Professors say they need to have tenure to have academic freedom which sounds too much like the freedom to do or say whatever they want, no matter how radical or inconsequential. Anyway, the Constitution protects academic freedom; you don’t need tenure for that.
Academic freedom is important because society needs “safe havens,” places where students and scholars can challenge the conventional wisdom of “academic freedom,” any field-art, science, politics or whatever. This is not a threat to society; it strengthens society. It puts ideas to the test and teaches students to think and defend their ideas. But how many professors would feel free to talk about controversial ideas if they knew their jobs were on the line?
Tenure gives faculty the independence to speak out about troubling matters and to challenge the administration on issues of new curriculum and quality.
The problem could be academic: For example, an untenured professor was fired by the University of Georgia when she blew the whistle on the administration’s practice of changing grades and waiving academic standards for athletes. (She was reinstated after a lengthy court battle.)
The problem could be political. In Oklahoma, a number of state legislators attempted to have Anita Hill fired from her university position because of her testimony before the U.S. Senate. If not for tenure, professors could be attacked every time there’s a change in the wind.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but the Constitution does not guarantee that you can’t be fired for expressing your beliefs as part of your job. The courts could decide either way — and the burden of proof shifts sharply to the professor.
What if dismissed professors always had to go to the courts to seek fair treatment? The governance process under tenure may seem cumbersome, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the time and expense of moving disputes from the college board room to the courtroom.
Remember: There are limits to tenure. Tenure does not mean that a science teacher can hold students to his or her belief that the sun revolves around the earth, and it doesn’t mean professors can act unprofessionally.