Tenure, Tedium, and Grants
© 27 Sep 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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My thoughts on efforts to protect academic freedom, and their increasing failure.


Academic tenure is a peculiar animal. The story I generally hear to support it is as follows.

  1. Academics should be free to explore the truth of any topic.

  2. Not all popular beliefs are true, nor are all important topics to research popular.

  3. Hence academics should be free to do unpopular things.

  4. That freedom requires them to have confidence that they will not be fired for speaking out against the popular trends.

  5. You can’t have that confidence if someone can fire you. Limiting the valid excuses for firing does not work; people can always find some way to build a case against someone they dislike.

  6. But some academics are not good at their job and should be fired.

  7. Hence, give them a trial period wherein they can be fired; if they are good at their job during that time, give them immunity to firing thereafter so they can research freely.

The above summarizes a common case for tenure and much of its current implementation, and also suggests its most common characteristics: a trial period, an “‍up or out‍” review, and then either strong job security or immediate loss of employment.

Now, tenure might work in some fields, but not in any field I have ever engaged with in the time in which I have been in academia. And I don’t mean to point to the few bad apples who get tenure and then coast, doing little if anything useful thereafter; while those people do exist, I find they are few and of little consequence. I mean rather that freedom from firing does not equate to freedom to perform unpopular research.

One force against unpopular research is the school’s ability to make individual faculty’s life very unpleasant. There are many things professors are expected to do that many do not enjoy doing: sit on committees, teach classes, orient students, and so on. While you can’t fire a professor for doing research you don’t like, you can fill their agendas with painful tedium, giving them their least favorite assignments and lots of them. Often you can annoy them into submission, or overload them so they have no time for research, or overload them and then make a firing case based on failure to fulfill their non-research duties. Tedium is a powerful whip.

Another force preventing unpopular research is the withholding of resources. Most research requires resources of various kinds: graduate student support, equipment, space, etc. All of these cost money, and (at least in the physical sciences and engineering) most of that money comes from grants. Grants are almost always awarded to whatever fields of inquiry the funders like; if you want to do research on an unpopular topic, you have to do without grants and thus without the resources needed to perform the research. Endowments and patronage suffer less from this kind of pressure, but even the endowed chairs I know have to seek most of their funding from grants and are thus mostly beholden to those with money to give them.

I value academic freedom, meaning the freedom to explore unpopular ideas in a rigorous, scientific way. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of it now, and as academia generally appears to be trending toward a more and more business-like model where funding follows “‍value‍” as defined by some arbiter of priorities, academic freedom appears to be perpetually on the chopping block. I wish I saw a way to reverse or bypass this, but I have seen no viable suggestions on this front.

I do, however, offer this one hope: humans are resourceful creatures. Tell someone they cannot do something important to them and they will generally find a way to do it anyway. Perhaps increasingly constrained faculty will do the important work on the side; perhaps they will form a company or think-tank to keep it going; I can’t predict exactly how, but I am confident that some of the unpopular but important research will continue, albeit at a much reduced pace and with much less publicity as protections of academic freedom are undermined. I just hope that academic freedom, be it protected by policy or realized as a surreptitious black market of knowledge, will survive with sufficient strength to counterbalance the demagogues of popular opinion.

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