A New Year’s Resolution: What the hell’s tenure for?

Lyndon Johnson addressing a joint session of Congress, November 27, 1963 (source)

Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a true masterpiece of biography.  I’ve recently been mulling one of my favorite passages from his latest volume, The Passage of Power.  Here is the scene: President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and Lyndon Johnson is now president.

On the evening of November 26, the advisers gathered around the dining room table in his [Lyndon Johnson’s] home to draft the speech he was to deliver the following day to a joint session of Congress were arguing about the amount of emphasis to be given to civil rights in that speech, his first major address as President. As Johnson sat silently listening, most of these advisers were warning that he must not emphasize the subject because it would antagonize the southerners who controlled Congress, and whose support he would need for the rest of his presidency – and because a civil rights bill had no chance of passage anyway. And then, in the early hours of the morning, as one of those adviser recalls, “one of the wise, practical people around the table” told him to his face that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be.

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Lyndon Johnson replied.”

Indeed. Johnson knew what he wanted to accomplish and what was the point in waiting?  What the hell’s the presidency for if you’re not going to use it?

[Update, 1/20/2017: Robert Caro’s lecture on this passage]

More and more often, I find myself asking a variant of Johnson’s question: What the hell’s tenure for?  Here is the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) answer:

Education and research benefit society, but society does not benefit when teachers and researchers are controlled by corporations, religious groups, special interest groups, or the government. Free inquiry, free expression, and open dissent are critical for student learning and the advancement of knowledge. Therefore, it is important to have systems in place to protect academic freedom. Tenure serves that purpose.

A tenured professorship is not a sinecure only requiring that we teach and conduct research. Yet far too often those of us who earned this privilege don’t exercise it, or only use it in mild, comfortable ways. We need to speak up and engage in the public square, not as all-knowing pundits, but as scholars who have accumulated skills, knowledge, and insight.

That’s what I’m going to do in 2017.