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Why tenure matters: Protecting freedom of thought in our universities
Research should not be influenced by politics
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Understanding Tenure and Its Role in Universities
Tenure is a fundamental part of a great university. Tenure is not a job-for-life guarantee nor does it mean a faculty member can’t be fired. Rather, it means that you can’t be fired because of what you research or what your research shows.
This protection is crucial because it empowers professors to question established ideas, challenge common beliefs, and tackle controversial topics without fear of losing their jobs.
When people attack tenure, you should ask them what problem they’re trying to solve. Often, the complaints are a response to faculty expressing an upopular opinion, e.g., a professor voicing a perspective on gender or race that clashes with a politician’s views.
This is exactly what tenure protects! Do you want faculty at universities to self censor if what they research and talk about will upset politicians? This would effectivly cede control of research to politicians.
Tenure and Climate Change: A Personal Perspective
As a climate scientist working in Texas, I can tell you that tenure is not just important — it's essential. Without the security of tenure, I might have chosen to stay quiet about my research and findings, worrying about whether my contract would be renewed if I spoke up.
A common misconception you may hear is that climate scientists are financially incentivized to assert that climate change is a serious problem. It echoes the famous Upton Sinclair quote, It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. This accusation implies that our research conclusions are tainted by financial motives.
However, the very nature of tenure contradicts this argument. As a tenured professor, I'm granted the academic freedom to express my views, research controversial topics, and present my findings without fear of losing my job. The institution of tenure serves as an assurance that my statements about climate change are based solely on scientific evidence and professional expertise, not on the need to protect a paycheck1.
Tenure as a Safeguard for Diverse Views
Some of you might think that forcing climate scientists to be quiet is a good thing. After all, some of you do not want to hear that climate change is real, it’s us, it’s bad, scientists agree, and there’s hope.
But here's the thing: tenure doesn't just protect views you disagree with — it protects all views. Consider this hypothetical situation: a conservative professor who supports Trump loses their position because his colleagues simply don't want a Trump supporter on the faculty. This would be a clear violation of the principle of academic freedom, but without tenure, it could easily happen.
The Senate blinked
Rep. John Kuempel, who authored the House's version of SB 18, said the bill provides a framework to the state's universities about what the Legislature expects regarding tenure, including how tenure is granted to faculty members, how tenured faculty are reviewed and when tenured faculty can be dismissed.
Faculty at TAMU already live under rules like this, so I don’t expect it to be a big deal for us. The important thing about TAMU’s policy is that faculty are evaluated by other faculty and not by administrators or state bureaucrats. Because the evaluation is done by peers who understand and respect academic freedom, the system works well.
The Damange is already done
But that doesn’t mean that Texas has escaped unscathed. Even though we avoided the worst-case scenario, damage to Texas public research universities has already been done.
The Texas Tribune has a story about how the tenure debate recently derailed the Univ. of Texas’ recruitment of a senior academic from another university. The candidate was quoted in the article as saying:
“I must admit I have been closely following the activities of the Texas Legislature for the past couple of weeks, which has highlighted to me some potential risks that were not in the front of my mind at the outset of this process,” he wrote.
“What I saw is signs that the institution was maybe being politicized in a way that might undermine the mission of the university and what I would want to do there,” he told the Tribune. “If I moved from my current job, which is a decent job, to UT, what kind of intellectual community can I build there?”
Postscript: Here’s an interview I did with our local TV station about this last week, before the Senate agreed to the House’s version. Note that this interview makes it sound like I am worried about losing tenure; to be clear, the bills being considered will not affect the tenure of anyone who already has it (i.e., me).
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This is different from most of the prominent climate contrarians, whose paycheck is often directly connected to their message.