Sunday, July 25, 2010

Academic Tenure and the 'Damascus Conversion to Unpopular Views'

I generally don't like the academic tenure system. For the most part, it promotes college "sinecures" for professors, who won't have to perform up to the standards required upon hiring at an institution. But tenure has its usefulness. One of the main arguments you always hear is about "academic freedom," which is really an argument about protecting faculty from those who disapprove of their views. The academic freedom argument's been something I've thought about more recently, considering the various attacks I've been subject to on account of blogging. The most invidious of course are the workplace harassment episodes featuring E.D. Kain and Octopus at The Swash Zone. On top of that is a corps of radical leftists at my college which has objected to my conservative views and, most recently, my conservative bulletin board, which in turn devolved into a full-scale civil rights investigation (with the gunsights eventually turned on me for alleged "libel" and "hate-speech," blah, blah ...).

So, I'm taking an interest in this debate on tenure over at Volokh Conspiracy. See, "
Debating Tenure" (via Instapundit). In responding to a feature at NYT, author Ilya Somin links to "Do We Need Tenure to Protect Academic Freedom?", and this passage (with the key sentence in paragraph #4 in bold):

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In recent weeks, a number of prominent professor-bloggers have criticized the tenure system, including Bryan Caplan, Freakonomics author Steve Levitt, Brian Tamanaha, and our own David Bernstein. These writers all point out that tenure protects shirkers and mediocre scholars. I would add that it also protects professors who are bad teachers or mistreat students in ways that fall short of the very severe offenses (i.e. - serious sexual harrassment or other criminal misconduct) that would allow the school to fire a tenured faculty member. I also agree with Bryan Caplan and David Bernstein's suggestion that tenure persists despite its inefficiency in large part because universities are nonprofit or governmental institutions that have little incentive to adopt efficient policies.

However, none of these writers fully address the main argument in favor of tenure: the claim that it is needed to protect the academic freedom of professors with unpopular political views. That argument is not completely without merit, but is very much overstated.

As David mentions in his post (linked above), the institution of tenure is not enough to prevent ideological discrimination in academic hiring. A faculty that wants to discriminate can still do so in entry level hiring or at the point when it is decides whether or not an assistant professor gets promoted to tenure. If the faculty or administration is intent on enforcing ideological conformity, it can usually do so quite effectively even without having the ability to fire tenured professors. If it is not, then tenure is probably not needed to protect academic freedom at that particular institution.

At most, therefore, tenure will only protect the academic freedom of professors who either 1) manage to keep their unpopular views hidden from their colleagues until after they get tenure, or 2) have a road to Damascus conversion to unpopular views after getting tenured status. Such cases are not unheard of, but they are likely to be extremely rare. Tenure might also occasionally protect a professor whose views are generally acceptable to his colleagues and the administration, but who occasionally makes a stray unpopular or un-PC remark. For example, Ward Churchill's far left views were apparently acceptable to the University of Colorado administration and faculty (at least to the extent that they didn't want to get rid of him) until he really went off the deep end by calling the victims of 9/11 attack "little Eichmans." I suspect, however, that, even in the absence of tenure, it is unlikely that universities will often seek to fire professors just for making one or a few isolated controversial comments.

There is no way of perfectly protecting professors who convert to political views unpopular with their colleagues or make controversial remarks. However, perfect protection is probably unnecessary, because cases of firing for such reasons are likely to be rare ...
Readers can guess what my "Damascus conversion" was, but I had one, around 2003.

IMAGE CREDIT: The Conversion of Saint Paul, Caravaggio, 1600/1601.

1 comments:

jgm said...

"At most, therefore, tenure will only protect the academic freedom of professors who either 1) manage to keep their unpopular views hidden from their colleagues until after they get tenure, or 2) have a road to Damascus conversion to unpopular views after getting tenured status."

Gee, kinda like SC nominees.