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.