Sounding Off: Tenure should not equal immunity 

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Amy Wax poses for a portrait for Penn Law faculty. Most recently, the neurologist/lawyer was a guest on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show on April 8, 2022, when she said the following: “There is just a tremendous amount of resentment and shame of non-western peoples against western peoples for western peoples’ outsized achievements and contributions. It’s really unbearable.”  Photo courtesy of: law.upenn.edu

In past articles, I have written about my feelings regarding the field I intend to enter post-college — education — as well as my thoughts on freedom of speech. Today, I want to talk about a subject that bridges the gap between those two topics: tenure. According to the American Association of University Professors, academic tenure is “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” As to why the AAUP considers the concept to be important, one major argument is that “the principal purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education.” 

While the idea of safeguarding academic freedom sounds great, the same issue arises here that does when discussing freedom of speech — and that is all about the caveats that come with permanence and absolutes. For example, I completely agree that teachers should not have to fear that their administration or the government will interfere in their education of students, but if a teacher is practicing certain inappropriate teaching methods or saying certain things that are objectively harmful, the ability to draw a line in the sand must exist. 

Let’s look at University of Pennsylvania professor Amy Wax, a figure who has made news headlines multiple times recently. Most recently, the neurologist/lawyer was a guest on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show on April 8, 2022, when she said the following: “There is just a tremendous amount of resentment and shame of non-western peoples against western peoples for western peoples’ outsized achievements and contributions. It’s really unbearable.” 

When an authority figure like a professor makes a statement like that in a space as public as Carlson’s show, it sends a message. That message is in direct contradiction to former UPenn President Amy Gutmann’s statement, which is still front-and-center on the school’s diversity website: “Diversity is not only a public good—it is also very good for Penn. Our quest for eminence depends on great minds that represent a wide array of perspectives and backgrounds.” 

If the school cared so much about lifting up and supporting students with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, it would not protect a person willing to make offensive, pejorative generalizations about a large portion of the world. Wax lives in a world where she believes that western people have “outsized achievements and contributions,” and she’s allowed to maintain that supremacist reality because of a system that supports her ideology. 

In response to anti-Asian comments Wax made in January 2022, the dean of Penn Law stated that despite many of Wax’s statements and beliefs being “thoroughly anti-intellectual and racist,” “[she] makes these statements as a faculty member with tenure, a status that has done, and continues to do, important work in protecting the voices of scholars on a range of controversial topics including those who are actively challenging racism, sexism, and other inequities in society.” 

Herein lies the problem. People that have the goal of gaining tenure in order to be safe in spewing hatred and insensitivity will always be able to hide behind the defense that tenure also protects those under attack for pushing progressive ideas. It is a vicious cycle, because much of that attack seems to come from tenured scholars like Wax who ostensibly do not want progress. 

Whenever a cycle like this occurs, it seems that the best answer might be that the current solution simply doesn’t work. Sure, tenure is great for defending scholars fighting for equity for all, and we live in a time where those people are in desperate need of protection, but having a limited availability solution that also fuels the opposition is counterproductive. 

When an institution chooses to grant academic immunity to an individual, there is no real guarantee that that person will utilize that responsibility in the way the school intended it to be used. Alternatively, schools should introduce more guidelines on speech, and which hateful ideologies and sentiments will not be tolerated. Schools should also set up other protections so that scholars doing work on certain matters will receive the support of the institution. This way, educators who do not cross the line into harmful territory will not be punished.  

In the end, this is a very abstract, shot-in-the-dark kind of article, but the bottom line is that tenure is a broken system, and schools should focus less on the individual and more on the topics and arguments that should either be protected or condemned.  

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