The recent firing of UNC system president Tom Ross by a politically appointed Board of Governors underscores the need for tenure as a way to protect the investment North Carolinians have made in higher education over the past 200 years.
Tom Ross was not, of course, working as a tenured professor. He was an administrator who served at the pleasure of the board. Refusing to explain his firing was an insult to the university community, but it did not violate principles of academic freedom.
Yet what the Board of Governors did to Tom Ross as a matter of political ideology is, I suspect, what some of those same board members and their backers would like to be able to do to professors. Tenure keeps them from doing it. And that’s a good thing for North Carolina residents.
Tenure is often misunderstood outside the academy. It does not mean a guaranteed job for life. Professors, like anyone else, can be fired for adequate cause. They must do their jobs and do them well or else face termination.
What tenure protects against is being fired for political reasons. Professors are supposed to be free to pursue knowledge in whatever directions their inquiries take them, even if it means conflict with the powers that be, inside or outside the academy.
Tenure is also supposed to ensure that professors are free to teach, write and speak about matters in their areas of scholarly interest, without fear of reprisal if their work challenges dominant assumptions or dominant groups. This is what professors mean when they refer to academic freedom. But without tenure, academic freedom is a hollow promise.
In a university without tenure, a climate scientist could be fired for arguing that human activity has accelerated global warming – if this argument threatened the economic interests of wealthy donors in the fossil fuel industry.
In a university without tenure, a professor of economics could be fired for arguing that tax policies enacted by politicians hugely benefit the wealthy while hurting the middle class – if those politicians and their monied sponsors wanted to keep this information hidden.
In a university without tenure, a professor of classics could be fired for teaching that Western civilization, for all its merits, was built in large part on war, slavery and Colonial slaughter – if this view offended political or economic elites who preferred that students hear an uplifting story rather than the truth.
But tenure isn’t just about protecting individual professors from political attacks. It’s about protecting the ability of universities to best serve the societies that support them.
Universities are special places. They are not businesses devoted to profit making. They are, or are supposed to be, sanctuaries from the daily economic pressures that can inhibit creativity and impede the pursuit of new knowledge. Without institutions that can function in this way, societies stagnate.
By protecting professors’ freedom to take risks, to examine what others might not want examined, to consider disruptive ideas and to freely share what they’ve learned, tenure enables universities to function as engines of scientific, economic and humane progress.
Perhaps even more importantly, tenure is what keeps universities from being captured by narrow, special interests.
Capitalist fundamentalists might prefer that professors never do anything that doesn’t add to the bottom line somewhere or that doesn’t put people in jobs. Radical humanists might prefer to expunge universities of crass economic concerns altogether.
What tenure ensures is that all manner of curiosities and inquiries can be pursued under the roof of the university. And while it doesn’t ensure results, it makes it more likely that what comes of this intellectual activity will serve a wide range of constituents, not just the most powerful groups in society.
Despite jokes about professors being cloistered in the unreal world of the ivory tower, some features of life in that tower – tenure and the academic freedom it affords – are what allow professors to produce tangible benefits for others. The apparent willingness of the current UNC Board of Governors to kick the UNC system like a political football bodes ill for the continued flow of these benefits to all the people of North Carolina. Tenure is a bulwark against this degeneration of the university and its mission.
Yes, tenure benefits individual professors. But that’s not the point. The point is to broadly enrich a society wise enough to sustain institutions free from the political intrusion that limits the creation and sharing of knowledge that could be of great value tomorrow, even if it makes some powerful folks uncomfortable today.
Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at N.C. State University.