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Is tenure justified? An experimental study of faculty beliefs about tenure, promotion, and academic freedom

Stephen J. Ceci a1 , Wendy M. Williams a2 and Katrin Mueller-Johnson a3
a1 Department of Human Development, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.
a2 Department of Human Development, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.
a3 Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB3 9DT, United Kingdom.

Article author query
ceci sj   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
williams wm   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
mueller-johnson k   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


The behavioral sciences have come under attack for writings and speech that affront sensitivities. At such times, academic freedom and tenure are invoked to forestall efforts to censure and terminate jobs. We review the history and controversy surrounding academic freedom and tenure, and explore their meaning across different fields, at different institutions, and at different ranks. In a multifactoral experimental survey, 1,004 randomly selected faculty members from top-ranked institutions were asked how colleagues would typically respond when confronted with dilemmas concerning teaching, research, and wrong-doing. Full professors were perceived as being more likely to insist on having the academic freedom to teach unpopular courses, research controversial topics, and whistle-blow wrong-doing than were lower-ranked professors (even associate professors with tenure). Everyone thought that others were more likely to exercise academic freedom than they themselves were, and that promotion to full professor was a better predictor of who would exercise academic freedom than was the awarding of tenure. Few differences emerged related either to gender or type of institution, and behavioral scientists' beliefs were similar to scholars from other fields. In addition, no support was found for glib celebrations of tenure's sanctification of broadly defined academic freedoms. These findings challenge the assumption that tenure can be justified on the basis of fostering academic freedom, suggesting the need for a re-examination of the philosophical foundation and practical implications of tenure in today's academy.

(Published Online February 8 2007)

Key Words: academia; academic freedom; ethical issues; faculty beliefs; professoriate; promotion; scientific misconduct; tenure; whistle-blowing.