What Exactly Does Tenure Mean?


What Exactly Does Tenure Mean?


Leonard Zwelling


The first line of this article says it all:

“Amy Wax, a law professor, has said publicly that ‘on average, Blacks have lower cognitive abilities than whites,’ that the country is ‘better off with fewer Asians’ as long as they tend to vote Democratic, and that non-Western people feel a ‘tremendous amount of resentment and shame.’”

To most people this would be considered offensive stuff. However, it is not illegal and Dr. Wax’s tenure guarantees her the right to say these things—even if she says them to students and even if many find the remarks repellent.

But, is that still true? Does tenure mean anything?

There is clearly a movement on many college campuses to regulate speech into a narrow, leftward tilting direction of wokeism and poly-cultural exceptionalism. In this front-page article in The New York Times on March 13, Vimal Patel reports on the large amount of discomfort Dr. Wax’s statements have elicited and the fact that the University of Pennsylvania Law School dean has filed a complaint against Dr. Wax.

The issues at hand are what is the red line over which a tenured professor cannot go in expressing what he or she believes to be the truth and who decides.

A little context first.

The article points out that Dr. Wax was raised as an observant, conservative Jew and has an undergraduate degree from Yale and a medical degree from Harvard along with her subsequent law degree from Columbia. She has tried cases before the Supreme Court. She is an outspoken advocate for what some would call “traditional American values” including no out of wedlock children, respecting authority, and the avoidance of coarse words. In her opinion, these are consistent with adult behavior.

Reading the article, you get the sense that Dr. Wax is a brilliant, opinionated, outspoken woman who does not tolerate nonsense of any kind and who has a rather dim outlook on things not white, straight, or “American.”

There are lots of people like Dr. Wax. The question is whether she has been so vocal as to have crossed that red line that is supposed to constrain those whose speech is not to be constrained—tenured professors.

This is eerily reminiscent of the latest pushes to force the academic physicians in America’s institutes of academic medicine to be “more professional.” What this really means is that the doctors have to be less offensive, less egotistical, less vociferous, and less domineering. Now, I don’t know about you, but if another human being is going to take me to the operating room and open up my head or chest, redo the plumbing, or remove extraneous material, I really want that person to be egomaniacal and domineering. I’ll be asleep so won’t know what goes on in the operating room, but if my doctor needs to yell at a nurse to have the operation go better, that’s fine with me. Is that form of behavior necessary? Usually not. But that doesn’t mean it never is.

I think academic leaders are too quick to judge physicians under their administrations as not professional. Until the leaders have walked in the shoes of the physician in charge of a patient’s care under the systems that the leaders have established, they should not sit in judgment of the faculty member.

It is good to know that at the University of Pennsylvania, in the case of Dr. Wax, there will be a hearing of what she did or did not say. That hearing is more than I can say for those singled out by Dr. Pisters for derailment as unprofessional.

It is critical that we in academia be very careful about who we choose to silence. People have a right to their opinions and tenured professors have a right to express those views in the classroom, even if they offend the delicate sensibilities of some of today’s students.

I am going to predict that wokeness will become crucial in the 2024 Presidential campaign. Speech is only free if the most offensive speech is protected. Does that mean that tenured professors might say hurtful things? It does. Should they be fired for making such statements? The University of Pennsylvania is going to have to decide if the case of Dr. Wax is sufficiently grave to eliminate the protection afforded by tenure.

At MD Anderson where lifetime tenure does not exist, the latest trick is to dismiss faculty who the president considers unprofessional or to wait out the clock on those with tenure until they arrive six months short of their renewal date at which point the letter informing the offending faculty member that his or her tenure will not be renewed arrives. This has happened to at least three people at Anderson and probably many more.

I really don’t know when our American students became so sensitized to microaggressions that trigger warnings are invoked in classes teaching Huckleberry Finn. But I am quite sure that Governor DeSantis is going to make this an issue.

We have not heard the last of turmoil over free speech in academia or who defines what constitutes professional behavior.  The lawyers will be busy.


Did you know? Dr. Zwelling’s new book “Conflict of Interest” becomes available Spring 2023. Check LenZwelling.com for the latest on this book and information on how you can purchase a copy.

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