cearta.ie » Academic tenure and university statutes
Not a topic addressed here to date, but an interesting and comprehensive post on the topic by my colleague, Eoin O’Dell, of the School of Law at Trinity College.
Broadly speaking, academic tenure is the right of a full-time academic not to be arbitrarily dismissed. It is one of the means by which the principle of academic freedom is secured. Intellectual autonomy and academic freedom are central to academic research and scholarship, and the protections afforded by academic tenure allow academics to investigate unfashionable, controversial, or distasteful topics or dissent from received wisdom, and to teach and pubish their honest conculsions, without fear of external pressures (for example, from university donors, vociferous critics, or government) or internal censure. In one famous example, critics of the 19th century American progressive leader Richard Ely accused him of socialism and sought to have him removed as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The attempt failed, and a plaque on the campus proclaims:
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
The protections afforded by tenure and academic freedom are necessary for any university committed to the pursuit of knowledge in a democratic society. All of this means, for example, that I cannot be dismissed if my teaching or scholarship is controversial. Thus, if my academic work challenges your conception relating, say, to freedom of expression, then your proper response is to make the contrary academic arguments, and not to seek to censor me or have me fired. The right not to be arbitrarily dismissed if my scholarship is controversial re-inforces my academic freedom to pursue that scholarship. More generally, it allows academic experts to engage in important public debate and to speak truth to power, without fear of retaliation: think, for example, of the many academic economists who have criticised government financial policy of late, or the many academic historians and archaeologists who have criticised public infrastructural policy.