You probably have heard about the extraordinary case of Nikole Hannah-Jones at my university (UNC-Chapel Hill).   Offered a prestigious chaired position in the Department of Journalism, a chair that has always brought with it “tenure,” the university Board of Trustees, comprised, of course, of people who are not academics with expertise in journalism, chose not to grant her tenure, even though the department itself strongly advocated for it.  I have never heard of that happening before.

Of course, given the fact that the Board has to give its approval before tenure is granted, it was completely within its legal right not to give its approval.  But no one on the planet thinks it is an accident that Hannah-Jones – who is 20-year veteran journalist with the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner for journalism (!), and winner of the (incredibly prestigious) MacArthur Genius grant – is famous for her work developing the “1619 Project” avidly promoting an alternative understanding of American history in light of the history of slavery and the contributions made by African Americans, AND that the legislature of the state of North Carolina (which, through a series of mechanisms, has ultimate oversight of higher education in the state: most of the Trustees on the board at UNC Chapel Hill are appointed by the Board of Governors of the entire UNC system who are elected by the state legislature) is comprised overwhelmingly of rightwing Republicans, many of whom are outspokenly opposed to providing alternative understandings of slavery, white supremacy, BLM, systematic racism, and so on.

In saying all this I believe I am simply stating the facts; different sides of the dispute will propose rather radically different interpretations of them.   So I ain’t gonna go there in this context.  INSTEAD I want to talk about the issue of “tenure” per se, and why it matters.

Even before this case arose, there have been questions for years about tenure for college and university professors.  To an outsider, it can certainly seem very weird indeed.  You mean you can’t be fired??

Tenure is the system by which (some) professors at most colleges and universities are guaranteed employment until retirement apart from serious infringement of widely accepted standards of ethics and / or competence.   In other words, unless a professor commits a serious act of moral turpitude or becomes completely incompetent in fulfilling her or his duties to teaching and service, they cannot be fired.

But other jobs don’t work like that, right?  If you’re not doing the job well, if you’re causing more problems that you’re worth, or if there are other issues,  you can just be fired.  Not for a college/university professor?   So, what gives?  Is this a good idea?

Oh boy is this a good idea.  I can’t tell you how good this idea is.  I don’t mean simply good for the individual fortunate enough to have tenure.  I mean good for the educational system of our country.  If we didn’t have a system of tenure, higher education would be torpedoed, and there would be no hope of salvage.

Here’s the deal.  Professors are experts in their fields of study.  At a place like UNC, which is a major research university, professors are expected not only to know a lot but to *produce* new knowledge.  That’s what research does.  We generate knowledge.  And we teach what we know and learn.  If that didn’t happen, then professors of geology, chemistry, physics, anthropology, history, religion, etc. would be teaching the same things they were teaching a hundred years ago.  Think about that, for each of these fields.   The progress of the human race DEPENDS on advances in knowledge.  And the university system is one of the MAJOR places where these advances occur.

The problem is that advances can NOT occur if professors are bound to “toe the line” in setting forth views known and accepted widely in the general public.   Here’s just one example out of a million:  If the general public believes the world was created in 6000 BC and that life began with Adam and Eve, and that anyone who denies it is a danger to society – think of all the departments in a university that would simply cease to have a meaningful existence:  they would include physics, astronomy, geology, biology, history, anthropology, religious studies.  That’s just one topic.  If a professor cannot teach what experts know/think/discover without fear of being fired, even if these views run counter to what people would like to think or that people in power want to promote, we’re screwed.

Freedom of speech is ESSENTIAL to higher education.   If those in power could legislate (or in other ways enforce)  what had to be taught, we’d be back in … well, back in 1984 (in the Orwellian sense).

For the past century that has been at least as true in my field as almost any other.  Just speaking personally:  if voters in North Carolina who have no training in the fields of New Testament or Early Christianity were allowed to decide what could and could not be taught in one of my courses, I would have been out of a job on day one.   The findings of biblical scholarship are highly offensive to many people, including many very rich people, including many very powerful people, including many very politically active people.

Let me say, for the record, that I absolutely LOVE North Carolina and the University of North Carolina; I have had nothing but incredibly enjoyable, productive, and gratifying relationships with the people I know in university system – from members of the Board of Trustees, to high-level administrators, to mid-level administrators, to low-level administrators, to faculty colleagues, to grad students, to undergrads.  I feel highly appreciated and well rewarded.   On the personal level, I have almost no complaints.

But without a system of tenure, it would all be different.  I would have to be careful and watchful.  I know people in that situation around the country in higher education, who have to toe the line or be dismissed (they either don’t have tenure or teach in schools that require certain perspectives to be taught).  For me to function as a bona fide researcher and teacher, I have to be free to teach what I have come to see as true after many years of diligent research, without fear of reprisal.

That’s why every tenure case matters and is so important to the working of the system.

Here is a brief overview of some widely unknown facts about tenure:

  • Most faculty members at lots of colleges/universities do not have tenure. They are term-appointments (hired for a period, subject to renegotiation), adjunct faculty (termporary, often semester-by-semester appointments), etc.
  • If a person is hired right out of grad school, into a position that has the potential of tenure (a “tenure-track” position, they normally have a six-year probation period where they more or less have to prove themselves worthy of tenure.
  • In almost every institution of higher learning, the “proof” involves quality in three areas: research, teaching, and service (serving on committees, public outreach, etc.)
  • Most places *claim* that those three areas are equally weighted, but they almost NEVER are. At some smaller colleges it’s all about teaching, or service, or both.  At a research university, the HEAVY weight is on research.    You can be the best teacher on the planet, but if you haven’t published, forget it.  You won’t get tenure.  You just won’t.  Hey, it’s a RESEARCH university.
  • Different departments have different standards for tenure. Some fields of study (psychology, sciences) it is all about articles in academic journals.  In others (most humanities) it is about books and articles.
  • In my department, the general rule of thumb is that the candidate, at the time of coming up for tenure, needs to have a book published in a respectable academic press (a serious monograph, not a trade book; not a text book), along with 5-7 academic articles in reputable journals, and evidence of other scholarly activities (reading academic papers at conferences; editing journals; encyclopedia articles; etc.)
  • This is really tough. Some instructors just don’t make it.  But everyone knows the rules of the game coming in, so it’s set up so there will not be surprises.

That’s why the Hannah-Jones case is so serious.  If brought in with tenure, as has always happened with everyone else who was awarded this position, she could not be fired for offending anyone who did not appreciate her scholarship or views.  To be sure, without tenure, she will certainly teach what her research has uncovered; but there is no assurance that the institution will allow her to do so.  This is not good for the system.

Freedom of speech doesn’t just mean that you yourself get to say whatever you like.  It means allowing people to speak when you DISAGREE with them.   Tenure guarantees (except in extreme cases) the right to freedom of speech.  Without it our entire educational system would be blasted into oblivion.