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May 24, 2005 5:32 am

Why Conservatives Should Support Tenure

In a recent syndicated newspaper column (link here), the formidable conservative intellectual Victor Davis Hanson made a case for ending tenure in American colleges and universities. Conservatives often attack tenure, resenting the supposedly lifetime employment it guarantees professors who almost inevitably turn out to be leftists. Hanson’s argument is more impressive than most, but I believe it to be dead wrong.

Hanson begins by recognizing tenure’s historical reason for existence: it safeguards intellectual freedom. Proponents argue, he says, that McCarthyism is the only bleak alternative to tenure. “Once untenured professors find themselves on the wrong side of popular majority opinions, politicized firings will supposedly follow.” The author isn’t buying this line of thought because of the large measure of left-wing conformity that exists throughout academia, especially in the aptly named liberal arts. Since there is virtually no intellectual freedom to protect any more, why not just give professors five year contracts instead of tenure?

Hanson then muddles his case with references to an assortment of obvious grievances against contemporary academia—faculty members like Ward Churchill, the shameless exploitation of part-time faculty, the lack of authentic “post-tenure review,” the servility required of assistant professors, and wimpy administrators like Harvard’s Larry Summers. But the heart of his case is the absence of an intellectual freedom that could possibly need protecting.

First, some minor objections. Hanson misuses the word McCarthyism. It is an historical term and does not simply mean the persecution of people for their ideas. Secondly, he makes no reference to the often long and agonizing years of labor required for a Ph.D. and the low pay and prestige and the heavy teaching loads that follow, before and after tenure. (The vast majority of campuses bear little or no resemblance to Ivy League institutions or Stanford, where Hanson is. Tenure in many places is granted, at least in part, as compensation.) Thirdly, he fails to note that Ward Churchill is an exception, not the rule; he got where he is at the University of Colorado due to the dumbing down process that plagues campuses and much of the rest of our culture, a failing than can be corrected and has little to do with tenure. Fourthly, Larry Summers is also atypical; he raised one interesting question and then proceeded to grovel when critics objected. Most administrators are surely made of sterner stuff, and are interested neither in provocative issues nor concessions to faculty.

Now to the major issue: What about the protection of intellectual freedom? In fact, there is more to academic life than just the knee-jerk leftist reaction that is often celebrated in the media. Genuine thought goes on everywhere in academia and can be viewed in learned journals and books and heard in untold numbers of seminars and lecture halls. (The University of California System spends $30 million a year on scholarly journals.) Many of the best professors spend their lives seeking the truths of the universe, nature, and human conduct; indeed, that’s why they entered the academic profession. When the responsible scholarship of serious and qualified scholars clashes with conventional thought, it should be protected, for in that way alone do we advance. Heresy has long played an important role in history. Ask the historians of science.

Today, on campus, conservatives are heretics, often challenging the established principles of orthodox leftist ideology with scholarship and bold thinking. It is a dangerous business, for the people who talk the most about diversity and tolerance are rarely in the mood to welcome dissent. As an abundance of literature shows, and experience verifies, conservatives are often persecuted on campus. They must sometimes mask their beliefs in order to be hired. But tenure, once achieved, protects them. Eliminate that protection and watch conservative heads roll, both at the hands of administrators and fellow faculty members.

Instead of arguing for the elimination of tenure, conservatives should be defending it strenuously, for without its protection the heresy of thinking outside leftist orthodoxy would be eliminated. Tenure may need adjustments; conservatives should demand more objectivity and fairness in the process. But let us not abandon what has long served us well. Today, the tenure system enables free minds to step beyond the iron curtain of political correctness without fear of serious reprisal.

Tenure is not one of the major problems in contemporary academia. Indeed, it is a blessing for those, all across the ideological scale, who are interested in thoughtful scholarship. Intellectual freedom is among the most valuable features of Western civilization, and we threaten it at our peril.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I've gone back and forth on tenure but haven't been able to make up my mind. You make a convincing case, however, certainly better than Hanson's.

There is one part of Hanson's argument on which, as an adjunct, I feel uniquely qualified to comment:

"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 Ph.D.s, often teach the same classes as their tenured counterparts. Yet they receive about 25 percent of the compensation per course and without benefits."

If I had a penny for the number of times I've heard this shlock--from both liberal and conservative academics--I'd be as rich as a full professor.

First of all what on earth has it to do with tenure? You could abolish tenure and still INCREASE the number of adjuncts, couldn't you?

Second, adjuncthood is typically (for the adjunct) an anomalous, temporary stage of their career. Yes we get paid less. But not all adjuncts have PhDs, and the ones who do are hired on much less stringent hiring criteria than tenure-track faculty. Adjunct positions pay less because they're easier to get. (Incidentally, what Hanson says about adjuncts vs tenure track faculty could just as easily be applied to assts vs associates or those vs full professor. Is he then suggesting that we get rid of the entire hierarchy, with everyone paid the same amount--adjunct or full professor?)

If there is exploitation here, it comes from the unions (the AFT), not the universities. In NJ, the AFT prohibits adjuncts from teaching more than 2:2 at any one state institution (it also collects compulsory agency dues from non-members and uses them for patently political goals). That means that an adjunct has to work at two or three institutions to survive, even if there is a demand for 4:4 or 5:5 at a single institution.

On a few occasions my dept chair has had to plead with the dean (who has to plead with the union) to permit me to teach 3:3 or 3:2 because otherwise the sections wd go unstaffed. It's a little unclear to me why a "conservative" is arguing that people who want to work hard are "exploited" when they agree to do so.