The New York Times has an interesting blog discussion on the future of tenure. From 1975 to 2007, the percentage of professors with tenure or on the tenure track dropped from 57 percent to 31 percent. Clearly, tenure is dying. But is this a bad thing?
Though I’m torn about the virtues of tenure — on the one hand, creating a class of professionals who functionally can’t be fired absent the most extreme misconduct is just as likely to foster sloth and intolerance as it is creativity and freedom. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that adjunct professors face a real chill. In the Times, the AAUP’s Carey Nelson states the case:
As at-will employees, adjunct faculty members can face dismissal or nonrenewal when students, parents, community members, administrators, or politicians are offended at what they say. If you can be fired tomorrow, you do not really have academic freedom. Self-censorship often results. Without economic security and due process, academic freedom cannot be protected. Poor faculty working conditions create poor student learning conditions.
The huge increase in the percentage of faculty teaching on a contingent basis — not eligible for tenure, teaching on short-term contracts — has sharply curtailed academic freedom at some institutions and weakened it elsewhere. When most faculty members were eligible for tenure, the principle of academic freedom was powerful enough to protect even those without indefinite tenure. Now that is increasingly less true.
This is absolutely true. Just ask Kenneth Howell and June Sheldon. Sadly, however, tenured professors are often the very individuals censoring adjuncts. Again, just ask Kenneth Howell and June Sheldon.
While I’m less convinced of the virtues of tenure than the AAUP, I’m pleased to work with them in defense of professors’ fundamental First Amendment freedoms (even if Carey Nelson thinks aspects of orthodox Christian morality are “kooky and despicable“). As my colleague David Hacker recently said while commenting on the decline of tenure, “Where can [professors] turn when tenure dies? They can start with the First Amendment.”