One of the enduring myths of higher education is that the vast majority of professors are protected by tenure and have jobs for life, and so they are therefore free to research, teach, or speak openly about controversial ideas without fear of professional retaliation. This may have been the case 50 years ago — maybe even 30 years ago — but is far less common today because of seismic changes in how colleges recruit and staff their faculty ranks.

Today, three out of every four faculty are employed off the tenure track, and nearly half are part-time faculty, often known as “adjunct” professors, who work on short-term contracts with no guarantee of renewal. That employment arrangement, which The Los Angeles Times recently called “adjunctification” in a scathing editorial published last week, allows universities to end a contingent faculty member’s contract for no reason, for a good reason, or for a bad reason.

These are the opening two paragraphs of Jordan Howell and Adam Steinbaugh, “How adjunctification undermines academic freedom, and what FIRE is doing to help,” FIRE, December 6, 2021. FIRE is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In “The Myth of ‘Adjunctification’ and Disappearing Tenure in Higher Ed,” American Institute for Economic Research, December 7, 2021, Phil W. Magness challenges their data. He does a nice job of that and so I won’t repeat his analysis here.

But Phil also points out that FIRE seems to have shifted its focus somewhat from defense of academic freedom to “academic labor activism.”

The authors don’t ever come out in favor of tenure but the tone of the piece suggests that they think tenure is something that FIRE should push for. For example, after discussing the precariousness of employment as an adjunct without tenure, the authors ask:

Can academic freedom survive under these conditions?

They don’t answer that question but in context it appears that they think the answer is no.

FIRE started as an organization that defended academic freedom for faculty and students on campuses and did a first-rate job of that for over a decade. But it appears to now be in the business of telling colleges and universities what kinds of employment contracts they should have.

Moreover, the two FIRE authors don’t seem to recognize trade0ffs in employment contracts. Howell and Steinbaugh write:

For adjunct faculty, unstable employment and the ever-present threat of contract nonrenewal means not only economic hardship because of wage insecurity, but also academic hardship. Simply speaking one’s mind in a public forum carries the risk of retaliation.

But imagine a world in which there is no tenure. Isn’t it likely that wages (salaries) would be even higher than they are now for strong performers? And yes, they’re right that there probably would be more risk of retaliation for a faculty member speaking his or her mind. But some faculty members would willingly give up tenure and take that risk, especially if they were strong performers.

Moreover, as Magness points out, the authors seem to ignore opportunity costs (Bastiat’s unseen) and unintended consequences. He writes:

We hear about faculty speech controversies when a currently employed professor – whether tenured or not – loses his or her job for saying something that makes them [sic] a target for punitive action. What we do not see, however, are the faculty who never get hired in the first place because the tenure system allows the dominant political faction within a department to veto any applicant from a minority viewpoint. Nor do we see the faculty who find ideological roadblocks to career advancement due to the tenure system’s many chokepoints, and political uses of them by a left-leaning majority to reward allies and penalize opponents. As a result, tenure is at best a mixed bag – sometimes it protects the already-employed, but at other times it means that candidates with unpopular views are never offered employment or promotion in the first place.

On the one hand, we have articles like those by Howell and Steinbaugh that cause me to be critical of FIRE. On the other hand, we still see FIRE performing magnificently, as in its recent defense of a professor who researches people who are sexually attracted to minors but don’t act on that attraction. (Parenthetically, even though I often enjoy Gutfeld on Fox News Channel, I was stunned by his and his guests’ recent apparent inability to distinguish among three things: (1) those who are attracted to minors; (2) those who act on that attraction; and (3) those who research people who are attracted to minors.) Also FIRE has been outspoken against the extreme measures taken during the Obama administration on sexual harassment. So there’s a lot of good there.

This is the time of year when I choose the charities I’m going to give money to. Ever since 2003, I’ve given money (not a large amount) to FIRE. I’ve never hesitated before. While I’m still leaning in favor of giving my usual three-figure contribution, this is the first time I’ve been torn.