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What to Know About Tenure and Free Speech Protections

by Staff

In higher education, there is one professional golden ticket: tenure. For academics, securing tenure — a highly coveted permanent teaching position at a college or university — usually requires years of education, a rise through the professorial ranks and scholarship. Its benefits are significant: job security that lasts indefinitely, better pay and prestige. One of tenure’s key protections is academic freedom, allowing professors to speak and work freely without fear of punishment by their institution.

At the University of Pennsylvania, a conflict involving Amy Wax, a tenured law professor who is accused by some students of making racist and xenophobic statements, has put a fresh spotlight on tenure and free speech protections.

Here is what you need to know about tenure.

Tenure is a permanent academic appointment that exists to “safeguard academic freedom,” according to the American Association of University Professors. A tenured position “can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances,” such as a financial emergency or if a program gets discontinued, the association says.

But professors can lose their tenure if a university determines that there was personal misconduct. Even then, there can be much controversy over the decision, as was the case with Joshua Katz, a tenured classics professor at Princeton. The administration fired him last year, saying that he had not been fully honest and cooperative with an investigation into his sexual relationship with an undergraduate student about 15 years ago. Others, however, felt that Dr. Katz was instead being targeted for his politics. In 2020, he wrote an article in Quillette, an online journal, that criticized anti-racist proposals by Princeton faculty, students and staff.

In the case of Professor Wax, free speech groups acknowledge that some personal discussions with students — if they occurred — could be deemed abusive, and are not protected by tenure.

Tenure as it is known today dates back decades, to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. These principles essentially stated that a teacher or researcher must have freedom to discuss ideas and seek the advancement of truth without fear of censorship or discipline. The principles also established that other faculty members should have input if a question of discipline arises.

Since then, the principles have not changed, but the academic job market has. In recent decades, the number of tenured positions in academia has decreased dramatically, and the percentage of professors on the tenure track has been shrinking since the 1970s. In 1995, for example, about 43 percent of people teaching college had tenure or were on track to get it; by the fall of 2019, only a third of college professors had tenure or were on track to receive it.

Increasingly, colleges and universities have relied on the labor of graduate students or adjunct faculty members, who often have heavy workloads, far less job security and a much greater risk of sudden dismissal.

The decision at an institution to grant or deny tenure is a significant one and has occasionally made national news, as it was in 2021 when the University of North Carolina denied tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for The New York Times Magazine. She declined the position and is now teaching at Howard University.

In academia, free speech is not enshrined by the First Amendment, but rather by institutional policies and precedent, according to a guide to campus free speech published by PEN America. “While the First Amendment relates to a relationship between a government and its people, academic freedom is mostly between an institution and its faculty,” the guide says.

Most institutions define academic freedom as “the protection to pursue knowledge ‘wherever it leads,’” the guide says, with tenure shielding professors from reprisal if that pursuit leads to “someplace dangerous or unpopular.”

Students at the University of Pennsylvania have long raised concerns about public remarks made by Professor Wax that they say are racist, sexist and xenophobic.

Professor Wax has said publicly that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites” and that the country is “better off with fewer Asians” as long as they tend to vote for Democrats.

She has denied saying anything belittling or racist to students, and her supporters say she is the target of censorship because of her conservative views.

Recently, Theodore W. Ruger, the dean of the law school, took the highly unusual step of filing a complaint with the university about Professor Wax and requesting a faculty hearing to consider imposing a “major sanction” on her. Professor Wax, he said, had violated the university’s professional standards and nondiscrimination policies.

His response has drawn outrage from free speech groups, who say that free speech protections are integral to tenure and the academic freedom it affords.

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