Science Careers Blog

September 22, 2010

The real purpose of tenure?

We often hear that the tenure system is essential to defend academic freedom.  But, as an article in yesterday's Harvard Crimson reveals, the inalienable right of faculty members (or at least those officially recognized as having produced the requisite number of adequately impactful publications within a 6-year period) to advance knowledge by uttering opinions contrary to prevailing scholarly or political orthodoxy is not the only thing being protected.

The reporters set out to determine the likelihood that psychology professor Joel Hauser will be stripped of his tenured position for research misconduct. The American Association of University Professors considers falsifying research a justified reason for revoking tenure, they note.  But those who think Hauser deserves to join the ragged band of miscreants banished from their prestigious posts for violating the norms of science "should not hold their breath" until that happens, the authors write.  Apparently that dire fate awaits only those not yet anointed by a tenure committee.

Their investigation of past academic scandals in Cambridge, the student reporters continue, found that "tenured Harvard faculty have kept their jobs, whereas junior faculty resigned from their positions."

Some of Harvard's "peer institutions," specifically MIT and Columbia, have axed tenured faculty for research violations, the article continues. But it appears that, at least at Harvard, tenure protects professors' right to say anything they want, even if they know it's false, and to retain their high-paid lifetime sinecures while doing so.  Now, that's what I call academic freedom.

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