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Tenure and the Culture of Silence

Pamela Gay, currently an Assistant Research Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, published a blog post this morning about how she regrets not publicly confronting a famous person who harassed her at a science fiction convention. There is bound to be a lot of discussion of this incident in the skeptical blogosphere–and here I’ll use my Totally Real Psychic Powerz to predict that a significant portion of it will be extremely unpleasant–but there is an important factor in this case that I think is likely to be missed in the broader discussion: the role that the tenure system plays in silencing adjuncts and junior faculty when it comes to speaking out about their negative experiences, both within academia and in the broader culture.


Let’s look at a few select quotes from Gay’s post (emphases mine):


There are many reasons I didn’t report it […] Second, the famous person was, um, famous, and I was an adjunct professor at a small university who podcasts; I didn’t want to have to deal with drama that could lead to no future work because a drunk guy acted inappropriately.


In order to succeed, I thought I had to make no waves and miss no opportunity.


My mistake was being silent and pretending nothing ever happened…I’m sorry I didn’t do something because – like you are now – I was young and just wanted a career.


When we think about the tenure system, we think of it as something designed to protect academics’ ability to speak out on important issues without having to fear for their livelihood. We think of tenure as the cornerstone of academic freedom, as the light at the end of the very, very long tunnel of the PhD, the patchwork of post-docs and adjunct jobs, and the merciless six-year grind of the tenure track. We value it so much that being a professor is consistently ranked among the best jobs to have, despite the fact that academics earn far less than other professionals with graduate-level training, and sometimes only barely more than public school teachers with equivalent experience.

But there’s an important flip-side to tenure, and that is the effect it has on those faculty who do not have it. We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the terrible working conditions faced by most adjuncts–the job insecurity, the low pay, the lack of benefits–but one of the greatest challenges non-tenured faculty face in trying to carry out their duties in an often hostile and demoralizing work environment is that of cultivating and maintaining the kind of spotless professional reputation that will be required of them should they ever want to advance along the tenure track.

Awarding someone tenure is a huge investment for the institution. Some of this is financial: the school has to guarantee enough funding in the endowment to pay that person’s salary for life, after all. But, even more importantly, they also have to ensure to the best of their ability that, once given a lifetime appointment, faculty members will remain productive scholars and teachers for decades while also participating in their departments and the larger university community in a positive way. Unfortunately, many departments and administrators take this last concern as an obligation to weed out any candidates whom they think might cause “problems” down the road; that is to say, they use the tenure-granting process to ensure that those invaluable protections are only granted to those who are least likely to need them.

PhDs on the job market are given lots of advice meant to “protect” them in this regard:

Don’t drink at the interview dinner, or they might think you’re a secret alcoholic and too big a risk to hire.

Don’t disclose invisible disabilities or medical conditions, or they might think it will be too expensive to meet your needs.

If you have a uterus, deny any possibility that you might use it and force them to find a leave replacement.

If you do manage to land a position, don’t ask for too much in negotiations or they might just rescind your offer.

And, of course, don’t speak out against rape or they might decide you’re too mouthy to keep around.

In a profession where so much of your success will be determined by a small group of mentors and peers, just about the most dangerous thing you can have is a reputation for “causing trouble.” And as we can plainly see in Gay’s reasoning for keeping silent about the incident in question, the fear of gaining such a reputation continues to have a pernicious chilling effect when it comes to speaking out on important issues like harassment and sexual assault both within academia and elsewhere.

Though no longer an adjunct, Gay still does not enjoy the protection of tenure: “research” professorships are a new class of non-tenured contract jobs that universities have created to more closely mirror the work done by tenured and tenure-track faculty without the pesky protections and long-term guarantees of the tenure system. For this reason, her decision to speak out after years of silence still carries with it appreciable professional risk. And while she acknowledges that her hand has been forced by the possible release of audio recordings related to the incident in question, I think we can all appreciate the courage it took to come forward with her story despite the ever-present possibility of future professional repercussions.

As academics, I also think it’s incredibly important that we critically evaluate the role the tenure system played in silencing Gay for the last five years, and the role it continues to play in silencing thousands of non-tenured faculty, post-docs, and graduate students: those who fear that speaking the truth will deny them their one shot at ever-diminishing pot of gold at the end of the ivory rainbow. Everyone–not just tenured professors–should be able to speak up about the things that matter, to offer more than just a whispered “me, too.”


Full disclosure: Nicole Gugliucci, a writer on this blog, works with Pamela Gay in her capacity as a post-doc at SIUE.

Image credit: BDEngler

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. May 31, 2014 at 4:17 pm —

    While I have never been in such a difficult situation as Pamela Gay finds herself in, I too was quiet about things on the tenure track, specifically about my atheism. My school is a religious one, and while there was no statement of faith required and there’s a diversity in religious beliefs, I was warned by someone I trust that I shouldn’t disclose my lack of belief. Now that I am tenured, I still keep it to myself as life could be made much more difficult if people wanted. Tenure doesn’t protect from the hostile work environment, though it would take some doing to fire me now.

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