A commentary by a tenure-track Harvard professor became smashing hit in the twitterosphere. When we say ‘twitterosphere’, we are leaving aside the vast territories occupied by @ladygaga and her 39 million followers, and focus on the academic sub-part with mostly graduate students, post-docs, young faculties and one Dan Graur, who turned 60 yesterday (congratulations Dr. Graur !!) .
We will not nitpick on the fact in the real world, nobody gets a secured seven year (or even seven month) job, the original purpose of tenure was not to give a secured life-long employment to academics. Instead let us focus on the original purpose of tenure.
In the 19th century, university professors largely served at the pleasure of the board of trustees of the university. Sometimes, major donors could successfully remove professors or prohibit the hiring of certain individuals; nonetheless, a de facto tenure system existed. Usually professors were only fired for interfering with the religious principles of a college, and most boards were reluctant to discipline professors. The courts rarely intervened in dismissals.
In one debate of the Cornell Board of Trustees, in the 1870s, a businessman trustee argued against the prevailing system of de facto tenure, but lost the argument. Despite the power retained in the board, academic freedom prevailed.
In 1900, the presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago each made clear that no donor could any longer dictate faculty decisions; such a donors contribution would be unwelcome. In 1915, this was followed by the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) declaration of principlesthe traditional justification for academic freedom and tenure.
In a nutshell, it takes a lot of outside money to run a university, and university administrators made sure the academics could say or write whatever they wanted and not fear about pissing off the sponsors.
Today the biggest chunk of money for those universities come from the government (federal and state), which established near monopoly on providing funding. Academics are shit scared of criticizing the government, the funding overlords and so on, because they may lose on their next grant application.
Every once in a while, we receive private emails from professors and respected scientists saying ‘I completely agree with what you wrote, but I am afraid to say that in public’. That makes sense, because academics are afraid of retribution in the next grant application. It is no surprise that very few biologists chose to point out the ENCODE empire is naked (80.4% of human genome functional !!).
Today the academics are emasculated, and universities are getting political hacks as their president. You can check the fiasco going on in Purdue University. University of California got Janet Napolitano as their new president. It is unbelievable that such a big university system could not find a scholar to fill up the spot.
Given that the context of academia has changed, what exactly does ‘tenure’ mean today? What is the ‘seven-year postdoc’ lady striving to achieve?