Cary Nelson: Your Children Need Professors With Tenure

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Cary Nelson, author of No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, explains why we should give professors more job security:

“So what?” you may say. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker don’t have tenure. Your wife, husband, partner, and next-door neighbor don’t have tenure. Why should faculty members have job security after seven years? The short answer is that tenure guarantees the quality and integrity of higher education—by securing faculty members’ intellectual independence. Your children need tenured college professors.

In truth, many Americans deserve better job security than they have. But the people responsible for teaching your children have a special need to be protected from capricious dismissal. If your children are going to be taught to think rigorously and creatively—which is their best route to success—they need to be taught by teachers who can be rigorous, creative, and courageous as well. Tenure doesn’t guarantee that college teachers will be courageous. But it protects those who are.

Professors without tenure are nothing more than at-will employees. They can be fired tomorrow or whenever their contracts expire. One complaint from a student, parent, or politician is all it may take. What if a professor offends a parent or preacher by teaching evolution? What if a professor expresses sympathy for unpopular religious beliefs? What if a professor admits that he or she supports gay rights? What if a professor asks students whether the war in Iraq was in the national interest? Worst of all, what if a professor asks students whether the college really needs that fancy new administration building? Administrators who prefer to avoid controversy just won’t send that professor a new contract.

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