Disincentivizing Dissent, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

Chris Beam misses a key point.  Faculty without tenure don't just keep silent out of fear of losing their chance at tenure. They keep silent out of fear of losing the employment they already have. Take away tenure, and that fear not only persists, but becomes permanent; there is no safe haven for any academics to speak freely from, without fear of reprisal.

Another writes:

As someone in academia, I don't think Beam has much an idea of what tenure really is or how it works. Tenure is really just an incentive to attract and keep the best talent in the field.  Does this type of long-term job security cost institutions more?  Yes, of course.  But the best scholars will go where they receive the most perks, and tenure is one of them - along with salary, research funds, etc.  I can't tell you how many faculty at my former research university were being recruited heavily with outside offers from other universities, but either had tenure or were then put up for tenure early, granted it, and stayed.  The university wanted to keep these scholars, and tenure is a big reason why it was able to.

Could tenure lead to complacency?  Sure, in some cases.  But most professional athletes don't stop competing when they sign long-term contracts (even if they know it will be the last of their carer), and in my experience, professors don't either.  They publish because they want to continue to make a name for themselves in the field and they teach because they often genuinely enjoy it and think it is an important job.

Do junior faculty ignore teaching because of the requirements of tenure?  That is utterly ridiculous.  The anecdote Beam mentions about the individual told to hide their teaching award is almost surely from an institution that doesn't value teaching much at all - before or after tenure.  At places where teaching is emphasized, such as small liberal arts colleges, rest assured that teaching is a BIG part of the tenure process.  But how much teaching is weighted is up to the institution, not dictated by the tenure process.


Tenure is often blamed for prioritizing research over teaching.  But this has nothing to do with tenure.

Faculty at research universities prioritize research over teaching because that is what their employer rewards.  Faculty at teaching colleges prioritize teaching over research because their employers have different priorities.  Tenure is one expression of the reward system, but so are pay raises.  Change university priorities and you will change faculty focus, whether or not tenure is at issue.

The quotation from Chris Beam that you posted yesterday does the same thing – it ascribes to tenure an effect that derives from elsewhere.  It is not tenure that disincentivizes young scholars from shaking things up.  It is the fact that they are being evaluated by their senior colleagues.  Any incentive system in which one is evaluated by one’s senior colleagues, including one based on term contracts, would have the same effect, perhaps even to a greater degree.


I left academia last year after fifteen years of teaching at three different institutions. I was never in a tenure-track job but was treated for the most part much better than most part-timers are. My experience confirms Beam's argument. All of these institutions claimed to be liberal arts colleges and claimed to value teaching and close relationships between faculty and students.  By the time professors achieve tenure, they are beaten down and have lost their voice. Alternatively, they have drunk the Kool-Aid and cheer-lead for the institution.


I'm writing you this quick note as an assistant professor of history who will come up for tenure in two years. My personal experience with writing my first book has been that tenured academics, starting with my graduate mentor and continuing with my senior colleagues now, have encouraged me to go out on a limb with my research questions and with my arguments. Every time I developed a new interpretation of well-known primary sources, my mentors in fact cheered me on.  I'm not sure if this qualifies as "dissent" in the true meaning of the word, but in my field of academia, revision of old arguments and development of new methodologies by junior scholars is encouraged.

Of course my own perceptions are just that - my own - but as a thought experiment (and I'll admit, I was procrastinating), I took all the books off my shelves in my home office that I have a) read and b) were written in the last ten years. This was a sample of 44. Of these, 17 were written by junior scholars (i.e., first books).  In a quick evaluation, I would say that ten of these were significant works of scholarship: they radically revised old knowledge, introduced new methods, introduced new sources, or found new ways of situating old material.  This says to me that untenured academics are both motivated by tenure to produce good work but are not intimidated by taking on older scholars and older interpretations.

I think there might be problems with tenure generally, but discouraging dissent isn't one of them. My sense is that most of the problems with tenure come from the other end: tenured professors who cease to be active scholars. I've seen that in a number of departments in a number of universities: the older professor who hasn't published anything in years, not even a conference paper. These folks are both poor scholars and poor teachers, and they're difficult to get rid of.  Most of the time universities penalize these people by preventing further promotions and limiting them to COL raises, but they still can't get rid of them.

There is talk about instituting a long-term contract system for academics instead of using tenure. I'm not sure what I think of that, and I'm not sure it would replace tenure's role in protecting academic freedom. But of course I am about to benefit from tenure myself, and I have to say, lifetime job security is pretty awesome. I promise not to ossify once I get there.