Academic Freedom and Tenure: Between Fiction and Reality

By Tierney, William G. | Journal of Higher Education, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and Tenure: Between Fiction and Reality


Tierney, William G., Journal of Higher Education


Perhaps no belief has been more central to academic life than that of academic freedom. In the twentieth century academic freedom became enshrined as the raison d'etre for the professorate. For many individuals, colleges and universities existed in large part to enable the search for truth by the faculty. Academic freedom codified the belief about the search for truth. Tenure was the structure that ensured the belief would not be violated.

No less a body than the United States Supreme Court has weighed in on the importance of academic freedom by stating, "Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned" (Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 1967). As a structure, tenure safeguards the freedom of faculty members to speak, write, and associate however they choose. In the hallmark statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors stated in 1940 "Tenure is a means to a certain ends, specifically: "Freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities" (AAUP, 1940). Once a faculty member receives tenure, the individual has received a structural safeguard; the individual cannot be subjected to adverse employment conditions, such as dismissal, without proof of cause.

The Supreme Court's statement that academic freedom is a "transcendent value" suggests that the idea of academic freedom, like the idea of democracy itself, is ageless; it transcends time and is passed down from one generation to the next. From an interpretivist perspective, however, a "transcendent value," is always shaped and redefined within emergent social and cultural contexts. Democracy is very different today as a belief and value than in 1776 when women could not vote and African Americans were not considered equal to white citizens. Similarly, academic freedom and tenure became transcendent in the United States only in the last century. Prior to the twentieth century professors could be fired without proof of cause much more easily than today, and the idea that a central goal of the professorate was to search for truth had not taken hold as a widely held belief. Thus, we benefit in understanding complex ideas such as academic freedom and tenure when we consider the socio-cultural contexts in which they currently reside. How might we consider such contexts?

There are numerous ways one might try to gauge how concepts such as academic freedom and tenure are discussed and defined in the broader public arena. A review of newspaper articles and opinions, for example, sheds light on how one segment of society thinks of the concepts. An analysis of discussions and portrayals on television and in the movies also lends insights into how one mass medium constitutes ideas about academic life. Obviously, any number of communicative vehicles exists with which one might analyze how society in part comes to define a particular belief.

In this essay I look at how tenure and academic freedom are portrayed in novels about academic life. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera has observed that the novel provides unique opportunities to explore philosophical questions. Specifically, Kundera suggests that novels allow readers to examine meaning rather than truth, existence as opposed to reality. Thus, the novel suggests what is possible, which reality forecloses insofar as from a realist position reality is definite, describing what the author believed actually happened, rather than what might have happened.

Novels also are helpful for understanding public attitudes about a topic such as academic freedom because novels reach mass audiences who are likely to have input into how the larger society shapes academic life. Unlike academic articles in scholarly journals that are read by only a handful of interested scholars, novels have a broad reach. As Janice Rossen has observed, novels "are important because they are widely believed by their readers to constitute an accurate representation of academic life, whether they do so or not" (1993, p. …

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