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It is no secret that higher education is facing multiple threats from a variety of sources, and it seems that each new day brings more dire news. Reductions in governmental funding, the impending “enrollment cliff,” increased resistance to efforts supporting equity and inclusion, spiraling student costs, reductions in tenured and permanent faculty positions, partisan takeovers of state university systems, the rise of artificial intelligence products such as ChatGPT, and countless other challenges currently face higher education. These concerns have transformed reading each day’s news about the profession into a harrowing experience.

If the continued existence of college and university educational offerings that are affordable, accessible, equitable, meaningful and liberally oriented (in the classical, rather than political, sense of that term) is something that society holds dear, we are then left with a question—just who, exactly, needs to be defending these ideals?

Historically, higher education has rested on the dual presumptions that society intrinsically valued its existence and that a broadly educated citizenry is critical for a functioning democracy. Because of these suppositions, existing structures and systems in higher education have not been well equipped to muster a defense against several recent existential threats. In many cases, trustees have taken on overtly partisan or ideologically narrow views of their work and strayed from their mission of supporting broad and inclusive educational outcomes at the institutions they claim to serve. Politicians have also proven themselves to be of little help and often appear ready and willing to gut educational structures and systems simply to gain political points. The role of institutional presidents and chancellors has become increasingly centered around fundraising and glorified public relations and these leaders face pressures to bow to demands (often unreasonable, politically motivated and not based in logic or fact) from trustees, donors, parents and everyday citizens. And institutions themselves are now largely operated by nonpermanent and/or non-tenure-line faculty, staff and administrators who predominantly serve in an at-will capacity and are in no position to provide meaningful resistance against problematic policies or senseless decrees dictated from above.

This somber reality places a critical responsibility on tenured faculty and, especially, tenured full professors. Countless words have been written about the “ages and stages” of faculty careers, but the obligation of tenured full professors to serve as effective institutional caretakers, advocates and defenders is often not sufficiently emphasized. Following their final promotion, tenured full professors typically no longer face the absolute ongoing requirement of publishing and engaging in research and traditional service roles in ways that would produce a compelling promotions and tenure case. After achieving the rank of full, some faculty (myself included, if I’m being honest) may feel as though they’ve worked hard to reach that career milestone and are deserving of some rest. And unfortunately, due to burnout or personal indolence, some may be further tempted by the perceived ease of riding out the rest of their academic careers as institutional “deadwood.”

As a tenured full professor, I emphatically reject such notions and implore all my tenured senior faculty colleagues to do the same. Tenure exists, in part, to provide a specific type of protection that allows for faculty to participate in shared governance meaningfully and effectively. Tenured full professors have been provided a relatively secure intellectual space to continue their work, in ways that allow for reasonable intellectual risk taking in teaching, research and institutional service. In return for this, these faculty are obligated to preserve and defend that space against all threats. The privileges conferred to tenured full professors are unique, and faculty must utilize these protections in the service and support of colleagues across their institution.

Tenured full professors must weaponize their unique privilege in defense of the academic spaces we all hold dear. No hero will be swooping in to support our institutions—we must take on that responsibility to do this hard (and sometimes painful and personally detrimental) work ourselves. We must always stand up, speak up and support programs and colleagues who are vulnerable or marginalized and can’t fully advocate for or defend themselves. This includes, but is not limited to, adjunct instructors and other faculty who lack the security of full-time or permanent contracts, departments and programs that are threatened by contraction or closure due to misguided perceptions of their relevance, as well as those facing negative repercussions from the ongoing ignorant backlash against diversity/equity/inclusion efforts, “woke” curricula and critical race theory.

Tenured full professors need to be particularly attentive to and intentional in providing support to colleagues and programs that are engaged in the difficult work of enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion at our institutions. Colleagues engaged in these efforts are often expected to shoulder an excessive amount of emotional labor; tenured full professors have a responsibility to meaningfully share this burden. This is especially needed in states like Florida, where public university system employees engaged in DEI spaces are facing the elimination of financial support, program and office closure, and potential or actual termination of their employment.

Academia is replete with tenured full professors who are vocal and indignant regarding the attacks being launched against DEI initiatives. Unfortunately, when opportunities arise to engage in the difficult work of promoting change, these very same people often fail to do anything real to support equity efforts or stand behind faculty and staff colleagues who are engaged in this hard work and facing attacks for their efforts.

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed significant criticism of supposed “allies” to the cause of racial justice who speak of solidarity but do little in the way of demonstrable actions to actively support change—people who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” who prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Out of all the people on a college/university payroll, tenured full professors are the employment class afforded the most degree of protection and comfort. We must never be complacent in our own relative contentment and must remain ever intentional about placing ourselves on the very front lines in the work of promoting the “positive peace” of which King wrote.

Tenured full professors have no greater professional responsibility than to support and fight for colleagues and programs that are stressed and under attack. Acting as a passive ally is simply not enough. Tenured full professors must function as active advocates and co-conspirators for institutional disruption and change; we must stand up against those who would wish to see the standing and impact of our educational institutions eroded, our programs devalued, and our colleagues marginalized and silenced. Anything less is a gross dereliction of professional duty.

Mathew H. Gendle is director of Project Pericles and a (tenured full) professor of psychology at Elon University.

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