Book Reviews

In Defense of Tenure

It might be under attack, but academic tenure is essential to preserving
academic freedom.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged AcademiaEducation

I inhabit two worlds. The first is where I work most of the time—the American academy or, more specifically, a state-funded university. What do I see here? A full-time faculty dwindling in numbers and whose salaries are flatlining; rising ranks of “contingent” and contract-based teachers who have little job security; and stressed students who face rising tuitions and ballooning class sizes.

The second world I inhabit, part-time so to speak, is the world of literary journalism and public-policy debate. How is my first world viewed by those in the second? As a place of coddled elites holding lucrative sinecures, protected by an outmoded practice of tenure. Of course, many in this second world attended Ivy League institutions exceptional in their old-fashionedness, the Harvards and Yales that changed little during the twentieth century. Carrying their own college experiences with them, numerous journalists and policy experts make assumptions that don’t fit the existing world of academe—especially the state and community colleges, as well as the online and for-profit institutions, that the majority of Americans attend.

It’s around the bugaboo term tenure that public-policy and journalistic arguments usually begin—and end. Take, for example, Christopher Beam’s “Finishing School”—subtitled “The case for getting rid of tenure”—that appeared in Slate in August 2010. Beam asks his reader to imagine being a posh restaurant owner who decides to “guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution.” The analogy is preposterous, as pleasing a well-off diner and teaching a student don’t really compare. Even worse, Beam admits in the next paragraph that teaching done on the tenure track in America’s colleges—the practice that supposedly allows people to shoot their mouths off—is down to 31 percent and isn’t going to bounce back any time soon. In essence, Beam’s argument ridicules a practice already fast disappearing.

The fact that it’s made at all goes to show how academe still figures to those outside it as a peculiar institution. The right has been notorious in lambasting “tenured radicals” who try to indoctrinate their students with radical ideas (witness David Horowitz’s non-stop shouting and finger-pointing). But many on the left share with the right the idea that the academy is a refuge of privilege and insularity, a static place detached from the realities that most Americans inhabit.

Enter Ellen Schrecker’s book. Well-written and (usually) well-argued, The Lost Soul of Higher Education should be read by those in the public-policy world who want more than the standard polemic. The book espouses the perspective of a professor in the humanities (she teaches at Yeshiva University in my own discipline, history). Early on, Schrecker explains, “so much of what passes for a discussion of higher education today does not bring professors into the conversation.” She proceeds to tell a broad story about how conservative attacks on academe over the last 25 years, along with “corporatization” and job restructuring within universities, have threatened tenure and the value it was meant to protect: “academic freedom.”

A “vaguely fuzzy” term that emerged from abroad (Germany), academic freedom might sound akin to the First Amendment, but it’s not, for the obvious reason that it doesn’t apply to all citizens. Instead, it is a prerequisite for professional academic life, the autonomy necessary for making educated and trained judgments. Schrecker has her own analogy: “[J]ust as judges maintained their independence from the executive officials who appointed them, so too, professors were to be free from external interference.” Academic freedom protects controversial research and teaching from political reprisal. Teachers must be allowed the freedom to use their expertise and training to state truths and explain ideas that might be unpopular to students and readers of their research.

The argument for tenure rests on a largely forgotten history of academic injustice. There are some major cases. In 1895, Edward Bemis, an economist, “lost his job at the University of Chicago…for advocating the public ownership of municipal utilities and railroads.” Just a few years later, the “imperious widow of Leland Stanford” demanded that E.A. Ross, an economist and sociologist, be fired from Stanford since he believed in “the public ownership of railroads” and criticized “the importation of Chinese workers.” Ross played into the “vilest elements of socialism,” Stanford’s widow complained, and thus the president of the university had to oust him, which he did. During World War I, when the country saw a pandemic of civil liberties violations, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler and the board of trustees fired two professors who voiced doubts about America’s entry into that controversial war.

Schrecker then trundles into terrain more her specialty, the Cold War’s impact on American academe, when “McCarthyism” swept the country and resulted in the firing of, in Schrecker’s words, “dozens of college and university teachers merely because of what it was assumed they believed.” Ironically, troubles emerge here. “Most” of those fired from their professorships during this era “were or had been in or near the Communist Party; but by the time they came under attack few were still in the party.” Those who attacked these professors believed “that Communism was incompatible with academic employment.” This episode doesn’t entirely fit the wider history of academic freedom’s violations. The victims here were not bleeding-heart lefties; some of them had been taking their marching orders from an ideologically rigid political party commanded by the Soviet Union. The Cold War purge certainly warns us about hysteria but also raises questions Schrecker shies away from: Can professors deny themselves the privilege that academic freedom protects when pledging their loyalty to a foreign power that dictates certain beliefs? Could a CP member really teach a decent course on world history since 1945, say? I don’t claim that Communist membership would necessarily disqualify someone from teaching, but it certainly—and deservedly—raises serious questions.

Schrecker too often allows her own political leanings to get in the way of making the best case for academic freedom. Consider her take on the 1960s. She goes into great detail about a New Left-inspired faculty initiative called the New University Conference (NUC), a short-lived experiment from 1968 to 1972 that tried to nurture “radical” faculty activism. In other words, the NUC committed itself to politicizing academic life. Some “participated” in “building takeovers” (remember those?) and generally “sought to make their own academic work more relevant to the problems of the day.” Radical members “stormed into the 1968 meeting of the American Sociological Association,” for instance, and “disrupted a speech by the secretary of health, education, and welfare.” One member employed the high-minded tactic of calling “his fellow faculty members ‘bourgeois assholes,’ ” for which he lost his job. The feminist counterpart to this activism—the beginnings of women’s studies in academe, something Schrecker also discusses in detail—encouraged some militant teachers to bar men from their classes and “carry out joint political actions” with their students such as attending protests together and the like.

Schrecker doesn’t defend such zaniness, but she stops short of drawing the conclusion that many readers will draw: That this politicization of education, ideological hardening, and violation of free speech by the left threatened academic freedom. She turns milquetoast when she comments on the New Left mania: “While it was obvious that the radical faculty members’ efforts to politicize the content of academic life did not bring on the revolution, they did, I would argue, transform American culture in ways that still resonate today.” That’s a long-winded way of not passing judgment. Worse, it suggests that Schrecker is too willing to dismiss the dangers posed to academic freedom that come from the American left. A better case for academic freedom would suggest that like a lot of principles, academic freedom eschews radical fringes and sits uncomfortably in the political center, a place threatened from all sides.

Schrecker renews her reader’s confidence when she brings the story up to the present. She is quite good in criticizing some of the dangerous remnants from racial- and sexual-harassment reforms carried out in the past number of years, including “sensitivity training, speech codes, and other measures that many colleges and universities adopted to deal with such expressions of bigotry.” There have been occasions, such as a case from the University of New Hampshire in the 1990s, when these codes butted heads with First Amendment concerns, as the universities erred on the side of the codes but the courts reversed those decisions.

Where Schrecker really takes a risk is in revisiting the Ward Churchill case. Most readers will recall the University of Colorado ethnic studies professor who quipped about New York’s Twin Towers being full of “little Eichmanns” following the attacks on September 11, 2001. This case was a cinch, right? You’ve probably heard that fellow faculty members within the university found Churchill guilty of plagiarism and “academic misconduct,” and that he didn’t even have a Ph.D. in the first place.

Schrecker follows the story out past the time when most had forgotten about it and provides more details. It appears messier than advertised. For instance, the investigations within the university—prompted, Schrecker reminds readers, by the state legislature’s and governor’s calls to fire Churchill—were combative and troubling. A law professor who had already called Churchill an “unpleasant (to say the least) individual” chaired the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct that reviewed his case. Another professor was left off the committee for having previously signed “a general statement in support of academic freedom.” The conclusions from another faculty panel were divided: “[T]wo panelists recommended dismissal. Three opposed it and suggested that he be reduced in rank and suspended for a year without pay.” Finally, in 2009, when most Americans had forgotten the name Ward Churchill, a Denver jury decided his firing had been a violation of his First Amendment rights. Later that year, however, the court ruled that the university’s regents were immune from litigation and refused to give him back his job. Churchill appealed that ruling and lost, and in January petitioned the state Supreme Court to take up the case.

For the most part, Schrecker doesn’t pass judgment on Churchill. Which is good, for when she does, she loses her readers’ sympathy. At one point she muses, “Churchill did not have to be fired. Plagiarists and charlatans remain on other faculties”—not exactly the strongest defense. But Schrecker is certainly right to insist that this case, no matter what transpired as it proceeded, was prompted by outside political pressure—from the governor, the legislature, and the noise machine of cable and the Internet. (Bill O’Reilly originally called for Churchill’s arrest “for sedition.”) It’s hard to disagree with Schrecker’s conclusion: “Churchill would not have been fired had Colorado’s politicians not called for his scalp.”

Schrecker is spot-on arguing that the right—especially that element hopped up on populist resentment against elites—poses the biggest threat to academic freedom today. She’s even better when she conjoins this argument with the theme of “corporatization” that appears in her subtitle. Which brings us back to the tenure issue. For some time now, universities have imported corporate labor practices and have part-timed the American professoriate in order to get around tenure. The numbers here are crystalline: As of 2007, about 50 percent of the teachers in America’s universities were part-time faculty, while just more than 18 percent were full-time non-tenure track.

It’s not just the numbers that matter. Schrecker reminds readers of the human dimension of teaching part-time: “the lack of offices, telephones, mailboxes, coat hooks, supplies, or access to photocopying or computers.” Everything about “their working conditions shrieks second class.” For students, this means professors who can’t even find a place to meet with them to confer about how to perform better in class. But more troublesome are the stories of contingent faculty who have lost their positions precisely because they lack academic freedom. There’s Maureen Watson, who had taught part-time at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, for 12 years. “The administration, which had been pressing the faculty to stop flunking so many students,” terminated her appointment with no due process because she insisted on grading honestly. There is Douglas Giles, an adjunct instructor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who was “terminated and told by his chair in September 2005 that he would never be hired there again because he had allowed a discussion of Israel, Zionism, and Palestine in his world religions class.” Or consider Teresa Knudsen, who endured a long 17 years as a contingent instructor at Spokane Community College and was “dropped after writing an opinion article in a local paper—this one about the poor treatment of adjuncts.”

You would think these cases would make clear why tenure is necessary and why abolishing it won’t improve the quality of teaching in our country. Unfortunately, Schrecker’s story here turns depressing. She points out that “some 40 percent of the junior faculty members in a recent poll approved of the statement that the ‘abolition of tenure would, on the whole, improve the quality of higher education.’” What explains this finding is unclear. It might be that a generation of scholars who have watched tenure be eviscerated are simply giving up hope; it might be that they don’t understand the principles that tenure stands for; it could be that the arguments against tenure in places like Slate have won them over. Whatever explains the finding, it doesn’t leave readers with a good feeling about the future of academic freedom.

Both tenure and academic freedom are difficult things to defend, especially in today’s political environment. It’s hard enough to defend the idea of religious freedom, as anyone who witnessed last year’s “debates” about an Islamic center in lower Manhattan surely recognizes. Nor is it any easier to defend civil liberties in the age of the war on terror. But it’s especially difficult to defend the peculiar practice of tenure when the right is busy rallying its base by hammering elites and blasting the idea that intelligence is a prerequisite for entering public life. And it’s tough to imagine that progressives are eager to rush to the defense of the professoriate, especially considering that so many younger academics don’t even seem to care about the future of tenure.

Then again, things sometimes change when you’re bereft of a principle and practice that protects you from harm. It’s up to professors to recognize this predicament and act as a professional class to defend its most vulnerable members and protect itself from attack. And liberals need to act, too: Academic freedom lies at the heart of the liberal project of nurturing free and educated citizens. Schrecker’s book reminds us of what’s at stake, and just how much work there is to do.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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