Academic Inequities: Nontenured Faculty Punished More Harshly For Controversial Speech
Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a first-of-its-kind study, Scholars Under Fire, which tracked incidents of college faculty being targeted for controversial speech or research.
The results of the study are disheartening, though not necessarily surprising. Targeting incidents, which FIRE defines as “a campus controversy involving efforts to investigate, penalize or otherwise professionally sanction a scholar for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech,” have become more common in recent years and are quite effective. Of 426 targeting incidents documented by FIRE since 2015, nearly three-quarters of those resulted in some form of sanction against the faculty member. And it’s getting worse, with the number of targeting incidents increasing fourfold in just five years.
There are many reasons to read the report and much to be learned from the data gathered by FIRE, where I work. But as a former university instructor with over 10 years of classroom teaching experience — first as a graduate student and then as adjunct faculty — I found the following information about the consequences of speaking out while untenured to be of special interest:
As both a percentage and in terms of raw numbers, adjuncts were most likely to be terminated (29 out of 52; 54%), followed by lecturers (23 out of 47; 49%). It is worth noting that these ranks of scholars are untenured, suggesting that targeting attempts are more likely to result in termination when the scholar is untenured. Indeed, 71 out of 184 (39%) of untenured scholars who faced targeting were terminated. By contrast, 32 out of 240 (13%) of tenured scholars were terminated.
These findings provide hard data to support what many within the silos of academia have long suspected but been unable to prove: that contingent faculty, such as adjuncts and lecturers — who teach roughly 60% of classes at American colleges and universities and often work on short-term contracts at suppressed wages — do not benefit from the same academic freedom protections enjoyed by their tenured colleagues.
Although FIRE’s report has limitations that will be addressed below, one of the sad conclusions drawn from the data is that academic freedom is more of a lofty privilege for the few rather than a right for the many, and the consequences of this transformation within higher education may be dire. In an ideal world, academic freedom provides college faculty an extra layer of protection from professional consequences in response to their teaching or scholarship, which may involve controversial issues. Without strong academic freedom protections, college faculty face a greater risk of retaliation, especially in this charged political environment. As the panic and political posturing over critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and just about any curriculum involving candid discussions about race and racism in America gains momentum, these same contingent faculty are on the frontlines of the education culture wars. They are going to lose dearly, unless colleges, universities, and tenured faculty with the protection of tenure live up to their commitments to support and defend free speech and academic freedom for all faculty.
Trove of Data
The data gathered for the Scholars Under Fire report far surpasses what has so far been published. FIRE also released a companion database as a living repository to capture faculty threats in the future. For each reported incident of faculty targeting, FIRE researchers gathered 161 data points, including the tenure status of each faculty member and their rank at the university. This allows for an accounting of how targeting incidents affect instructors with different employment statuses.
The report also tracks 26 categories describing everything from the initial response from the college administration to the ultimate outcome of the incident. For example, in a hypothetical targeting incident, a university may initially show support for a scholar and ask that scholar to apologize, but if the scholar refuses, then the college suspends or demotes the scholar, who files a lawsuit and wins and returns to work. All of those variables are tracked by the study, though the order in which the events occurred is not always included.
But the data also has limitations. Information about each incident was gathered primarily from media reports, which means incidents that never made the news are left unaccounted for. Moreover, tenured faculty are vastly overrepresented in the current numbers, accounting for 56% of targeting incidents despite constituting just 24% of college faculty. FIRE’s report suggests a possible reason for this:
It may be that non-tenured scholars, due to their professional vulnerability, self-censor more than their tenured scholars, and/or that tenured scholars express themselves more freely because of their professional security. It is also possible that because tenured scholars are more prominent, they may have a larger platform and therefore may be more prone to criticism.
Additional research will be necessary to account for these limitations. Nevertheless, the trove of data gathered by FIRE already paints a troubling picture of how the erosion of tenure in academia has left the majority of America’s college faculty at heightened risk of retaliation for protected speech.
Faculty at Risk
According to data gathered by FIRE for the Scholars Under Fire database, the outcome of a targeting incident is heavily influenced by rank and tenure status. In nearly every way, tenured faculty fared better than untenured faculty, largely because administrators appear to place a greater emphasis on recognizing the academic freedom rights of those at the top of the institutional hierarchy.
For example, among tenured faculty involved in a targeting incident, approximately 1 in 5 received a statement of support from their universities. By comparison, among untenured faculty involved in a targeting incident, only about 1 in 10 received a statement of support. However, these disparities grow when broken down by faculty rank (graph 1). Compared with statements of support for full professors (21.1%) and associate professors (21.8%), the chances of college leadership publicly supporting adjuncts (5.7%) or lecturers (4.2%) involved in a targeting incident are downright dismal. (FIRE identified a grand total of just five instances since 2015.)
Untenured faculty are more likely to be suspended (26%) than tenured faculty (18.7%), who are twice as likely to be demoted (7.5% versus 3.8%). When the data in the Scholars Under Fire database is broken down by rank, adjuncts (40.3%) and lecturers (23.4%) are more likely to be suspended than full professors (17.8%) and associate professors (17.1%).
GRAPH 1. Number of college faculty who were supported or terminated as a result of a targeting incident (2015 - 2021)
Ultimately, it’s not just that untenured faculty are more likely to be terminated — tenured faculty are more likely to experience no form of sanction at all as a result of a targeting incident (graph 2).
GRAPH 2. Number of college faculty who were terminated or experienced no sanction as a result of a targeting incident (2015 - 2021)
In other words, untenured faculty are more likely to face negative consequences — and more severe ones — than their tenured counterparts.
The implications of this seem clear: Exploitation of untenured faculty is eroding academic freedom in higher education. When colleges don’t support their faculty — all faculty — the most precarious in their employment are at greater risk of facing punishment for controversial speech.
What Happened to Academic Freedom?
Data gathered by FIRE for the Scholars Under Fire report paints a gloomy picture of academic freedom in higher education. That an ever-increasing number of untenured professors must fend for themselves when controversy arises makes it clear that academic freedom, which should theoretically apply to all faculty equally, does no such thing.
So what can be done?
First, the biggest takeaway from the report is institutions that had adopted some form of the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression were more likely to have positive outcomes in targeting incidents than colleges that had not. The statement, released at the University of Chicago in 2015, reaffirms a university’s commitment to “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”
FIRE still calls it the gold standard for campus free-speech policy statements. Per the report: “Campuses where the most targeting incidents have occurred tend to also have severely speech-restrictive policies, and are unlikely to have adopted the Chicago Principles guaranteeing the preeminence of free speech.”
Another similar solution is for faculty senates to consider revising the academic freedom statements in their faculty handbooks to include specific references to the rights and protections of academic freedom as they apply to untenured faculty.
The faculty senate at Northwestern University recently did this. According to the Daily Northwestern, “Some of the changes and additions in the handbook’s language include extending academic freedom to tenure-eligible and non-tenure-eligible faculty,” with some professors emphasizing the role of the faculty senate in “identifying and addressing the ‘pressure points’ of non-tenure-eligible faculty and if the rights outlined in the handbook, such as academic freedom, are truly extended to them.”
Ultimately, faculty senates must move with urgency to protect their own. There are many disparities in higher education, but academic freedom shouldn’t be one of them.
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