Why Conservatives Should Defend Tenure

Lately, tenure has come under heavy criticism, particularly from conservatives who maintain that it protects incompetent, ignorant, or indifferent teachers to the detriment of students. As Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote in this Wall Street Journal piece, “We need to reward good teaching regularly, not give permanent job security for what professors have accomplished up to a given point, as tenure does.”

Worse than weak teachers are the professors that Roger Kimball called “tenured radicals,” the advocates and revolutionaries who overwhelmingly populate the podiums of academe, indoctrinating students while protected by tenure.

Even so, conservatives should defend tenure, not attack it. To explain why, I’ll start with a personal experience.

A few years ago, my college required all faculty members to explain, in writing, how their courses “develop a knowledge and understanding of race, class, and gender issues.” Race, class, and gender are the tools of multiculturalism; according to multiculturalism proponent Donna Haraway, they are “the basic elements of socialist-feminist analysis.”

In fact, they are not analytical at all but premises that force students to reach predetermined conclusions. If you begin by assuming that everything boils down to racism and sexism, you will surely find racism and sexism every time and everywhere.

The race, class, gender requirement applied to all courses as they passed through our curriculum committee, meaning that jazz dance, calculus, engineering, tennis, even a horticulture course on succulent gardens had to discuss some sort of related racism, classism, and sexism. The requirement went on for ten years, and every teacher complied.

A handful of my colleagues had successfully harnessed a college’s entire curriculum to promote a single, highly political ideology. In my view, the requirement demanded from every member of the faculty a loyalty oath to the socialist-feminist worldview. I felt that the situation was an intolerable affront to real academic freedom.

Something had to be done, so I set a trap. 

I designed a course that could not possibly be denied on any grounds other than this ideological requirement. The course, “More or Less Than Human?” examined literary, non-fiction, and film responses to the convergence of human and artificial intelligence. Think Metropolis, RUR, Blade Runner, the Technological Singularity, Moore’s Law, and so on.

When the hearing to decide if the course would be allowed convened, I refused to comply with the multiculturalism requirement because it was irrelevant. The curriculum committee promptly denied the course and the trap was sprung. 

Subscribing to Louis Brandeis’s “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant,” I began a media campaign with an op-ed in the local newspaper (which drew an angry response from the president of the local NAACP). Debra Saunders, the lone conservative voice at the San Francisco Chronicle, interviewed me and wrote a sympathetic editorial. Weeks passed. 

In Berkeley, I caught up with Alan Kors who had just started the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and he accepted the case. FIRE’s media contacts produced a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education. There followed radio interviews, websites, eventually, even a film.

In a panic, the college president investigated me for racism. Finally, after a squib in the September 29, 2000 Wall Street Journal (not available online), the college tired of continuous negative national publicity, the curriculum committee’s ring leader retired, and the multicultural requirement was dropped

The price I paid was living as a pariah. The ideologues shunned me and other professors were afraid to associate with me. 

The point of this story is that without tenure, I probably would have been dismissed by the college president who accused me of racism. Had I not been tenured, I wouldn’t have dared to put my job on the line by going against the powerful ideologues and the college administration.

As University of Tennessee law professor and prolific blogger Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit says, “Personally, I’ve felt a lot freer to speak and write about what I believe than I would without tenure….”

And law professor Elizabeth Price Foley says, “…frankly, it’s conservative professors who need this [tenure] protection the most, as they are inherently swimming in a sea of progressive colleagues/deans/administrators/sharks who would be tempted to ‘punish’ conservative scholarly viewpoints and activities.”

Even when conservatives slip through the hiring committee litmus tests, most realize that if they are identified, progressive colleagues will spare no effort to block them from attaining tenure. Professor Reynolds remarks that “non-PC faculty are very grateful for tenure. On the other hand, are there enough non-PC faculty to make it worth it?” 

I would argue YES. That the left knows the danger of even one outspoken, long-term, dissenter from PC orthodoxy can be seen in the case of “K C” Johnson.

A brilliant teacher and prolific author, Johnson’s previously admiring colleagues at Brooklyn College turned on him for being “uncollegial.” Despite sterling evaluations and publications, he was denied tenure when he wouldn’t toe the progressive line on gender-based hiring.

Herb London of the Hudson Institute wrote that Johnson’s case illustrates how in higher education “an orthodoxy of decidedly left wing opinion…intolerantly rejects any other point of view…. [It] is ironic that tenure conceived as a way to insure independent thought free from censure is now employed to force conformity. What else can the ‘lack of collegiality’ possibly mean?”

Johnson decided to fight, appealing to the CUNY chancellor who appointed an appeals board that unanimously supported him. Their decision was unanimously ratified by the CUNY board of trustees. With the shield of tenure, Johnson was able to do the work on his blog “Durham in Wonderland” that raised the hackles of many academic leftists by exposing the falsity of the accusations against the Duke lacrosse players.

Even sorrier is the plight of “adjuncts” or “contingent faculty,” part-time and non-tenure track employees who make up over 50 percent of higher education faculty. Most adjuncts can be dismissed at the end of any day.

At Buck’s County Community College in Pennsylvania, adjunct astronomy professor Dwight Anderson was fired for using the word “God” in an end of semester letter to students. Anderson wrote, “If each of us, little by little with God’s help, can incorporate these foundation stones of goodness into our lives, we will find an anchor for our lives, which will result in a deep and lasting satisfaction through life, and allow us to influence the world for good as we live out our lives.”

BCCC’s Draconian reaction to Anderson’s gently inspirational advice illustrates how the left can run amok in the absence of tenure. Untenured professors have much to fear from zealous and intellectually intolerant college officials.

The American Association of University Professors says this about the situation facing adjuncts: 

  • The insecure relationship between contingent faculty members and their institutions can chill the climate for academic freedom, which is is [sic]essential to the common good of a free society. 
  • Contingent faculty may be less likely to take risks in the classroom or in scholarly and service work. 
  • The free exchange of ideas may be hampered by the fear of dismissal for unpopular utterances, so students may be deprived of the debate essential to citizenship.

The left controls higher education and ending tenure won’t change that, although without tenure, campuses would become even more of a progressive echo chamber. Yet as Steven Hayward, the University of Colorado’s first Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy, says, “…even though I was outnumbered, [leftists] had more to fear from me than I did from them. Campus leftism tends to go so unchallenged that it’s easy to unnerve progressives.” So it seems, but only if they can’t fire you.