Academic Freedom and Tenure:
Issues by Richard T. De George
Rowman & Littlefield, 1997
1. The granting of tenure and the guarantee of academic freedom are two features of the American academic profession that differentiate it not only from other kinds of labor but also from other teaching professions. University professors with tenure rarely lose their jobs and within that employment enjoy a considerable degree of freedom regarding how and what to teach and what to research. They even exercise such administrative responsibilities as hiring colleagues. While other teachers through unionization may have some degree of job security, they do not enjoy the college professor’s degree of autonomy. In primary and secondary education, teachers are not free to teach what they deem important, and they have little or no say in who their colleagues will be. Rather, elected school boards (usually in conjunction with state agencies) determine curricula and have ultimate say in staffing. So it is perhaps inevitable that in an environment where “efficiency” and “accountability” are increasingly demanded some of those who supervise American universities are asking, “What justifies giving college professors such unrivaled autonomy”? In Academic Freedom and Tenure, Richard T. De George offers an answer: academia’s autonomy is justified by its relation to the truth.
2. The book is divided in two parts. The later half includes helpful background documents and articles on different aspects of tenure and academic freedom while De George’s defense of these practices constitutes the first part of the book. He begins with an argument in favor of tenure, one that depends on its role in promoting academic freedom. Of course, this is hardly a novel idea. In 1940 the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges issued a joint Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (reprinted in part II of the book). It states, in part, that “tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability” (118). The first clause identifies the interdependence between academic freedom and tenure that is central to De George’s argument. What then motivates granting professors academic freedom? The justification here too is teleological, for academic freedom is a means to the discovery and dissemination of truth (a justification not found in the 1940 Statement). Thus, a society that values the truth will need to ensure that its researchers and educators may exercise sufficient freedom to pursue that truth, and in our present economy this requires the granting of some form of tenure. There is, admittedly, a limitation to this line of reasoning, for if a society does not value the truth, then there is no justification for either academic freedom or tenure.
3. In pursuing his case, De George ignores
the second end of tenure identified in
4. De George points out that there is little
real empirical evidence for the kinds of
5. While De George sidesteps an economic justification
for tenure, he also avoids arguing that tenure is or should be thought
of as a legally protected right or that
6. While the overall structure of the argument up to this point is tight, some might question its most basic philosophical assumption, namely, that there are objective truths that can be known and that knowing these truths will in the long run benefit society. Indeed, many in the humanities would reject these claims. Some, for instance, reject the notion that there is objective truth. Others feel that the role of academics is to defend and critique hegemonic social structures rather than to expand knowledge. It is somewhat surprising that a defense of academia’s autonomy should turn on the status of truth. De George is in a difficult position here since he hardly wants to get bogged down defending the claim that truth is objective. He responds in two ways. First, he points out that while disagreements about knowledge, objectivity, and power are valid, this does not undermine the need for academic freedom, for
even those who attack traditional meanings of knowledge and specific beliefs and evaluations do so in the name of other meanings and beliefs and evaluations. Which of these are best for society to follow, adopt, and build upon, is still of interest to society and best resolved by letting the debate work itself out to a resolution, which in turn will be challenged. This is not to be avoided but that is the point of having universities and of guaranteeing academic freedom (90).The second way De George addresses the relationship between truth and academic autonomy is by including two essays on the topic in the later part of his book. On the one hand, in Rationality and Realism: What is at Stake? John Searle argues that abandonment of traditional standards of truth, rationality, and objectivity pave the way for a dangerous politicization of the academy. On the other hand, in Does Academic Freedom Have any Philosophical Presuppositions? Richard Rorty argues that such disputes ultimately make no difference to the way the university, as we know it, functions. Instead, Rorty argues that universities are defensible due to “the good which [they] do, to their role in keeping democratic government and liberal institutions alive and functioning” (181). For Rorty, the conception of truth has little relevance to academic freedom. But despite De George’s efforts to throw light on the subject, one is still left wondering about the relationship between academic autonomy and the concept of truth. Given what De George says in the section quoted, it seems that he sides with Rorty. Then one wonders why from the start he has not made a case for academic freedom that does not depend on a problematic assumption regarding the status of truth. Additionally, it is not clear that Rorty’s position is really consistent with De George’s teleological justification of academic autonomy; the claim that autonomous universities keep “democratic government and liberal institutions alive and functioning” is the kind of claim that academics might contest. Rorty treats it as axiomatic. At the argument’s philosophical foundation, there is not as much clarity as one would like.
7. But defending tenure and academic freedom is only half of De George’s project in this work--the less interesting and original half perhaps. It should come as no surprise that along with the privileges of academic freedom and tenure comes responsibility, and De George thinks it is important to identify the obligations that are created when society grants autonomy to academic institutions. Separate chapters are devoted to elaborating the obligations that arise from the system of tenure and those that arise from academic freedom. There is some overlap here since the defense of tenure depends ultimately on the justification of academic freedom. Of paramount importance is the obligation to preserve academic freedom within the walls of the academy. But additionally, De George thinks faculty have the obligation “to continue to keep up in their field, to continue to teach, carry on research, and publish to the extent expected by their institution; and to continue to pursue the truth”(41). He insists that continued support for academic autonomy is contingent on faculty meeting these responsibilities.
8. If De George is right, then many traditional criticisms of tenure and academic freedom are not actually problems inherent in the practices themselves but rather shortcomings with the way these institutions are carried out by those involved. In other words, many problems arise from the failure of academics to live up to their responsibilities rather than a failure of tenure or academic freedom per se. Take, for example, the criticism that tenure “tends to keep junior faculty meek and subservient rather than protecting their academic freedom” (87). That is, it is sometimes argued that since tenure decisions reside in the hands of senior faculty, and junior faculty fear not pleasing them, the latter are encouraged to perpetuate orthodox views, ultimately suppressing truly original work. According to De George, however, to the extent that this occurs, it is a failure of tenured faculty to meet their responsibilities, for the obligation to protect academic freedom generates the subsidiary responsibility to protect the academic freedom of those without tenure.
9. De George ultimately accepts that the academy
requires some external, non-academic oversight. He thinks that the
nature of this oversight, however, should be indirect. Society can
expect the academy to develop, perpetuate and preserve a body of knowledge.
It is left to academics, however, to develop methods and standards for
evaluating the truth and, importantly, there can be no presuppositions
as to what truth will be uncovered. Ultimately, society must trust
that academics know best how to handle the truth. While this kind
of accountability seems legitimate--one can imagine that academia might
“derail” with unchecked freedom or that universities could be easily politicized
without significant autonomy--this in turn raises the question: how do
we create the proper equilibrium between overseers and the academy?
How can we insure that one group does not encroach on the legitimate rights
of the other? Although
10. With its central case for academic freedom and tenure and supporting documents this book provides a good introduction to the issues surrounding academic autonomy (the bibliography, however, could have been more complete). De George makes clear that he does not intend his to be the last word on the subject, for even granting his conclusion many important details are not addressed. For instance, a complete account would need to tackle such important practical issues as the length of the probationary period before tenure can be granted. Still, the principal goal is not to develop and defend a particular conception of tenure and academic freedom. Rather, the chief aim is to alert the reader to the obligations associated with academic autonomy in the hopes that academics will strengthen tenure and academic freedom and that others will recognize that these institutions do not preclude accountability. Both an academic establishment that benefits society and a society that is alerted to these benefits are needed if the academy is to preserve (and deserve) its autonomy.