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Academic Freedom

The Academic Freedom Podcast #13 on Texas and Tenure

A conversation with Matthew Finkin on the relationship between tenure and academic freedom


A new episode of The Academic Freedom Podcast from the Academic Freedom Alliance is now available. Subscribe through your favorite platform so you don't miss an episode.

In this episode I talk with Matthew Finkin about Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick's call for abolishing tenure at state universities. Last week Patrick declared that he would make it a top priority in the next legislative session to ban the teaching of "critical race theory" at Texas universities, to terminate any faculty member who does so, and to abolish tenure at public universities. The Academic Freedom Alliance released a public statement responding to that announcement.

Finkin is an expert on employment law and academic freedom. He now holds the Swanlund Endowed Chair at the College of Law at the University of Illinois and began his career as a staff attorney at the American Association of University Professors. He is the author of The Case for Tenure and co-author of For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. In the podcast, we discuss the history and rationale for tenure for faculty at American universities, the relationship between tenure protections and academic freedom, and threats to tenure and academic freedom at state universities from right-wing politicians and at private universities from left-wing professors.

Listen to the whole thing here.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: February 24, 1930

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  1. " threats to tenure and academic freedom at state universities from right-wing politicians and at private universities from left-wing professors "

    You omit threats to academic freedom at conservative-controlled, censorship-shackled schools that suppress science and warp history to flatter superstition. Why?

    (Spoiler: Same reason that controls FIRE's selective outrage)

    1. 1. Religious universities at least admit that they have a mission of promoting a certain religion, so there's that; and

      2. I'd accept a uniform standard of academic freedom, *if* the left would agree to stick to it consistently for everyone as well and stop their own "selective outrage."

      1. Mainstream schools often state that their mission includes considerations involving diversity, inclusiveness, protection of disadvantaged and less-privileged communities, and the like. Right-wingers disregard those additional considerations while prizing the religious motivations that generate severe, everyday flouting of academic freedom and free expression while promoting bigotry.


        1. Because those "additional considerations" often get interpreted very narrowly, according to particular ideological perspectives...rather than according to broad consensus views. (The recent effort to broaden the definition of "racism" is but one example, pertinent to academia these days, which even many moderate liberals feel has gone too far...)

          Mutuality and reciprocity are the key to inclusion and tolerance actually working. Any of us may think each other is a "bigot," etc., but we still need to grudgingly accept each other on some level...unless and until a given view reaches genuine consensus through persuasion.

  2. OK, Boomer. When may we expect your resignation letter? You need to be replaced by a diverse, you, an old, white, male, racial supremacist.

    1. Are you addressing Prof. Whittington? I don't think he's a Boomer....

      1. Sorry. Addressing the Rev. part of History's Most Annoying Generation.

  3. Tenure is clearly dying in the US and the protections it affords are increasingly thin. The main reason that it is being kept around, at least in professional fields (engineering, economics, computer science), is that, otherwise, universities would have to pay competitive salaries, and this would come at the expense of administrative salaries.

  4. Not interested unless you discuss actions, not letters beseeching Commie scumbags. Zero tolerance for woke, a masking ideology of Chinese Commie criticism of the USA from the 1960s.

    Mandamus the Non-profit Office of the IRS to end the tax exemption due to tax fraud. De-accredit. Shut down the treason indoctrination camp. Seize its assets, especially the endowment, in civil forfeiture for sedition and for tax fraud. They promised education. They delivered indoctrination.

  5. And what is Whittington's and Finkin's plan for reining in left-wing academic censors? I don't think they have one, which is why I think the country would be better off without their institutions.

    1. "Their institutions" survived the right-wing witch hunts of the McCarthy era, so I suspect that those institutions will survive any left-wing academic censors. The number seems small, though, and perhaps a case-by-case review of left-wing censorship would be helpful. I know of invited speakers who were blocked -- or in some cases decided not to appear -- but that is not the same as abridging a tenured faculty member's academic freedom.

      1. Erika Christakis: "[T]he current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems."
        Do you have first hand experience to the contrary? If not, I will trust those who have been in the arena.

        1. Your comment does not strike me as relevant to the issue you originally raised. I retired in January after 40 years as a faculty member at several R1s, so I have several decades of "experience to the contrary" -- or perhaps I should say that I am familiar with these sins coming from both sides, and the statistics on such incidents suggest that they are rare. (And the Christakis case at Yale was not about academic freedom.)

    2. "I don't think they have one, which is why I think the country would be better off without their institutions."

      That may be part of the reason mainstream America has concluded our nation will be better off without having stale, ugly conservative thinking be culturally relevant anymore.

  6. For a *public* university, is the role of tenure very meaningful for free speech protections?

    Since their faculty (although not administrators) enjoy significant first-amendment protections *regardless* of tenure status, it seems that the role of tenure is more of an issue for private universities (where it at least creates a contractual issue).

    1. You might check with Florida about that. There are at least two benefits to tenure. The more mundane issue that doesn't get discussed as often is the freedom that tenured faculty have to engage in the traditional 'faculty governance' without fear of dismissal or reprisals. As a former department chair, I could count on senior, tenured faculty to speak honestly and bluntly on issues of importance to us, where junior faculty were reluctant to step on toes, at every level from the departmental to the decanal to the provostal/presidential.

      1. Teaching and research activities are protected by the first amendment for all public, college-level faculty *regardless* of tenure (or even tenure track) status. This means the school can only restrict or punish faculty speech to the extent deemed necessary to achieve its educational function.

        *Administrative* roles/capacities do not receive that protection. Interesting point about the "faculty governance" issue, which may have some aspects that elude first amendment protection (to the extent it gets deemed sort of a quasi-administrative role rather than a true faculty role). Are you aware of any court cases that address that?

        1. I cannot cite court cases about the administrative role issue, but after 40 years as a faculty member I have seen a number of instances in which a faculty member believes that they have been punished for expressed views of an 'administrative' sort, and have filed formal complaints with the university administration, including in tenure cases. But I can say with some confidence that tenure helps senior faculty feel protected in ways that we all benefit from.

          The public/private distinction is also important, as you suggest. When I was on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, there was a case at Boston University in which a junior faculty member in the anthropology department was terminated over what she believed to be her teaching of a course on 'Marxist Anthropology' at a time when John Silber, a notorious reactionary, was the BU president. I don't know if she complained formally or even went so far as to sue, but it did seem in keeping with other Silber actions. Shortly after that, there was a case at SUNY/Buffalo in which a law school prof was turned down for tenure, and he filed a formal appeal, arguing that he was denied his promotion/tenure because of the politics of his publications, a violation of his academic freedom. The president of SUNY/Buffalo -- who had been a dean of the law school -- responded publicly that a junior, untenured faculty member did not enjoy the protections of academic freedom. The law school prof then pointed out that SUNY faculty do not get "tenure," and instead get a "continuing appointment" -- so the faculty union contract has a clause guaranteeing the rights and privileges of "tenure" to all faculty, whether junior or senior. I am not sure how that ultimately played out, and I am relying on an aging memory here, but I thought these were interesting cases of 'liberal' teaching being punished by termination.

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