Tag Archives: fisking

Fisking Victor Davis Hanson on Tenure

Professors won’t like this: Death to lifetime contracts,” by Victor Hanson, Chicago Tribune, 13 May 2005 (from private email correspondence).

VDH says tenure is rubbish. Rubbish.

Tenure in our universities is simply unlike any other institution in American society.

And American Universities are unlike any other in the world — they are the best.

Take the case of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado. Because of his inflammatory slander of the Sept. 11, 2001, victims, the public turned its attention to his status. We discovered that he did not have a PhD, created a Native-American identity and allegedly appropriated the intellectual property of others–but was promoted to a tenured full professorship, protected by a lifetime contract.

If he presented himself as having a doctorate he did not, that is fraud and criminal wrongdoing. That is not protected by tenure. It may be protected by a politically correct Board of Regents, but that’s a separate issue.

No equivalent for chief executive officers or for dishwashers exists. Politicians, lawyers and others who take unpopular stands also lack guaranteed jobs. Doctors do not enjoy them. They can lose their posts, despite 30 years of reputable work, because of a single missed diagnosis.

Professors, however, after an initial probationary period of six years, win the equivalent of lifelong employment from their peers. Why does this strange practice linger on?

The standard rationale is that the stuff of higher education is unfettered inquiry. Only by enjoying shelter from the storm of politics can professors be bold enough to take up the tough task of challenging young minds to question orthodoxy.

Not just “orthodoxy” — any politically correct viewpoint.

When I teach I have to hedge what I say, out of a rational fear of offending someone. When I wrote my thesis I had to be extremely careful in some sections, out of fear it would be misinterpreted. This hampers freedom of inquiry. Tenure is a great way around that trap.

McCarthyism is evoked as the only bleak alternative to tenure. Once untenured professors find themselves on the wrong side of popular majority opinions, politicized firings will supposedly follow.

Straw-Man. Less free inquiry follows. No need for hyperbole.

Why then does uniformity of belief characterize the current tenured faculty? Contemporary universities are among the most homogeneous of all American institutions, at least in attitudes toward controversial issues of race, gender, class and culture.

Because liberals have waged a successful fourth-generation campaign to seize the university, mainly through selective granting of tenure and other filtering mechanisms.

Faculty senate votes aren’t just at odds with American popular opinion; they often resemble more the 90 percent majorities that we see in illiberal Third World stacked plebiscites.

Would VDH rather have them be 90% political correct? That’s the alternative.

Sometime in the 1960s, many faculties felt the proper role of the university was to gravitate away from the Socratic method of disinterested inquiry, and instead to press for a preordained and “correct” worldview. Since America was supposedly guilty of being oppressive to those not white, conservative, male, capitalist, Christian and heterosexual, the university offered a rare counterpoint.

Tenure became part of protecting this strange culture in which the ends justified the means: Bias in the classroom was passed off as “balance” to an inherently prejudiced society. Academia came to resemble the medieval church that likewise believed its archaic protocols were free from review, given its vaunted mission of saving souls.

Agreed. But that’s less an argument to abolish tenure than a call for conservatives to take academia and enjoy that advantage for their movement.

Our universities are also two-tiered institutions of winners and losers. Despite the populist rhetoric of professors, exploitation occurs daily under their noses. Perennial part-time lecturers, many with the requisite PhDs, often teach the same classes as their tenured counterparts. Yet they receive about 25 percent of the compensation per course and without benefits.

Agreed. In many ways universities are hyper-capitalist, with very high reward for the winners. This system is serving us well.

Universities cannot remove expensive tenured “mistakes” or public embarrassments, but they can turn to cheaper and more fluid part-time teaching. Orwellian moments thus follow at annual department reviews of faculty and student appraisals. Untenured lecturers often outscore full professors in their evaluations, but they lack any institutional remedy to address that paradox.

Universities aren’t teaching mills. Teaching undergrads is an important part of professorship, but rarely the most important.

The weird disconnect extends within the careers of professors. For six years, stressed younger faculty pounce on every committee assignment possible. They try to publish anything they can think up, and defer daily to a tenured hierarchy.

These untenured scramble to pass muster from entrenched peers, whose evaluations can extend indefinitely their careers–on the promise that, if successful, they will never again have to submit to such scrutiny or to exhibit such zeal. “Post-tenure review” is an oxymoron, not a real audit.

This is similar to business consulting, where workers make their “mark” by age 30, after that becoming high-level executives or “rain makers” — or just retire.

Administrators are supposed to be diabolically punitive. Yet what we have seen from the contrite Larry Summers, president of Harvard University, suggests the very opposite. College presidents follow faculty consensus and apologize for rare deviation from it.

The purpose of modern Presidents is to raise money. That is why they are so weak. Does VDH want all faculty to be so exposed and spineless?

Reasonable people can debate what would be lost with the abolition of tenure. But the warning that, in our litigious society, professors would lack fair job protection is implausible.

Double misdirection.

First, Hanson presumes the continued existence of a “litigious society.” As the profusion of lawsuits is generally recognized as a drag on the US economy, it may be reformed away.

Second, the purpose of tenure is academic freedom, not “fair job protection.”

Renewable five-year agreements–outlining in detail teaching and scholarly expectations–would still protect free speech, without creating lifelong sinecures for those who fail their contractual obligations.

Again, misdirection. Academic freedom is not free speech. It is a much broader concept.

The cost of university tuition continues to creep higher than the rate of inflation. The percentage of cheaper classes taught by adjunct instructors is increasing as well. Yet the competence of recently graduated students is ever more in question.

Really? In math? Physics? Computer science? Chemistry?

Or in “soft” humanities majors that are impossible to objectively measure?

Students can achieve the education they desire. Some what knowledge. Some what to drink for four years. The free market accomodates both.

What is not scrutinized in this disturbing calculus is a mandarin class that says it is radically egalitarian, but in fact insists on an unusual privilege that most other Americans do not enjoy.

I never heard any academic describe academia as “radically egalitarian.”

In recompense, the university has not delivered a better-educated student, or a more intellectually diverse and independent-thinking faculty.

Instead it has accomplished precisely the opposite.

We have the best universities in the world. Hanson’s attack is based on politics, not academics. He should be brave enough to say so.