Tenure Decisions: When Taboo Words Trouble Administrators

By Timothy Jay

MSCA Perspective, March 2001

My primary reason for accepting a job offer from what is now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts over other colleges was that it was a tenure track job. My family and I moved at our own expense to Massachusetts to take a tenure track job over a higher paying job elsewhere for personal, financial, and academic security. Massachusetts state college salaries were then, as they are now, among the lowest in the United States. But we needed the financial security to pay off our college debts and I needed the academic security to continue my studies of taboo language. My taboo research never went unnoticed. The Boston Globe ran an item on my dissertation before I arrived here. I would soon find out what this publicity meant.

At a campus social gathering, I was told by my Academic Dean (a former Jesuit) that doing research on taboo words was "not a good idea for getting tenure." We had no union at the time and I really had no recourse but to comply. The President of the College was less blunt; he asked why committed researchers like me took state college jobs. What about the "professional development" and "scholarly activity" clauses in our contracts, I wondered?

These events were shocking and anxiety provoking to a young faculty member with family obligations. After publishing a review paper on taboo words in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, I retired my taboo research to appease the Dean. I spent the next five years doing research on Computer Assisted Instruction, enough to win the G. Stanley Hall Award for excellence in undergraduate education from the American Psychological Association. But this computer work was not of my heart. I only did it because I was forced to.

I awaited my tenure decision. I was unsure what would follow. Soon thereafter, a friend and colleague at Hamilton College invited me to give a lecture on taboo words. His support would change my life. He convinced me to give up the computer work and turn full time to the psychology of taboo.

Here's the terrible part about tenure and academic freedom. I was told by a colleague years after being granted tenure that the Dean suggested to some members of my tenure committee that I did not deserve tenure. He did not like my research and did not think that I should be given tenure. To this day I am not sure who voted for me and who did not.

I think I have accomplished a lot since getting tenure. In January 2000, I published my fourth book, Why We Curse. I have been called the preeminent scholar of profanity by the Wall Street Journal. But I can't tell you what my administrators think of me. My research has appeared in over 500 interviews in every form of media. My research has had an impact on our culture. It has been used to make decisions about language on license plates, in advertisements, on prime time television, and what can be said in the classrooms, in courtrooms, and on picket lines. This attention has put the name of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in many places where it would not have appeared otherwise and raised the visibility of the College. What is critically important here is that I could not have done this work without the security and stability of tenure.

My tenure benefited my entire family. We all achieved because we had the stability and motivation to do so, in spite of oppressive forces. Without tenure, I would not be here in Massachusetts. Were it not a part of the job offer, I would have waited for a tenure track job in another state.

Tenure gives me the strength to speak out here against challenges to academic freedom like those I have experienced. It gives me the ability to support untenured colleagues who currently are threatened by the Board of Higher Education and local administrators. Tenure is the wedge that makes it worth teaching in a low paying state system like Massachusetts. Without tenure, promising scholars and teachers will not seek employment at our state colleges. Massachusetts and its college students deserve a decent higher education system, not one that chases scholars away.

Timothy Jay is Professor of Psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His books include Cursing in America and What to do When Your Students Talk Dirty; he is currently writing a textbook on language for Prentice Hall.