What to Do With Tenure

On Receiving Tenure From the University of Chicago


Last Friday, I had the honor of being awarded tenure by my academic home, the University of Chicago. It's not as if I had been holding back my opinions until now (witness this blog!), but tenure provides an additional measure of security that is supposed to promote academic freedom. So here are two things I have been reading about what one is supposed to do with that freedom.

1. Scholarship, teaching, service?

Professorial duties are generally divided into scholarship, teaching, and service, and various people will tell you which of these is the real duty of the professor and which ones are merely ancillary. But I have been much moved by this short essay by James Grimmelman, which argues that "These missions have something to do with each other [and] all three benefit when they are done together. They were united for a reason, and we should not lightly put them asunder."

In particular, James argues, the core of the academic mission is research—"close, careful, and systematic study in search of truth." Publications, classes, and public works are simply three different ways of sharing the results of that research: "Scholarship is for other researchers, teaching is for students, service is for society … The academic's commitment is to do research and convey the knowledge thereby gained to whomever needs it."

Tenure, James adds, helps to promote these things, but it is not essential: "time and freedom are more important than tenure as such."

2. Tenure traps

And what about "tenure traps"? This iconic post from Tyler Cowen explores how to ensure that the freedom of tenure is used to take appropriate intellectual risks, rather than to "either stop working altogether or continue barreling down the groove they wore themselves into to get tenure" Tyler offers eleven suggestions, which range from insightful to ridiculous, but my favorite are the last three:

9. Hang at least one piece of non-cheery art on your wall that will remind yourself of an ever-pending death. Change its angle every now and then, or better yet change the picture, so you don't get too used to it and stop noticing it altogether. If need be, supplement this with Brahms's German Requiem.

10. Write a periodic blog post, if only a secret and non-published one. If you don't find this process is going well, ask yourself what is wrong.

11. Worry if no one thinks you are crazy. Supplement this with actually being crazy.

NEXT: What's the Most Interesting Gift You've Ever Gotten for Christmas?

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  1. Congratulations! How about some ruminations on what you think has been your most influential or important academic contribution to date….since you are undoubtedly going to die soon? Sometimes it feels like legal research is just a longer and more foot-noted normative brief….what sort of research do you think gets outside of that box….without actually becoming the box?

  2. It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam?”for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer”?”I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.

  3. To my knowledge the tenure champion of the USA is physics professor Lisa Randall of Harvard, MIT. and UC Berkeley, having tenure at all! She also looks mighty good climbing up sheer rock mountains or accepting awards for writing synthetic music. One of her books has a drooling blurb from Bill Clinton and she was a regular on the Charlie Rose show. Goes to show this gal is so formidable and strong in her presence she can be perfectly at ease around world-class predators!

    Now the ironic thing is that Randall’s academic specialty centers around constructing sophisticated mathematical models to test aspects of string theory. This is beautiful intellectual stuff and I am in awe of it and the grasp of all of physics she displays in her books. However, her body of life work is about as likely to have real world impact as a law professor who devotes their career to the ins and outs of the maritime claims that the USA pursued for nearly a century against Great Britain because that nation supplied the Confederacy with commerce-raiding modern warships.

  4. Thank you for the Cowen link. 9 and 11 are very good. Maybe 10 too. It’s obvious that teaching and research are linked. Service is what’s interesting and hard to figure out what to do. I have found the faculty senate to tie in well with both this semester. I tell my regulation class students what happens at meetings and try to teach them to see what is going on behind the surface. I am a lone outspoken conservative, so I’m happy if people think I’m crazy rather than evil, and this seems to be the case so far. Also, involvement in campus affairs gives someone with controversial views an extra bit of protection, I think, since it’s harder for an administrator or faculty governance leader to demonize someone they’ve met in person.
    Yesterday after the Trump team allegation of unethical behavior by Mueller, I looked around for expert responses. There weren’t any. The experts that did tweet or such made arguments on the level of “Trump lawyers are stupid so don’t believe them” or “Nothing is confidential on government computers.” I hope you will be willing to make snap legal analyses as a public service, analyses that will probably have lots of mistakes in them but would be highly useful nonetheless in informing public first impressions.

    1. I would think service is the easiest….department committees…..school committees……conference duties….and professional relationships that are not research oriented….I would imagine this bar is low.

  5. Why is “stop working altogether” a trap? I thought it was the main purpose.

  6. Congratulations both to you and the University of Chicago for its bravery. I wonder if the outcome would have been different had Mrs. Clinton been elected president?

  7. Why should we regard tenure as being – in practice – something besides a certificate of harmlessness?

    1. Because we’ve seen the sort of people who get tenure?

      1. I should have said “harmlessness to received views”.

  8. The most important thing for a freshly minted tenured professor is to get to work IMMEDIATELY on polishing up your “collegiality.”



    PS Good grief. The comment system couldn’t take the link in one bite, so I had to split it into two. Did I mention Good grief ?

    1. You’d think the free market would lead to a libertarian blog like Reason having a superior comment system…

      1. RE: Commenting system
        I suspect there’s an element of “My Great-Grampaw built this place with his own two hands, dammed the crick and killt a bar. This commentin’ software was good enuff fer him an’ I reckon it’s good enough fer the likes o’ you. Free Market.” *spits tobaccy right near yer boots*

  9. Congratulations, Will. And congratulations also to the University of Chicago for making another excellent decision.

    Your father was my favorite professor and I know he would be incredibly proud of you. Especially because he would often disagree with you.

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