27.2.05

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, YOU JUST MIGHT GET IT. The Kerry Spot covers a speech by former Speaker of the House and former academician Newt Gingrich, in which the Speaker Emeritus suggests academic tenure provides no protections academicians would otherwise enjoy.

You don’t need tenure in this country anyway. The idea that he would be oppressed without tenure is nonsense. There are 75 whacked-out foundations that would hire him for life. Dozens of Hollywood stars would hold fundraisers for him. His life will become a film by Michael Moore.

The question here, is ‘What obligation does society have to fund its own sickness?’

We ought to say to campuses, it’s over…We should say to state legislatures, why are you making us pay for this? Boards of regents are artificial constructs of state law. Tenure is an artificial social construct. Tenure did not exist before the twentieth century, and we had free speech before then. You could introduce a bill that says, proof that you’re anti-American is grounds for dismissal.

Ouch. Donna Shalala or Stanley Fish might have different ideas about what is anti-American than would Newt Gingrich. Set up no machinery of repression you would not entrust your most severe critic to operate. (By the way, there is no such thing as an "artificial" social construct. Institutions evolve to reduce transactions costs. The question before the house is, are there more efficient ways of achieving the desirable outcomes of academic tenure, with fewer of the bad features?)

The next Kerry Spot post offers some followups. A Poliblogger post (and I wish I had met the owner of that site, who works at Troy, before December 30), calls for quotation and commentary in detail.

There already exists a great deal of resentment towards universities in the public, and Churchill has become the poster child for that resentment. Still, I find it ulikely that there will actually be a major movement to utterly do away with tenure. Although I will note that there has been a diminution in the number of tenure-track jobs in recent years, and that fact has nothing to do with public pressure.

Setting aside the issue, for a moment of whether tenure is a good thing or not, I find Gingrich’s stance to be stunning. Yes, Ward Churchill has said, and will continue to say, hateful thing about the United States, yet how in the world does Mr. Gingrich propose operationalizing the concept of “anti-America” and thereby codifying it into law? And do we really even want to do such a thing? Do we want to unleash a witch hunt in our universities to weed out those who don’t think and speak “the right way"? To what end? What will we, as society, gain from such a process?

Amen. And to what extent might the existing "diversity" machinery be co-opted into this process with only the objects of hounding changed? And Poliblogger is correct that it would be very easy to weed out the "anti-American" formerly tenured faculty and enhance productivity, badly measured, at the same time.
I will say this: a lot of university administrators would love to get rid of tenure. It would allow them to cow the faculty, because any uppity professor who dared to challenge the administration would know that their job was on the line, meaning that there would be a whole lot fewer uppity professors to have to deal with. Doing away with tenure would take away the ability of the faculty from being any kind of check on administrations, who often do not make decisions based on the best academic/educational reasons, but rather looking solely at financial considerations. Further, doing away with tenure would allow administrators to create more jobs like this one, noted by OTB’s Leopold Stotch, which has the long-term effect of turning universities into the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th grades. The tenure system, which requires more than just teaching, helps to guarantee that professors are, indeed, area specialists–i.e., experts in their fields who engage in career-long learning and contribution, not just teachers who get four years of training and then teach essentially the same thing their whole careers.
This is true up to a point. It is not always clear that tenure is recognition of scholarship already done, or anticipation of research yet to come, and administrators like to exploit tenured faculty by seeking to make them serve on proliferating committees, or become department chairmen, or otherwise spend less time either on original thinking or on revising their class notes, or seeking a clean proof that a function is linear if and only if it is concave and convex. (That's not as easy as it looks. Prove it from first principles, without taking derivatives or asserting it as a definition.) This conclusion, however, is correct.

On a more minor notes, Gingrich statement “Tenure did not exist before the twentieth century, and we had free speech before then.” is a non sequitur. For one thing free speech, per se, isn’t the underlying issue, academic freedom is, which is a related topic, but not the same thing. Further, whether or not there was free speech (or academic freedom) pre-20th century raises questions about the quality of that speech at that time, as well as the nature of the university system in the 19th century.

Really, conservatives make a major mistake in making Ward Churchill representative of the entire academy. Further, he is more effectively an argument against affirmative action hiring, rather than an argument against tenure or some generic critique of the academic world.

Yes. Freedom of speech, narrowly defined, applies to political speech. Private universities, strictly speaking, can restrict speech without running afoul of the First Amendment. But private universities that do not encourage the continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found, which is the essence of academic freedom, limit themselves to parroting work already done, while adding nothing to the understanding or the development of that work. (It is true that some tenured professors are equally guilty of that, but the blame for that rests on the professor himself as well as on the tenure system. It is also true that sifting and winnowing includes, but is not limited to, the questioning of the existing order of things.)

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