The Volokh Conspiracy

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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.