTT: the new dream job? If you value freedom as much as I do, maybe so.

  5. @jbj: I hear you on the panic coming from the thought of the revocation of tenure. But I wonder if this inversion wouldn’t do something to mitigate that. It’s not as though one would be coming up for an in-or-out review at that seven year point; rather, from that point forward, there would be regular reviews to ensure that there’s been continued productivity and, I suspect in an environment that privileged experimentation, continued growth. And yes, you’re absolutely right that the real sources of anxiety for junior faculty are in fact about taking on new responsibilities and adapting to a new culture, but if one were able to do so in safety, how might that change things?

    @Kathi: Thanks for this comment! There is absolutely something freeing in being off the tenure track; it’s not for nothing that a colleague of mine once referred to tenure as golden handcuffs. And having worked so hard to shackle oneself to the profession, by whatever version of not-rocking-the-boat one has engaged in, it seems impossible (if not downright insane) to try to get free. Your story is a really important one — I loved your MLA videos for exactly that reason…

  6. I think the alternative to tenure really has to be more about some kind of contract employment that’s intended to make mobility and flexibility possible for both faculty and institutions coupled with some extremely new kind of way to protect or value innovation that is only partially about employment incentives. The reverse TT is a fun thought experiment but it strikes me as ending up in the same place. If I had 7 years of protected employment but I was hoping to remain in the same position afterwards, I’d be careful not to do anything too unsettling or upsetting to the people who were pretty entrenched in the old-fashioned way, the way they are in non-academic businesses and institutions, either by being extremely valuable contributors or by sucking up to the people at the top.

    Which is not too different than the situation in a regular TT situation. I think I’m inclined a bit to the view of my colleagues Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe: people who innovate are inclined to do that regardless of whether they’re given an incentive. The real question is whether an institution or business gets other people out of the way.

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