How critical discourse about the future of higher education gets discouraged.

October 25, 2017

Tenure in academia is not about guaranteeing a job for life.  Rather, tenure is a protection for academic freedom.  The relationship between tenure and academic freedom is spelled out by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP):

"The principal purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education.”

When the modern conception of tenure was created - see the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure - it was intended to safeguard the ability of professors to their research.  There was an understanding that scholars needed to have protections, as their scholarship may be at odds with prevailing political and cultural sentiments and norms.

In 1940, it was faculty who needed the protections afforded by the principles of academic freedom and the system of tenure. Today, it is not only traditional faculty who engage in scholarship. 

Those members of the higher education community who are amongst the most vocal in their research and writing on potentially controversial issues may, in fact, not be professors at all.  They may be alternative academics.  And these alternative academics are amongst the most vulnerable, as they have no protections should their writing or speech give offense to those with power over them at their institutions.

The lack of academic freedom for alternative academics is ironic, given that academia itself is often the subject in which they study. 

Alternative academics spend their entire careers working to advance the missions of their institutions, and the postsecondary sector as a whole.  They are immersed in the business of the higher education.  This work at the institutional level gives alternative academics insights into what works, and what needs fixing.  Alternative academics must becomes students of higher education to do their jobs effectively.

Alternative academics have much to contribute to the critical discourse around postsecondary change.  These critiques of higher education, however, often remain unspoken - and unpublished - as the alternative academic’s job status could be in jeopardy as a result of whatever they say or write.

What we need to ask ourselves is what we are losing by not extending the protections of academic freedom to those who are thinking and writing about the academy? 

How often are controversial ideas that could lead to improvements in access and quality not openly debated and discussed because the person who has those ideas is an alternative academic?

Tenure, and the academic freedom that tenure protects, is not a license to engage in unhelpful criticism or attacks of the institution in which the tenured academic is employed.  With academic freedom comes responsibilities as well as rights, and one of those responsibilities is to act as a responsible citizen of the community in which one belongs. 

It is also true, however, that many alternative academics are very hesitant to write or say anything publicly that may have the chance of being perceived as going against the prevailing beliefs or actions of campus leaders.   

Alternative academics must always worry if their writing or speaking might be detrimental to their careers, particularly if what they have to say is critical.  My sense is that traditional academics - those with tenure - often don’t recognize the degree to which their alternative academics colleagues feel a need to exercise self-imposed restraint on sharing their ideas and scholarship.

We should be having a discussion within our communities about how the principles of academic freedom relate to those who think and write about higher education, and who do so from their roles as (non-tenurable) alternative academics.


Back to Top