Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why Academic Tenure is a Good Thing

           More than once in the last several years I have heard college presidents and trustees suggest that the colleges over which they preside would operate more efficiently and effectively if they operated under the corporate, the military, or the familial paradigm, or under some combination of the three.  One of the most attractive and productive features of these three paradigms, they suggest, is that academic tenure is excluded in each case, which makes campus control -- and therefore fund raising --much simpler.  Corporations, platoons, and families all function quite well without tenure, they reason, and so also can the academy.  In their view, academic tenure is the refuge of the radical, the indolent, and the radically indolent.  Paradigms that exclude tenure, therefore, they welcome warmly and eagerly.  That tenured professors can and have complicated fund raising by the things they do, say, or write, these presidents and trustees readily comprehend.  But they do not comprehend the ways in which tenure is good for education and good for the institution.  So they seek to ban it or to curtail it.
         Please notice that the board members and college presidents who advocate these misguided and destructive paradigms are normally persons of distinction and achievement outside the academy.  They might be CEOs in enormous multi-national corporations; they might be retired generals or admirals from the armed forces; they might be ambassadors, inventors, surgeons, poets or pastors.  They might be persons of impressive wealth, high intelligence or inspiring piety.  But they do not know higher education.  Indeed they are so ignorant of higher education that they do not know that they do not know.  Yet these are the very persons in charge of the life of the mind at nearly every institution of higher learning in the nation.  Truthfully, I do not know of a single institution of higher learning where this is not precisely the case -- not one.
         That their prevailing paradigms (corporate, military, or familial) are foolish and counter-productive becomes obvious, even to the perpetrators of this foolishness themselves, when you get their minds off campus and back into the non-academic worlds from which they came.  On their home turf, not one of them insists that their corporation ought to run more like a college; not one demands that their platoons run more like a university, or that their families function more like a grad school.  They know full well and without doubt that if you ran your corporation as if it were a college, you’d go out of business; that if you ran your platoon like a university, your soldiers would die; and that if you ran your grad school as if it were a family, you’d stumble over a truckload of new meanings for the word “dysfunctional.”  Yet, these same persons insist on running their colleges as if they were corporations, platoons and families, all with predictably bad results for teaching and learning.  The plain truth is indeed plain:  A college is a college. 
         But that obvious lesson is worse than forgotten when these same folks come to campus.  Because of their intellectual inadequacies and their narrowness of educational experience, trustees of the sort I am describing are intent upon forcing the academy into a foreign and distortive mold largely because that mold embodies a paradigm with which they are familiar.  They know no other.  Their own habits of mind and zones of comfort enslave them and therefore their universities.  God help the schools over which they preside.
         If the persons in charge of higher education insist on adopting a non-academic paradigm for the operation of their schools (and I am by no means certain that they should), then at least let them understand that the closest parallel to the academy is the courtroom and that the closest parallel to the professor is the judge.
         Because both the judge and the professor are, or ought to be, engaged in the pursuit of truth, the closest parallel to academic life is service on the bench, not service in the corporation, not service in the armed forces or in the family room.  Because both the academic and the judicial enterprise require unhindered and undeflected adherence to evidence, the scholar and the judge need to be free from the pressures of the powers that be, whether educational, political, financial, familial or ecclesiastical.  If, for example, the evidence in a case leads a judge to conclude against the powers that be, even the powers that nominated, appointed or confirmed that judge, then that judge needs to be free from pressure and recrimination, free from fear of judicial dismissal and financial destitution both for the judge and for the judge’s family.  In other words, judges require judicial tenure and the freedom it entails because the nature of the task set before them requires them to be honest and meticulous evaluators, never fearing for their livelihood, their reputation, or their security should they reach an unpopular conclusion.  Their adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law, their pursuit of truth, are essential to their proper function as judges.  Justice is compromised and foolishly endangered when the administration in power can reward judges for reaching decisions favorable to the regime.  Disqualification from the bench ought to be predicated upon judicial incompetence, dereliction of duty, or moral turpitude, not upon decisions unfavorable to the administration.  When something outside the courtroom controls the courtroom, that is the death of justice.
         As we all recognize, the figure of justice is traditionally represented as blindfolded, symbolic of her impartiality.  Justice weighs the evidence, not the reputation, wealth or administrative power of the litigants.  Justice does not peek; she does not say “Tell me who you are and what money or power you have, then I will tell you my decision.”  Justice does not put her thumb on the scales of evidence in order to alter truth so as to further her own political or financial advantage.  Justice seeks rather to promote or produce as objective an evaluation of the evidence as possible.  She seeks an impartial application of the law, without which the court’s truth-finding function is virtually set at naught.
         Because academic life, like judicial life, is or should be characterized by the pursuit of truth, the professor also requires insulation from administrative pressure and meddling, pressure designed to force the professor to reach institutionally acceptable conclusions, pressure designed to force the professor’s utterance, whether written or spoken, into channels that the evidence itself might not permit.  Professors who consent to such knowledge-destroying abuse are much easier to control, and easily controlled professors don’t complicate fund raising by advocating unpopular or unsettling ideas.  All too frequently, therefore, college presidents conspire to undermine both faculty utterance and the tenure that makes it possible.
         The issue here, of course, is academic freedom, which is but the academic dimension, or application, of the larger issue of freedom speech.  By “academic freedom” I mean the right and obligation of a professor to search for and to disseminate the truth.  That is, academic freedom is what makes it possible to track down and to communicate to students, to colleagues, and to the nation the result of one’s research without fear of harassment or penalty by dissenting persons either inside or outside the academy.  Though highly to be valued and vigorously to be defended, academic freedom is often a casualty of the very institutions that ought to be its chief proponents.  To oppose academic freedom is oppose academic excellence.  Gagged and bridled professors are not, and cannot be, educators. 


Ilíon said...

And yet, it is precisely the tenure system which allows the leftists to gag and bridle everyone else.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

It does. But It also prevents them from ejecting conservatives already in place.

Jonathan said...

First, I agree that tenure is an important protection for the pursuit of truth.

However, because of sin, humans are likely to abuse even good things. We can all think of faculty who after tenure have done nothing but coast. Rather than pursuing truth they have pursued their private interests of gardening or golfing. What protections need to be put in place within the system (and enforced by other faculty) to hold colleagues accountable?

Do you believe there should be "post-tenure reviews"? If so, what should they entail?

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

I agree with you about the difficulties that arise from human nature. Those difficulties cannot be fixed, though they can, to a degree, be mitigated. But I don't think that a post-tenure review does it. A post-tenure review is the negation of tenure. That is, it means provisional tenure, which by definition is not tenure.

To me, the solution is not to abolish tenure but to give it out with greater care and, therefore, far more rarely. It is given out now for mediocrity rather than excellence. Tenure ought to be for the outstanding, not the merely adequate.