under pressure

Technology Review has a good article on ex-Google employee Timnit Gebru, an AI researcher who recently co-authored a paper questioning the social and environmental effects of some of Google’s projects and got herself sacked for it. One specific element of the story has caught my attention.

Only one of Gebru’s co-authors talked with Technology Review about their troublesome paper: Emily Bender, a professor of computational linguistics at the University of Washington. From the article:

Gebru and Bender’s paper has six coauthors, four of whom are Google researchers. Bender asked to avoid disclosing their names for fear of repercussions. (Bender, by contrast, is a tenured professor: “I think this is underscoring the value of academic freedom,” she says.)

Please consider that story in light of this one from the WSJ, which describes how Medaille College and other American colleges and universities are eliminating tenure in response to financial troubles. At Medaille the word tenure is still used but, as the article makes clear, it doesn’t mean anything: “Professors remain tenured but the term no longer carries traditional protections. Tenured faculty will work on three-year renewable contracts, class loads are about 20% larger, and even they can be laid off with two months’ notice.”

Add to that the situations — some listed here — in which insufficient wokeness is cause for the dismissal of non-tenured faculty and ongoing harassment and public humiliation of the tenured. (Though I suspect that for us academics getting in trouble with the Woke Police ought to be pretty far down on our list of worries.)

Now, ask youself: When researchers in the academy are subjected to political pressures from the left and financial pressures from budget-slashing administrators — who never, by the way, slash administrative budgets: those continue to grow apace — and when researchers outside the academy are subject to immediate dismissal for speaking truths that are inconvenient to their employers, what’s the outlook for truly groundbreaking research, in any field? Spoiler: Not great.