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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.



  1. Why do university professors deserve this special privilege of job immunity? No other profession has this right. There are definitely employment contracts within some businesses, but those are few and far between and are getting fewer. No doctor, mechanic, engineer, nurse, firefighter, journalist, librarian, or even politician has the institutional right to continue drawing a salary regardless of how good they are at their job. Sure, many of them do anyway, but only universities are so bold as proudly claim it as a tradition. Why do ivory tower professors deserve this? Tenure is an archaic institution which makes education worse, not better. When I was doing my BS, I attended classes taught by completely incompetent professors that had no business or interest teaching, that were a waste of my time and money. And this was in the late 1980s, before tuition skyrocketed.

    The freedom to explore controversial issues is secondary to the quality of education. Professors should be judged on merit, just like anyone else.

    Make academia merit-based just like literally any other profession. People who don't do their job should not be drawing a salary and benefits.

  2. Anonymous... did you not read the post?

  3. Are you the only person upset by the fact that Bob Woodberry was denied tenure? I can't find one other public source that has questioned this denial other than WORLD Magazine. I am distressed by the politically correct games universities seem to play. Is anyone going to stand up for this man?

    1. No, Anonymous, there are plenty of folks bothered by this, and more has happened to another tenured member of the same department, this time widespread notoriety for unpopular research findings. It is the current nature of the academic beast.

      Efforts are being made on many fronts to counter this, many of which are quiet and behind the scenes, prayer not the least of them.

      Several opportunities exist for you, regardless of your situation to help:
      1) Pray.
      2) Train the children/youth in your life to think clearly and not swallow whole what people say, but fact check and research, even what Christians say.
      3) Do the same in your own life.
      4) Challenge other believers to do the same--sadly, many believers mindlessly grab on to sound bites and bumper sticker slogans that sound pro-faith, but display, sadly, shallowness and ignorance of the real complexities of the world. This stereotype of the mindless Christian makes our jobs harder to represent Christ in the academy. In this instance, the secularists ask how Protestant missionaries can improve standards of living when supposedly Protestant evangelicals like Westboro Baptist are who come to mind when the term evangelical is mentioned.
      5)Help the church to pick its battles. For example, there is a rich diversity of opinion among solid Christians about how to interpret Genesis. We should celebrate a unity even and we passionately argue about Genesis 1-11. It does us no favors when Christians publicly call each other heretics over stuff like this.
      6)Realize that college is not for everyone. It is a mistake to assume a college education is a guarantee of a better job/salary or LIFE CALLING. It isn't. Compare your salary to your mechanic's or plumber's. How does this help? It reduces the flow of income to colleges so they are forced to listen to the market. It also reduces the numbers of folks exposed to the rampant sophistry at much of the academy.
      7)Vote with your dollars. Send your kids to schools that are fair and truly honor academic freedom, so truth can be discerned and not politically dictated. (Note this can include secular colleges and exclude some Christian ones.)
      8)Be an active alum of your alma mater. Make your voice heard to the school with which you have the most pull.
      9) Be creative. Use these ideas as a springboard.
      10)Pray. (no, this is not a repeat. It is emphasis.)