teaching, tenure, and academic freedom

As events continue to unfold in Wisconsin, defenses of tenure are popping up in various places. For the most part, these are focused on how weakening tenure would 1) limit academic freedom, 2) drive faculty to other universities, and 3) subject them to political reprisals.

These are all true. One only has to think about climate research, or UNC’s Poverty Center, to realize that the threat to academic freedom is very real.

What is less clear is why the public should care. Sure, some will. But lots of people believe climate science is corrupt, and that centers like UNC’s are inappropriately political. Any good defense of the public university—of tenure within it or support for it more generally—has to appeal to a broad swath of people.

I suggested the other day that the business community cares about science, and that that is one potential source of support for higher ed, at least, if not necessarily for tenure. But what the average American cares about most with regard to universities is not science, but teaching.

And here…crickets.

Clay Shirky argued at Crooked Timber that in fact professors don’t do very much teaching, and when the public learns this they will revolt. I think he sees the world too much through the lens of NYU, and that if you look at the higher ed field as a whole, there is lots of teaching going on, including by tenure-track faculty.

But where he is right is that what most people outside higher ed care about is not research, but teaching. Fortunately, there are strong arguments to be made that link tenure and teaching quality. For example, Mikaila pointed out in the comments that

performance funding initiatives which emphasize on-time graduation rates would tend to encourage a decrease in academic rigor so that students make adequate academic progress and do not fail or withdraw from courses–something we could easily achieve by giving our students open-book fill-in-the-blank tests with As for all. It is tenure which protects us from such a demand and thus tenure that gives us the best chance of ensuring that students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality, rigorous education that challenges them and helps them learn and develop the skills which will benefit them economically, socially, culturally, and personally for the rest of their lives.

These are the kinds of arguments that are likely to have traction. Not that tenure is good for professors, or things like academic freedom that a minority of people care about. But tenure is good for students.

The flip side of that is that we can’t profess that tenure helps students and then denigrate or simply neglect teaching. Nor can we go along with “I won’t grade you too hard as long as you don’t demand too much.” Nor is this position compatible with allowing the system to continue to survive on contingent labor.

I’m still working out what the ethical thing to do is as someone who is (as we all are, in one way or another) caught up in this system. One thing I’m pretty sure about, though: appealing to faculty self-interest is not a winning strategy for gaining public support.

Written by epopp

June 11, 2015 at 8:15 am

12 Responses

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  1. Why should researchers teach anyway? Why not have professional researchers doing research and publishing on one side, and professional teachers reading the scientific lit, learning pedagogy, and teaching on the other? Even PhD students could start out by learning from teachers, and then move on to apprentice with a researcher. What do we gain by having the same people do both tasks, specially at the undergrad level, or in professional schools?

    If debates about tenure will hinge on its value to research OR education, we need to articulate better why the two activities are packaged together.

    Liked by 2 people


    June 11, 2015 at 1:24 pm

  2. Coiff, research makes me a better teacher. And teaching makes me a better scholar.

    On the first, the best way to truly know a subfield is by working in it. Designing studies, writing, and navigating peer review teaches you a topic in a depth that reading alone cannot. Our students deserve teachers who are actively engaged with their colleagues and the state of the art.

    For the second, articulating the state of the art to students helps me understand how different pieces fit together. And it can shed new light on topics when refracted from the new minds of the students. The classroom has directly given me peer reviewed publications.

    Academic freedom protects this synthesis and helps to give students the opportunity to learn from the best. Without it, we are no more than another set of secondary school teachers.



    June 11, 2015 at 3:20 pm

  3. Tenure attracts highly-skilled people into academic research and higher ed. Without the institution of tenure, we would not be able to attract faculty with skills that the market values (e.g., data science, anything to do with business administration or technology, applied research skills) for the salaries we pay. I wonder how much more money people would need to earn to stay in their present position without tenure or the prospects of getting it.



    June 11, 2015 at 6:11 pm

  4. Point of reference: The average base salary of a manager at Wawa (a big mid-Atlantic convenience store chain) (,20.htm) is more than the average salary of an assistant professor in the social sciences, and not so far off the salary of an associate professor (



    June 11, 2015 at 6:18 pm

  5. @jnc – Wawa managers make $68k?!

    I don’t know, clearly tenure’s a form of compensation, but I think a lot of what people value about academia is autonomy and intellectual freedom. If you got rid of tenure, but kept the autonomy, I bet it wouldn’t make a huge difference. Hard to say, though.

    @Coiff – I’m not totally convinced either that there’s enough synergy between research and teaching to justify the close link, even though there’s clearly some. But they are so tightly paired in the U.S. that it’s hard to imagine another way of doing things. I guess hiring more teaching faculty on long-term contracts would be a step in that direction.



    June 11, 2015 at 6:46 pm

  6. @epopp Apparently Wawa managers do make that much, though this isn’t an ironclad data source. I remember seeing an ad at a store on a family trip down to DC. The ad touted an $80k salary and extensive benefits. I was struck because that roughly sounded like the comp package that I earn, with my 12 years of postsecondary education.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 11, 2015 at 6:54 pm

  7. Not only do I love Wawa, now I want to work there.

    Liked by 2 people


    June 11, 2015 at 8:33 pm

  8. I agree with cwalken. I think, contrary to popular perception, research and teaching can and should be mutually reinforcing. Being active in research keeps teachers on the cutting edge of their fields and teaching helps keep researchers grounded in communicating the most important findings in their fields to the public.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 11, 2015 at 8:36 pm

  9. To me, tenure is one of the few institutions in society that guarantees freedom of speech for everyone–and this is a point I would like to see made to a broader audience. The U.S. is an individualistic society, and we think of freedom of speech in individualistic terms. But as good social scientists, we all know that individual freedom would be nothing without institutional supports. Higher education–in the classroom and in our publications–is one of the few institutions in our society in which freedom of speech is actually guaranteed (insert all necessary qualifications here). Take tenure away, and you take away one of the foundations of a free, democratic society.



    June 11, 2015 at 8:45 pm

  10. There are lots of good practices that are a tough sell with majorities, and tenure is one. Free speech is another. You could find plenty of people to take jobs a lot worse than ours without the promise of tenure. Indeed, Corinthian et al. made plenty of money doing exactly that. I doubt that compensation for talent in the market is an argument that wins in the public arena. The stronger argument (although one I’m not sure that carries the day) is that guarantees of due process allow us to do our jobs, even if it’s not popular. Mark Regnerus, Noam Chomsky, Michael Behe, and Jerry Hough have jobs. They can enter public debates, take unpopular positions, and pursue unpopular ideas. I could give difficult tests and even give low grades without fearing retribution.

    PS I am a Wawa fan, but I like my job better.


    David S. Meyer

    June 11, 2015 at 9:27 pm

  11. Personally, I don’t find it too difficult to make the argument that research engagement is crucial to my teaching–but that is in part because 1/3-1/2 of my annual teaching load is in research methods courses, and teaching such courses without being at least somewhat engaged in research would produce a stale, uninspiring, and substandard experience for my students–I use examples from my own research all the time, especially when getting students through the terror of learning SPSS. And my research also sometimes provides opportunities for undergraduates to work with me on projects, an activity that pays enormous dividends. The same argument can be made for anyone who teaches graduate students, obviously. Perhaps this is not equally true in all fields, but in any case, the problem is NOT that it is hard to explain how our involvement in research benefits our students–the problem is that we do not make the explanation proactively. We need to be talking clearly about our scholarship and its connection to our teaching to our students and to other audiences. And, in response to @David S. Meyer’s point, we also need to be talking about why scholars’ ability to express unpopular opinions is important to the educational functions we–and our institutions–serve (which I also think is an easy position to support).

    Liked by 1 person


    June 12, 2015 at 3:24 am

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