A reader writes:

I am an academic on tenure track, and I want to raise an important point about tenure that I don’t think has been addressed in these conversations yet. Measured on an individual level, I am not sure what the effects of tenure are. Like the historian in a prior post, my own and other junior faculty work is often critical of established stuff. I don’t fear being blackballed on that basis. Really, things aren’t like that (as long as one is intellectually rigorous). Academics themselves are generally interested in shaking things up, and challenges, and so forth (after all, a good challenge to one’s own position represents an opportunity to publish refutations).

The more important role of tenure is protection from vagaries of non-academic opinion. That is, protection of the academic process. There is lots of research that is a nice, fat juicy target for politics, and lots of research that threatens important interests. Consider: embryonic stem cell research, climate science, genetically engineered foods, public health research on tobacco, trans fats, sugar, etc.  Is there any question after “climategate” that people would like to go after climate scientists’ livelihoods?  Tenure means that firings must be for cause - fraud, criminal conduct, harassment, etc.  Not for drummed up reasons in the service of politics.

Attacks can come for all manner political reasons, and the scholar’s field can be anything.

Animal rights folks go after primate researchers (and other animal researchers), extreme pro-lifers can go after stem cell researchers, climate change deniers (or people with vested interests in fossil fuels) can go after climate scientists, feminists can go after Larry Summers (note that one thing that was NOT threatened was his livelihood - administrative positions aren’t protected, only the faculty aspect of one’s position). John Yoo. Elizabeth Warren. Robert Bork. Remember the PC wars in the '90s? Complaints and public excoriation for insensitivity (real or imagined) is one thing; potential loss of livelihood is another.

Note that these kind of attacks on scholarship are MORE likely to come against tenured people because senior faculty have actually had the time to develop powerful research streams and put together programs that are robust enough to be compelling and threatening.

Here’s my best guess: the academic working on projects early in her career probably isn’t too worried about generating enough controversy to get her fired. She pursues interesting and important questions. Controversial papers get published because they are fun to read, and controversy (i.e., academic disagreement, not scandal) gets one’s name out there. But down the road, answers to interesting and important questions (or further, deeper interesting and important questions) piss people off. And we don’t know who they will piss off, and what kind of controversy will be set in motion. That’s the worry: good researchers will get timid because the course of their lifelong research starts to piss people off.

I’ll note, too, that I do not believe that an academic is free to do anything at any time. We can legislate restrictions on stem cells or primates, and grants can dry up or bloom in different places according to our political priorities. Those things can make academics’ careers less fulfilling and fruitful and more stressful, but they don’t threaten researchers’ livelihoods in the same way that absence of tenure does. Such a drastic threat can wreak havoc on the integrity of research, and on the research process as a whole

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