Editor's note: This is one in a series of commentaries on topics involving higher education.
Buried in the controversy over who should appoint Antonin Scalia’s successor to the Supreme Court is another argument about the court’s makeup. The Feb. 9 edition of The Pantagraph carried an article arguing against lifetime appointments for justices. Historically, the belief is that lifetime appointments ensure the interpretation of the Constitution is protected from constant change reflecting momentary political whim.
Justices must be free to interpret the law as they understand it. The court’s opinions may be unpopular, but justices need to act with integrity without fear of losing their jobs.
This argument hits very close to home for university professors, who cherish one of our most misunderstood and criticized traditions: the tenure system.
The “lifetime” appointment of tenure conveys a freedom to faculty. Academic freedom is most commonly associated with a faculty member deciding how to teach a course, conduct research that may differ from established thought, or touch on controversial issues.
We don’t pretend our research is as critical as Supreme Court decisions, but the principle is similar. We need freedom to be able to take risks in advancing knowledge.
Academic freedom, and by extension tenure, is not unrestricted. A religious studies professor is not free to turn her New Testament course into a survey of contemporary Asian politics. But a public university would find it nearly impossible to fire that faculty member if she teaches and writes about an unconventional reading of the gospels.
Research can be stopped if it is dangerous or cruel to the research subjects, but it cannot be stopped because the research results may reveal something that is unpopular to the public, the legislature or the university itself.
There have been recent high-profile cases of what many view as attacks on academic freedom, some close to home. Steven Salaita’s offer of a tenured position at the University of Illinois was withdrawn in response to anti-Israel comments on social media. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member at Wheaton College, was suspended for stating that Christians and Muslims “worship the same god.”
These cases have prompted widespread condemnation in higher education, but there are many other attempts to discipline faculty members that fly under the radar: state legislature (not Illinois) calling for the firing of a religious studies professor who admitted he is an atheist; and a political science professor who said he never votes.
These are attempts to remove people, because of the content of their thoughts and words, from the very institutions that exist to advance thought.
Attempts to exert external control of professors are meant to quash certain kinds of debate. But what makes American universities the source of so much innovative thought is the open give-and-take of ideas. We expect this among academics and hope for it in our students.
Debate is what moves knowledge forward, but it is only possible in an atmosphere that respects the freedom to explore issues from any angle and to challenge any ideas or assumptions.
Without tenure, academic freedom would be in jeopardy. Without academic freedom, scholars would fear the kind of argument that is the basis of discovering new knowledge, and without argument and discovery, American universities would no longer be the envy of the world.