Why Tenure?: Geoscience Edition

A senior colleague some time ago openly questioned the need for tenure.  Certainly you wouldn’t fire a faculty member without real cause anyways, and the reasons for tenure to protect from political pressure surely didn’t apply to scientists.

As if.

With all the hubbub around Gov. Walker’s bid to demote tenure in Wisconsin, it is worth asking, so what?  After all, most American workers have nothing approaching tenure to protect their jobs. Why should academics be so special?

You might think that geoscience might be free of the sort of argumentative, he-said she-said kind of unresolvable differences that tenure protects.  You might think a STEM field (yes, dear Senators, it really is a STEM field) free of political pressures that might cause pressure to be brought to fire somebody.  You could think that those within the field would be relatively free of the petty jealousies that can lead some academics to remove competitors in order to preserve their  hegemony.

You might believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny too.

Maybe in fields like inorganic chemistry and physics the connection to controversial occurrences is weak enough that it is easy for everybody to agree that such research is harmless and worthy of a few crumbs, but earth science studies that very real planet we live on, and like it or not, some of that study is bound to interact with how we live our lives.  Indeed, this would seem to be the kind of research that many in Congress are (claiming to be ) asking for, research that has power to guide us to make better real world decisions.

Years ago, hog farmers in an eastern state tried to get some tenured faculty fired because they had found that the hog farms were polluting drinking water aquifers.  Recently an oil tycoon tried to get some faculty fired who were implicating his industry in causing earthquakes. A CU professor is banned from India in part for speaking out on earthquake hazards and in part from professional conflict with an Indian researcher (his view here). And of course we have the ongoing effort in Congress to gut geoscience research. What might happen without tenure in these cases?

Look, there are a lot of industrial earth scientists.  They are mostly trained by academics in universities. While you could hope they might speak out if their industry was causing damage, say by polluting ground water, destroying ecosystems, or altering the atmosphere, there are immense forces operating against them.  The old Upton Sinclair quote about the difficulty of getting a man to believe something when his pay hinges on him not understanding it is one factor, another are the legal strictures that industry places on employees in the name of industrial secrets, and another is the culture of a place: none of us want to be working on something that is hurting others, so we sometimes convince ourselves that we really aren’t doing that hurt. So for somebody in industry to stand up and say, my company pollutes, my industry is causing global warming, etc.–well, it is rare and she or he is unlikely to remain employed.

This then leaves academics and opposition groups as the only players, and those employed by opposition groups (think various environmental groups for this purpose) carry the stigma of possibly advancing their groups’ agendas at the expense of the truth. Additionally, they usually don’t have the resources or lengthy experience to fully evaluate many controversies; such organizations are often reacting to emerging issues and then shifting focus quite frequently.

This leaves academics, most of whom frankly do not want to be the object of derision and scrutiny but just want to conduct their research in peace and quiet.

So in adding a provision in Wisconsin that ‘the termination of faculty members “when such action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”’ sends the message that if you research something we (in this case, the politically appointed regents) don’t like, we can fire you. And in the current political climate, the sense that you can be dumped for telling truth to power is very chilling.

Sure there are problems with tenure.  Some faculty members abuse the system, shirking responsibilities or behaving poorly, but by and large university faculty members work hard. Sure some study stuff you really think is worthless (and some reading this might think GG’s work pretty pointless–we are all entitled to our opinions). But the cost is small compared with the reward.  Honest opinions are hard to find. There’s a reason may purges in authoritarian countries start at universities; let’s avoid having similar (albeit bloodless) ones here.


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