Intellectual Freedom, If You Can Keep It

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 6/12

For decades, early-career academics have centered their lives around the pursuit of one goal: achieving tenure. The first task, of course, is to secure a tenure-track position. But that step—difficult as it is—is only the beginning. After landing one of the increasingly few tenure-track jobs available, the race against the clock begins, and the young professor must spend the next six years preparing for tenure review. The process requires years of sacrifice, and even after all that, there’s no guarantee of success. 

So why go to all that trouble? In theory, tenure is supposed to provide professors with life-long job security and the freedom to research and write on controversial topics without fear of repercussions. In other words, it’s a pretty good gig, if you can get it. 

In recent years, however, even the protection of tenure has worn thin. A tenured professor may not be easily fired for dissenting from the orthodoxy of the day (though even that, as former Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz discovered, is possible with a little creativity)—but he can be ostracized by his department and shut down by students. Life-long job security doesn’t mean life-long job satisfaction, and today’s universities are full of ideologues eager to make life a living hell for those who refuse to conform. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that some have begun to question whether tenure is worth keeping. Not only does it fail to protect many who are under attack—it also provides cover for those who would rather spend their time lambasting their colleagues than doing their jobs. 

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood considers the value of tenure and weighs the arguments for and against abolishing it. While tenure was first designed to preserve academic freedom, Dr. Wood writes that it “has become little more than a broken trellis for hundreds or perhaps thousands of tenured faculty members, who are well aware that tenure does little to protect them against colleagues and administrators who wish to silence, intimidate, or expel them.” 

Dr. Wood acknowledges that tenure can provide a method of recourse for persecuted professors who would otherwise be left defenseless. However, he suggests that academic freedom is better served in the long run by working to change the culture of higher education than by clinging to the little protection that tenure offers within a broken system. That may require phasing out tenure as part of a broader attempt to restore a culture of intellectual discovery and mutual respect within America’s universities. Or it may require starting from scratch and forming entirely new universities, with or without tenure. 

Whatever the method, the rebuilding project will require creativity, determination, and a commitment to intellectual freedom. Dr. Wood explains:

American higher education can come through its current spiritual and intellectual crisis only by taking the long view. And the long view in this case is that the human pursuit of knowledge has survived worse catastrophes than a system that rewards obsequious conformists and punishes independent thinkers. The truly independent may need to build new institutions, and there is no rule of nature that says we have to devote endless public support to colleges and universities that mean us no good.

The tenure we should care about is not the tenure within corrupt institutions, but the tenure of intellectual freedom. That we will possess only so long as we have the determination to keep it.

Intellectual freedom wasn’t born with tenure, and it won’t be saved by tenure. It’s time for besieged academics to stop clinging to their plastic shields and to start the long process of rebuilding. If that requires starting afresh, so be it. 

Until next week. 

P. S. The Virginia Association of Scholars notes with interest that the Virginia House and Senate have passed legislation allocating $100 million for university-run and publicly funded K-12 lab schools, which would be used to develop and test new education models for Virginia students. The Virginia affiliate has been closely following Governor Youngkin’s education reform proposals since the governor took office, and they will continue to monitor the lab school initiative as it develops. With good, principled leadership, the lab schools could provide a valuable opportunity to improve K-12 education throughout Virginia.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Erol Ahmed, Public Domain

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