Are tenured professors more likely to speak freely?

University professors often have robust job security after a time: they receive tenure. It means that they usually do not have to worry about applying for a new job after a few years.

Tenure is not available in all countries. Countries like Australia reassess positions every few years.

So why does it exist where it does?

One of the justifications for tenure is that professors who have tenure can speak more freely. Thus, in theory, they can be critical of government or corporate policies.

Do they? What would “speaking freely” entails?

What about denouncing a colleague who commits blatant fraud? On this front, the evidence is not great. Diederik Stapel published well over 100 research papers in prestigious journals. He was fired when it was determined that he was making up all of his research data. It took outsiders (students) to report him. Harvard professor Marc Hauser published over 200 papers in the best journals, making up data as he went. It took naive students to report the fraud. We find too many examples of over fraud in science, and rarely do we find that the close colleagues, the ones who should first spot the problems, report them. Brian Wansink was another famous professor who published countless papers based on fraudulent practices. It took media pressure as well as an investigation lead by a non-academic book publisher to take him down. I could go on. Professors rarely denounce other professors.

What about teaching controversial courses or engaging in disliked research? Ceci et al. found little evidence:

The findings from the present survey suggest that tenure itself does not result in faculty members routinely teaching courses that their senior colleagues disfavor, nor in their conducting research that their senior colleagues dislike.

Whenever professors tell me that they feel free to hold controversial ideas thanks to their tenure… I ask about the positions that they took recently that would endanger their job security if not for tenure. I might also ask about the positions that they might take that would endanger their chances of getting a research grant?

I should make it clear that being an advocate for transgenders’ rights or climate change is not controversial in 2021. I am looking for examples where a lone professor goes against the majority and would otherwise loose their job.

If not themselves, then I might ask about other professors that did so. And we will find some of them. In Canada, we have Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto, for example. Yet I do not consider Peterson particularly controversial. In fact, at the core, Peterson is merely a politically conservative professor. We used to  have a healthy share of politically conservative professors. It is only in the academy that it is highly troublesome to be politically conservative. A truly controversial professor was Denis Rancourt who thought important to question the foundation of the academy. Sadly Rancourt was fired (tenure did not protect him). I might throw in with Rancourt people like Bret Weinstein, Kathleen Stock and so forth.

So while tenure might protect professors  if they want to hold controversial ideas… professors are trained to seek prestige: they avoid serious controversy when they can. Holding controversial views puts one’s reputation in danger. The overwhelming majority will never publicly hold controversial views. They are happy to go along with whatever is the policy of the day, whatever is fashionable.

It does not follow the tenure is useless. It appears that tenured professor are often more productive. Indeed, it is possible that if you do not have to worry about where your next job will be, you can concentrate more on your teaching and your research.

More content: Gad Saad and Pat Kambhampati are controversial tenured professors in Montreal. They are not the average professor.

Daniel Lemire, "Are tenured professors more likely to speak freely?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, November 27, 2021.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Are tenured professors more likely to speak freely?”

  1. Seriously? Tenure is not just about politically unpopular opinions. Lots of people work in fields where their politics are irrelevant. Tenure allows you to pursue research without worrying about the market (whether economic or intellectual). For an engineer, that might mean studies of new materials with no immediate practical application. For an historian it might mean the study of an event that will not draw an immediately large readership. The freedom to express political views is a side benefit that’s largely unrelated to the job (for most people), and tenure is a professional institution related to the job.

  2. In Israel, tenure has definitely allowed a significant number of academics to espouse views the government disapproves of. Some of them occasionally face calls for termination from students, public figures and even government ministers.

    In the US, there are occasional examples of lack of tenure (or tenure being only pending rather than in effect) allowing for penalization of academics for controversial views, in cases such as those of Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita, and more recently Cornell West.

    Still, a more fundamental point is that “tenure” is not a special privilege which should be justified. It is the ludicrous and outrageous default situation of “employment at will” which needs to be challenged for other workplaces.

    1. My blog post does not advocate against tenure… merely against one common justification.

      It seems that West had tenure at Princeton and other schools but was not considered for tenure at Harvard. So it seems unlikely that lack of tenure prevented West from speaking up. Even so, West is clearly someone with tenure who speaks up. It is also possible that West would speak up just as much without tenure. Nevertheless I would count him as a counter example to my blog post.

      The other examples you provide, of people denied tenure because of their controversial views, are interesting but they do not go against the statement I make in my blog post and may in fact make it stronger. To get tenure in the first place, it seems helpful to show that you are not the kind of person who would advance controversial views, teach courses that your colleagues disapprove of or pursue research interest that may make you in trouble with the management of your school.

      Of course, if you stay quiet for half a decade and get tenure then, in theory, you could now speak up. But that seems contrary to human nature. Furthermore there are strong forces that will entice you to stay quiet for the rest of your career.

      Let me repeat that my blog post does not advocate for abolishing tenure.

  3. True, it is hard to find tenured faculty brave enough to express controversial ideas. One other example that falls in to my mind is that of Alessandro Strumia of the university of Pisa. He did not lose his job, but the media and public response got him suspended for a while. The power of the media and social media is huge, and thus people and tenured faculty members get more careful in what they say.

    In addition i think that there is a mechanism, that uses your argument in reverse: Because tenured faculty theoretically has the freedom to express controversial idea’s, universities and hiring committees might select and filter for people with very conventional opinions that fit in the “old-boys” network well. In addition current way of education, and grading, mainly focuses on aspects of intelligence related to how well individuals can conform to their environment (“the system”), which could cause considerable selection bias.

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