There is no academic freedom without academic tenure. Professors need job protection.

·4 min read

I realized that academic tenure was in trouble when I found myself having to explain it and defend it to my own daughter who is the child of an academic and also a liberal Democrat. But it was a statistic that popped up in The Chronicle of Higher education that had me saying novenas for the once-universal practice of conferring on college professors the privilege of holding on to their jobs for their entire working lives except for cause (such as moral turpitude). The statistic was that only about one-third of college teachers have tenure or are on the tenure track. The tenure of others is on the chopping block.

It turns out that it takes a whole lot less than moral turpitude these days to find yourself without the job protection so prized in the academic world.

The attacks on tenure come from both the right and left. In Georgia, the state university system (including the prestigious Georgia Institute of Technology) can strip tenure from a faculty member for failing two consecutive annual reviews. That was the result of a decision a few weeks ago by the Board of Regents of Georgia’s state university system. The response from the faculty itself was, not surprisingly, hostile. And if my hunch is correct, two things will happen: first, professors in the Georgia system will put out the word that they are on the market; and second, other prestigious universities will raid the Georgia schools for their stars.

No one is merely 'thinking'

The ostensible motive on the part of the regents was unproductive faculty members. That could mean several things such as refusing to teach introductory courses or writing few scholarly books, articles and papers. My hunch is that the real reason had to do with what professors were saying in the lecture hall.

I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that there are people in the academic world who do just enough in the early part of their careers to gain tenure and then sit back and do nothing for the next 40 years. Such lack of scholarly activity might not necessarily be evidence of laziness but of factors such as moving into academic administration. Most continue to teach: Nobody gets away with just sitting in the office and thinking great thoughts. Further promotion for them, however, is off the table.

The principle behind tenure is protection of academic freedom. I know all about what that means when I publish an article in this newspaper and the president of the university starts getting irate emails that demand that I be fired. From alumni who are generous with their financial support for the university, such communications may give university leaders second thoughts about the value of faculty members who write on controversial topics. We saw such a situation when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill belatedly offered a tenured position to New York Times' Nicole Hannah-Jones.

Traps found in every discipline

But attacks on tenure from boards of regents are not the only threat to academic freedom. The bruised feelings of “woke” students can bring down a torrent of abuse on the head of a university professor who innocently blunders into an ideological minefield.

Recently, a distinguished composer and musicologist at the University of Michigan was forced to undergo punishment of the sort meted out by the Red Guards of China during the Mao Tse-Tung era when professors who were insufficiently zealous at pushing the party line were forced to wear humiliating dunce caps.

The Michigan professor, Chinese-born and Cultural Revolution survivor Bright Sheng, apparently neglected to warn his students that he would be showing them the 1965 British film made of Shakespeare’s “Othello” in which the title role is played by a white actor – Sir Laurence Olivier – in blackface. Perhaps the professor should have done more to prepare the students for this, but he made the mistake of assuming that the students would have the maturity to understand that this was a work of an earlier and less-enlightened era when a Black man would not likely get to play the role.

Sheng apologized multiple times and stepped back from teaching while some students called for the university to remove him. So far, this professor has not been threatened by being de-tenured but his situation is one that almost any professor can imagine. Music is usually thought of as being politically-uncontroversial but a trap for the unwary can be found in any discipline.

My own field, American government, is uniquely vulnerable to attacks on the freedom of speech of instructors. I can imagine students on the right finding my criticism of Donald Trump for interfering with the certification of the presidential election to be unduly harsh. Likewise, it wouldn’t surprise me to be the target of an attack from students for saying a few nice things about Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder. I would worry more about such things if tenure didn’t have my back.

Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia universities upend academic tenure, compromise academic freedom

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting