Professor: I just earned tenure; it doesn’t mean I can’t be fired

Tenure and academic freedom benefit students, says University of North Georgia faculty member

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, discusses why tenure, often criticized as protecting incompetence and assuring academics jobs for life, is important.

Boedy just earned tenure. It does not immunize him from firing, he explains, but does give him and other tenured academics a shield against politically motivated firings.

By Matthew Boedy

I was recently granted tenure at the University of North Georgia. And judging by social media comments, conservative talking points about tenured (usually liberal) professors, and a few state legislators trying to end it, I think some people have a misguided view of what that means.

First, getting tenure involves a long process. My portfolio of teaching, research, and service to the university and my profession (developed since I was hired in 2015) was reviewed beginning in September by layers of faculty committees and administration. Each sends their recommendation up the chain. And then on Jan. 23, I got the positive notification from the provost, the chief academic officer.

Second, you might think tenure means I can't be fired. I can be fired for abandoning my classes (i.e. not teaching) and other unethical and illegal behavior.

Also, some people associate higher education's notion of tenure with the K-12 version. There, it is "last hired, first fired." That means if budget cuts come, the "tenured" teacher keeps their job. In college, when budget cuts come, yes, tenured people can lose jobs.

Tenure is merely the right of due process. But importantly that process is a transparent one overseen by the faculty, not an individual person, inside or outside the college.

This process also exists at the K-12 level, but is different. The right to be given a just cause for termination is a right that all employees in any job should want or have, not merely professors. Tenure in this context should be the minimum expectation, not a special caste.

Dr. Matthew Boedy

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The American Association of University Professors notes tenure safeguards the other important element of higher education, academic freedom. The latter is necessary because "when faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge."

In short, tenure and academic freedom protect professors from being politically targeted for job loss based on what they say in class or in publications.

There is a key limitation to academic freedom and makes it less encompassing than “freedom of speech.” According to the AAUP, professors “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

In other words, English professors should not be advocating in class for a political candidate.

Tenure and academic freedom are important in the classroom for all parties because, according to the AAUP, "free inquiry, free expression, and open dissent are critical for student learning and the advancement of knowledge."

That is why the AAUP argues that all full-time faculty members, regardless of rank, should be considered eligible for tenure. That is now not the case at my school or many schools across the nation.

There is a university in Georgia that doesn't even have the availability of tenure for any one, at any rank. Nationally about 75% of college instructors are not part of the tenure group – whether tenured or available to get it, i.e. on "tenure track."

Because academic freedom limits what you can say to a specific domain, a professor must base their professional opinions in evidence and accurate methods of academia.

So cause for firing a tenured professor might be "demonstrated incompetence or dishonesty in teaching or research…" [UNG once argued for other causes.]

Who defines that?

As an example, at my institution, we have a tenured professor who has been quoted in our local newspaper stating that while "slavery was ultimately a major root cause of the [Civil War]," there were "many, many" others causes including states' rights.

The large, large majority of academic historians dispute that and have evidence from the words of Confederate leaders that show the war was absolutely about slavery and Southern arguments shifted to "states' rights" only after the war, to paraphrase Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Jim McPherson.

So, if or when my colleague makes this claim about the war in a book or class lecture, does academic freedom protect that speech?

The answer would come from that professor's peers. That debate would take place in a transparent hearing led by those faculty peers. It would not be decided by a single administrator or politician. The hearing would likely include the professor's record as a whole. That might include awards for teaching, student evaluations, peer evaluations, and any academic publications.

In the same manner, UNG has professors who argue for the immediacy of responding to climate change. They should be judged by their peers, not partisan groups that deny the impact of climate change.

As the Association of American Colleges & Universities notes, "Knowledge is not simply a matter of making an assertion but of developing the evidence for that assertion in terms that gain acceptance among those with the necessary training and expertise to evaluate the scholarly analysis."

These twin rights - academic freedom and tenure - are important because they protect all professors from politically motivated firing. This is why higher education should not be treated as a partisan affair.

I always wondered what I would do when I get tenure. Now that I have it, I suppose I will continue to do what I have been doing: teach students to evaluate claims that are different from their own using the best methods and resources and to act on those evaluations. It’s called being a citizen. And so tenure is for the public good.