When you hear the word tenure, you’re more than likely imagining the countless groans from a certain subset of pundits who think that’s it’s a magical ticket for an academic to do nothing and keep his or her job no matter what. Of course the reality is not quite as dire. Tenure has never, ever been a guaranteed job for life with no requirements. In fact, tenure is a reward for a really productive academic bringing in millions in grants and paying his or her salary, as well as for a whole lot of lab equipment and graduate students. You have to be really good at both research and raising money to even have a shot at it, and once you’re tenured, you could still be fired for doing bad science, or any other offense pretty much any of us would consider to be reasonable grounds for termination. Really, the only two things tenure would grant you is a reprieve from a committee laying you off for being only really good, not exceptionally amazing, and the right not to be fired on the spot, but after a hearing to decide if any of your offenses were actually worthy of termination and you’re not a target of retaliation, political malfeasance, or discrimination.
Sadly, for the politicians who made up their mind that tenure is just a way for scientists to bilk a few million tax payers in their states while they do nothing useful, and abuse the law to make it illegal to fire them for this egregious abuse of public funds, there’s plenty of popular support to simply do away with it. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker did just that by giving public colleges the power to fire any academic for any reason they could portray as remotely plausible. Instead of any guaranteed due process, a political appointee could simply decide that the research being done by the scientist “needs redirection or modification,” or that it’s not in the budget and that’s that. Obviously, academics are upset and one public college had to spend $9 million to keep at least some of the researchers it had so it could hold on to $18 million in grant money. But what happens if the scientists UW-Madison kept still feel threatened that if Walker or an appointee of his really doesn’t like what their experiments uncovered, or get upset that a paper challenges a partisan orthodoxy to which they’re particularly attached and suddenly, the program is just way too expensive and needs “realignment,” meaning that the academic is no longer needed?
Sure, there are definitely professors who abuse their tenure and use their perch to indulge in a variety of unsavory conspiracy theories, but changing or even removing tenure to punish them simply isn’t worth it because it creates a precedent in which important but unpopular speech all too easily gets silenced. Researchers and academics need to be intellectually independent, not beholden to their colleges and the political beliefs of the people who run it, fearing retaliation in response to unflattering scientific findings. If an owner of a sugar company can dismantle a lab where scientists were testing how excess sugar consumption can cause diabetes, that’s both a huge blow for science and public policy. Conversely, should UC-Berkeley dismiss the notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, it would lose his promising work on cancer genetics. And when the University of Colorado finally decided to get rid of the human Gowdin that is Ward Churchill, his incendiary essays weren’t the reason, it was his plagiarism and academic fraud that got him fired. If anything, his dismissal proves that the system works and that tenured academics aren’t immune from investigation and punishment if their science is even somewhat suspect.
I agree that we need be firing subpar scientists, frauds, and do-nothings, but we already do that when they’re tenured. To force good scientists to depend on the will of politicians and the mood of special interests which thrive in partisan echo chambers under the excuse of punishing those supposedly invincible bad apples would turn the scientific process into a groupthink exercise. If you can be fired simply for not parroting a party line or offending a powerful donor, why risk the trouble? This is how think tanks do their “research,” not universities, and if we want to fulfill the crude stereotype of colleges being propaganda mills, there’s no better way to do that than to do away with tenure. But then again, I really don’t think that those pushing for tenure’s repeal have much interest in independent scientists challenging long accepted dogmas or diving into a really controversial topic. They like their science pliant and rigged to produce data they agree with so their worldview never has to change. And they’re doing the equivalent of telling scientists that’s they’ve got awfully nice tenure and such well funded and ran labs, asking whether it would it be a real shame if something happened to all that should their next study be… disagreeable.