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  • Debbie Dougherty

Why Do We Need Tenure? Have You Ever Heard of Galileo?

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

A cartoon rat with arm extended.
Why We Need Tenure. Remy inspired art by Fionna Clark

Many years ago, when I was a highly opinionated undergraduate student in Speech Communication at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, I explained to my speech and debate coach that tenure was a ridiculous perk for teachers and faculty and that it should be abandoned as policy. To this day I am grateful for his thoughtful response.

He said, "so you want to know why we need tenure? Are you familiar with Galileo?" Of course I had heard of Galileo, but I did not know much about him.

“He was one of the greatest scientists in the history of human civilization, at least he was until he took a scientific position that was against Church doctrine.“

What is Tenure?

Before I go further, perhaps it would be helpful to explain what tenure is and how it works. I will focus on the University version of tenure because that is what I am most familiar with.

Tenure is, at its core, the protection of knowledge. It allows faculty to discover and to teach knowledge that is unpopular with powerful and influential institutions, such as corporations, government, and the Church. All three have, at times, successfully repressed knowledge. That suppression is never in the best interest of the people.

Who is Eligible for Tenure at Universities?

Getting to the point where you are even eligible to be considered for tenure is a long and arduous process. Here is the long and the short of my process to be considered for a tenure track position.

First, like most people in the United States, I completed my obligatory thirteen years of school, primary to high school. I then spent five years receiving my undergraduate degree at Cal Poly. Why five years? Well, I started off wanting to be an animal scientist, but for a number of reasons found myself drawn to the field of communication (I still have a sheep farm, so I never traveled too far from my agriculture roots).

Once I finished my five years as an undergraduate, I spent two years acquiring a Masters degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton California. I took a break from taking classes for three years and then went to University of Nebraska (Go Big Red!) and spent five years completing my doctorate in Organizational Communication with an emphasis on critical issues in organizations (sexual harassment, emotional manipulation, bullying, etc.)

Let's count. 13 + 5 + 2 + 5 = 25 years.

That is right. Like most people with a PhD, I spent a quarter century learning how to know the world, how to discover knowledge that no one else has discovered. In that time I also worked other jobs (many other jobs. I come from the working class, so there was no family money to pay for my tuition. I either came up with the money on my own or I did not go to school). I also got married, had my first child, helped my Mom through her first bout with breast cancer, and generally lived like other people. Getting my PhD was hands down the hardest thing I ever did.

Because of my years in school, and because of the specialized skills and the promise of my work for discovery, I was hired into a tenure track position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri (M I Z. . .).

How Does Tenure Work?

After 25 years of school, I was finally eligible to be considered for tenure. What does that process look like? To achieve tenure at an institution like the University of Missouri, which is a premier research institution, I had six years to prove that I could produce a large body of high quality research--enough to demonstrate that I was likely to be internationally recognized for my work over the course of my career.

I had to publish in the top journals in my field. What does that mean? The top journals reject up to 93% of the submitted research articles. That means the odds of getting published in these journals is shockingly low. I also had to attend conferences, work with doctoral students, teach both graduate and undergraduate classes, and provide a vast amount of service to the Department, the University, to the Discipline, and to my larger community. It was exhausting. It still is.

At the end of five years, academics in my field from around the country were asked to read my work and decide if my accomplishments merited tenure. Then at the beginning of my sixth year, the Department Tenure Committee reviewed all of my research, my teaching, my service to decide if I should receive tenure (they said yes. Yay!). Then they sent their recommendation to the College of Arts and Science (a subsection of the University), who went through the same process (they also said yes). Then on to the University Committee for Tenure and Promotion (this committee is filled with an intimidating array of scientists from around the university, including lawyers from the law school, animal scientist, engineers, historians, etc.), who goes through the same process (they said yes). The file is then sent to the provost for review, to the chancellor for review, and finally to the the board for review.

Tenure is a long process that involves a large amount of work from a lot of people. And it should. Tenure should be carefully and thoughtfully given to those who will treat it as a sacred trust between themselves and the larger society. Educators must be held to high standards. More importantly, educators must hold themselves to the highest possible standards. Tenure is no joke. It is also absolutely necessary given the way that power is deployed when inconvenient discoveries are made. Like with Galileo.

Back to Galileo

“What scientific position did he take that riled up the church?”

Apparently, Galileo argued that the earth was not the center of the universe. That, instead, the sun was the center of the universe. For daring to speak this truth, Galileo was told by the Church to “abandon completely ... the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the Earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” And he did as ordered. He abandoned this important truth for over 10 years.

Then the Pope at the time asked Galileo to write a book describing the arguments from both sides of the debate, which he did. Unfortunately for Galileo, the Church decided that Galileo was advocating for a particular position—that the earth moves around the sun. For this blasphemy, he was brought before the inquisition, and was determined to most likely be a heretic. He barely avoided being slaughtered, instead spending the rest of his days enduring house arrest.

But he was right. The earth is not the center of the Universe. And guess what? The Catholic Church still functions just fine, even without the earth as the center of everything.

Why We Need Tenure: Discovery is Risky Business

Discovering knowledge and teaching that knowledge to others is risky, especially if your discoveries go against an important doctrine. Here are some other discoveries that have faced resistance from powerful institutions:

  • Women are equally as smart as men.

  • It is healthy for women to play sports.

  • Human created climate change is occurring.

  • There is systematic discrimination against some members of the population.

  • Gun violence is on the rise.

  • Sexual harassment is real and damaging.

Consider the most recent example of the importance of tenure--the new boogie man, Critical Race Theory. The recognition that there was systemic discrimination based on race has been circulating for a very long time, including back when slavery was institutionalized in the United States Constitution. So when Kimberlé Crenshaw demonstrated that the law is systemically racist in intersectional ways (that Black women face particular forms of discrimination because they are both Black and women), most scholars found the work to be interesting and important, but maybe not particularly controversial.

Then the political right discovered Critical Race Theory, determined that racism no longer exists, convinced their constituents that racism is not systemic, and that the political left is feeding nonsense to their children. States have begun to ban teaching critical race theory, and in my opinion, have begun treating educators (such as myself) who study diversity issues, as conspiring against the state.

I suspect that Crenshaw was blindsided by the political dogma around her work that she first began publishing back in 1989--yes, almost 35 years ago. Without tenure, odds of her getting fired for her work would be pretty high. In some countries (think Russia), faculty members who write outside of the political dogma are not only fired, they are jailed, often without trial, often for years.

The Government, the Church, and Large Corporations (I am thinking about climate change research, which has faced push back from all three, often in coordination), have all resisted knowledge and discovery. It never works out well when they are successful in suppressing what people can learn.

Knowledge Production is Messy

You might find it helpful to know that knowledge production is messy. We begin with educated guesses. Sometimes our discoveries are proven wrong, or at least incomplete. There is a process in science for making those corrections. As a result, the discovery process is always in motion. What we know today may be proven wrong tomorrow. That is how the system is designed. It is self correcting.

Even now, as the political dogma pushes back against diversity and inclusion research, the research has evolved to become more specific, more precise, and with better application. I hope that the scholars doing that work will be allowed to continue.

Sometimes I wonder, what kinds of discoveries would Galileo have made if his science had been unfettered from the Church. What type of knowledge can we discover if our work is unfettered from political dogma, religious convictions, and corporate greed?

What are your stories about tenure?

What questions do you have about the tenure process?

Ask, and I will answer.

Next week:

Next week I shift back into my area of expertise by exploring the monster under the bed: How organizational cultures create an ethic of fear.

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31 may 2023
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Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
31 may 2023
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