Tenure and academic freedom

Letter to the editor, Australian Universities' Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1989, pp. 45-46

The need for academic tenure is commonly justified by the need to protect academic freedom (1). In the many cases of dissent by academics which I've studied, I can certainly affirm that tenure has been crucial in protecting some of them from dismissal (2).

On the other hand, there are many academics who do research or speak out on controversial issues who are not tenured. How is tenure essential to their academic freedom?

Furthermore, it can be argued that the process by which academics gain tenure actually discourages the exercise of academic freedom: to make themselves suitable candidates for appointment and promotion, many scholars avoid rocking the boat in any way. The many years of being cautious in order to get a premanent post ensure that most tenured academics hardly know what it means to undertake research or to speak out in a way threatening to powerful interest groups (3).

My conclusion is that the relation between tenure and academic freedom is much more complex than commonly stated. I present here a few notes towards a reformulation.

In material terms, tenure is essentially protection of the employment conditions for certain workers. It is only to be expected that academics would use whatever means possible to establish and maintain their job security. From this perspective, 'academic freedom' is, in part, a rhetorical claim used to defend security of employment.

Earlier in the century, the American Association of University Professors actually renounced a wider definition of academic freedom in order to obtain tenure for its members. In the process of establishing a narrow construction of academic freedom, they failed to defend a number of the more radical or marginal academics. According to one analyst, academics 'effectively traded civil liberties for job security' (4).

The very process of establishing the social science disciplines has been analysed as one of defining scholarship to be separate from social activism (5). This process included a failure to defend prominent dissident scholars.

Academic freedom, I would argue, is related less to tenure than to institutional relationships. The greatest threat to academic freedom today comes from academic administrators, not from outsiders such as corporations or religious groups (6).

Generally, the greater the degree of hierarchy and centralisation of administrative power, the less academic freedom. Administrators are often willing to act against dissidents who threaten corporate and government interests, due to a commonality of interests and personal links. Historically, when the academic community has come under serious threat from the outside, administrators often have taken the initiative in rooting out dissidents, leaving little meaning to 'academic freedom' (7).

Administrators act most vigorously when they themselves are threatened by dissent from below. The sacking of Professor Sidney Sparkes Orr, who was a prominent critic of the running of the University of Tasmania in the 1950s, is the classic Australian example (8).

Intellectual freedom is likely to be greater when society is less monolithic. Systems of countervailing power, such as trade unions versus employers, provide resources for academics to gain support for different types of dissent. Opportunities for other jobs are also important. Dissent is easier when alternative careers are available.

It is not hard to see that in the terms of this analysis, the Australian Government's Unified National System is likely to reduce the exercise of academic freedom. Hierarchy and managerial systems are being fostered within institutions. Academia is being increasingly tied to Government and industrial imperatives, with little countervailing power. Finally, amalgamations are reducing the diversity of institutions and hence the plurality of institutional locations which is more favourable to dissent.

Simply because tenure is being maintained (for the time being) does not ensure a maintenance of real opportunities and encouragement to exercise academic freedom. Even less do pronouncements by the Government provide any protection. It is the changes in institutional arrangements which are most important, and these pose obvious disincentives to dissent. The simplistic linking of tenure and academic freedom obscures the significance of these deeper changes.


(1) Most recently in this journal by S. V. Rao and W. W. Bostock, 'The place of tenure in efficient academic organisations', Australian Universities' Review, 32, 2, 1988, pp. 30-33.

(2) Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (eds.), Intellectual Suppression (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1986).

(3) Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals (New York: Basic Books, 1987), pp. 158-159; Brian Martin, 'Academics and social action', Higher Education Review, 16, 2, Spring 1984, pp. 17-33.

(4) Sheila Slaughter, 'The danger zone: academic freedom and civil liberties', Annals of the American Academy of Politics and Social Science, Vol. 448, March 1980, pp. 46-61.

(5) Mary O. Furner, Advocacy and Objectivity (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975).

(6) Anthony Arblaster, Academic Freedom (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974); Lionel S. Lewis, Scaling the Ivory Tower (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

(7) Joseph Haberer, Politics and the Community of Science (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969); Ellen W. Schrecker, 'An obligation of candor: the academy's response to Congressional investigating committees', New York University Education Quarterly, 14, 3-4, Spring-Summer 1983, pp. 23-30.

(8) W. H. C. Eddy, Orr (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1961).

Brian Martin
University of Wollongong

email: bmartin@uow.edu.au

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