I am now a tenured professor.
After working towards this for 15 years, it’s surreal to type that simple sentence. When I first applied to Ph.D. programs in 2001, it felt like a massive, nearly unattainable goal, with thousands of little challenges and an equal number of opinions about how I should approach them. Tenured professors offered conflicting advice about how to survive the slog. I watched untenured professors crawl towards the goal, working constant nights and weekends, only to get their grant proposal declined or paper rejected, or worst of all, tenure case declined. I had conversations with countless burned out students, turned off by the relentless, punishing meritocracy, regretting the time they put into a system that doesn’t reward people, but ideas.
Post-tenure, what was a back-breaking objective has quickly become a hard earned state of mind. Tenure is the freedom to follow my intellectual curiosity without consequence. It is the liberty to find the right answers to questions rather than the quick ones. Its that first step out of the car, after a long drive towards the ocean, beholding the grand expanse of unknown possibilities knowable only with time and ingenuity. It is a type of liberty that exists in no other profession, and now that I have and feel it, it seems an unquestionably necessary part of being an effective scientist and scholar.
I’ve talked frequently with my colleagues about the costs and benefits of tenuring researchers. Before having tenure, it always seemed unnecessary. Give people ten year contracts, providing enough stability to allow for exploration, but reserving the right to boot unproductive scholars. Or perhaps do away with it altogether, requiring researchers continually prove their value, as untenured professors must. A true meritocracy requires continued merit, does it not?
These ideas seem naive now. If I were to lose this intellectual freedom, it would constrain my creativity, politicize my pursuits, and in a strange way, depersonalize my scholarship, requiring it to be acceptable by my colleagues, in all the ways that it threatened to do, and sometimes did, before tenure. Fear warps knowledge. Tenure is freedom from fear.
For my non-academic audience, this reflection must seem awfully privileged. With or without tenure, professors have vastly more freedom than really any other profession. But having more freedom isn’t the same as having enough. Near absolute freedom is an essential ingredient of the work of discovery, much like a teacher must have prep time, a service worker must have lunch breaks, an engineer must have instruments, and a doctor must have knowledge.
And finally, one caveat: tenure for researchers is not the same as tenure for teachers. Freedom may also be an ingredient for successful teaching, in that it allows teachers to discuss unpopular ideas, and even opinions, without retribution. But it may be necessary for different reasons: whereas fear of retribution warps researchers’ creation of knowledge, it warps the minds of teachers’ dissemination of that knowledge.