Discussions of Tenure
Wednesday I had a very pleasant hour–long conversation with a student and we talked about an amazing range of topics. One of them was tenure. I don’t remember how it came up and she expressed her opinion that the elimination of the tenure system would be a good thing because, in her mind, it let bad professors stay in their job and nothing could happen to them. I agreed there are cases of deadwood, but explained that the purpose of tenure was to protect the academic freedom of good faculty to explore controversial things.
She said that if they were good faculty they shouldn’t have to worry about being reviewed. I explained how what are considered unpopular research topics or public stances changes over time, and so tenure is designed to protect that freedom regardless of the political climate. I told her that even though I’m not even on tenure track, I would rather have a system that allowed for a few ‘bad apples’ in order to protect the majority that are doing good work. She saw the logic of this and we continued to other topics.
A case in point was revealed today. A fellow colleague, Dr. Bob Woodberry, went up for tenure this semester in Sociology. His research is extremely controversial, as this excerpt from his university profile webpage shows: “Bob Woodberry's research looks at the long-term impact of missionaries and different colonial governments on education, economic development and democracy in post-colonial societies. Other research interests include the spread of religious liberty, the international diffusion of social movements, religious influences on political institutions and the economy, religious attitudes of elites, religious tolerance, conservative Protestants, and measuring religious groups on surveys.”
Bob has had good grant coverage, won teaching awards, and “’The Measure of American Religion’ won the Outstanding Published Article Award from the Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association (2001).” He is popular with students, and his passion for doing thorough complex statistical work to both verify and falsify his work is unimpeachable.
There is one problem. His research results clearly reveal exceedingly politically incorrect results. In every culture, by every measure, when Protestant missionaries move into a native culture, every indicator of standard of living starts improving dramatically, even when all other known factors are taken into account.
This inconvenient truth has meant that he has had to take longer to publish in order to make the case as airtight as possible, countering every objection before it is raised, so he has fewer papers than normal. Also, the best journals have rejected his papers for trivial reasons, forcing him to publish in journals outside his field, which count less towards tenure. And so on.
This morning, Bob’s chair notified him that he was denied tenure.
Bob now must start looking for another job. Academic freedom is an illusion unless you agree with certain tenets of academic culture, or unless you have tenure. Even then, life can be rough if you are too outspoken about the wrong things.
The tenure system protected people with these politically correct views before they were politically correct, and now what was once politically correct is intolerable, and it is by accident (i.e. the hand of God) when someone like Bob gets tenure at a major university these days.
We are grateful for the time we’ve had with Bob and are thankful to have him for a while yet. The Lord is sovereign and will bring good of this. But I am saddened that the university did not deign this scholar worthy of its protection. It is a loss for the university, and I will miss him.