He was also a little odd. Within academia he was protected; safe, really. I honestly do not think he could have survived outside. In the "real world" many would have thought him more than a little odd.
What I found most charming about him was his sense of the absurd. He was often irreverent. He was also brilliant, a scholar of international reputation who had won some of the most prestigious awards in his field of study. Students adored him. He was good at what he did. According to the rules of HIS game, he had earned the right to say or do pretty much whatever came into his head. I always thought "Good for him." Except that time I had finished interviewing for a staff vacancy and he stood by my door as I reviewed my notes yelling, "Hire the pretty one!" I can assure you he never even saw any of the candidates. He walked away laughing to himself without waiting for me to reply. Sigh.
The rules of my game were a little different. No matter how good I was at my job, I couldn't say everything that popped into my head. Sure, I wanted to! There were plenty of irreverent thoughts up there that wanted to come out, especially at inappropriate times. I pushed the limits as best I could, but something always stopped me. Something controlled my behavior. I am fairly certain it was the fear of being fired. FYI, tenured faculty do not have that fear. Instead, they have "tenure." I am still trying to figure out if that is a good thing or a bad thing.
In the U.S., after 6 years an assistant professor in a tenure-track position must endure a mind numbing, spectacularly brutal peer evaluation of their work called a tenure review.
The stakes are high both for the tenure candidate (who pretty much cannot be fired after they get tenure) and the department (who could conceivably be stuck with a horrible colleague forever if they give him/her tenure). If an assistant professor doesn't get tenure, they are given a terminal year of employment and then they are out the door.
Let me say this again in case I wasn't clear, once tenured you cannot be fired unless you do something criminal or litigious. You have a job for life even if you never publish again, don't mentor graduate students, advise undergraduates poorly, treat your colleagues like dirt, or fail to attract large numbers of students to your classes because you are so incredibly boring. Of course the overwhelming majority of professors maintain collegiality and high professorial standards, but there are always a few notable exceptions.
A professor would tell you tenure is the basis of academic freedom. Tenure allows them to pursue truth and do their best and purest work without fear of reprisal, censure, or compromise. That is probably true.
Still...it is an imperfect system. The collective damage caused by an unfettered ego or a mean-spirited, malicious malcontent can be a special kind of trauma for everyone else in an academic department. And if the ego or malcontent is a tenured professor, there is not much you can do to stop it except to find another job and hope the new department doesn't harbor a malicious malcontent, too.
Tenure is an established rite of passage for academics. Faculty count on it. They will never give it up. As a direct result of tenure, academia sometimes feels like an alternate reality, one in which actions don't always have consequences, and rules don't always apply...for some.
|A gargoyle holding up a table on the Arts & Sciences quadrangle|