To Protect Tenure, Conservatives Need to Ally with Progressives

In October 2015, the Martin Center published an article reminding conservatives why they should defend tenure.

Author David Clemens, relying on his own faculty experience, explained the dangers to the American Academy—and American society—of capitulating to the demands of an increasingly progressive regime on what can and cannot be taught, thought, or said in higher education today.

Not much has changed since 2015. In fact, things in Arkansas have gotten worse—for conservatives and non-conservatives alike. The Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas (UA) system recently voted to change their policy on tenure, promotion, and dismissal, and the changes are so broad that they turn tenure—the right to continued appointment—into TINO: Tenure in Name Only.

The tenure changes most immediately threaten conservative professors who may oppose the policies and positions of their department heads. But the rapid changes in culture and society that currently favor progressives could threaten them in the future. As the election of Donald Trump to the presidency shows, regime change can be unexpected and disorienting. For these reasons, conservatives and progressives in the Academy ought to fear the kinds of changes that have been adopted in the UA system.

Support for tenure should never be on the basis of protecting the status quo. It ought to be based on the quality of independent academic research, protecting minority voices, and maintaining space for dissent against academic groupthink. In the current climate in academia, protecting tenure means protecting conservative voices.

But sometime in the not-so-distant future, that might change. Tenure guarantees that someone can say the Emperor has no clothes—no matter who holds power at the moment. But if tenure protections are defined as loosely as they are in the new UA system policies, such guarantees are no guarantees at all. As a result, thanks to the federal lawsuit we have filed against the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, progressives and conservatives alike have a real reason to champion their own self-interests in policies that protect free speech on campus.

I am one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit that seeks class-action status against the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees over its changes to tenure, promotion, and dismissal policies.  When faculty became aware of the proposed changes, I wrote against them publicly. After they were passed, I joined the lawsuit without having met or discussed with the other plaintiffs their political views. I didn’t need to. I knew that we agreed upon basic principles of fairness, freedom, and self-expression.

I signed on to the lawsuit for reasons that agree with those expressed by David Clemens in his 2015 article. Things have only become worse since that time—both in the university and the culture at large. They have become worse for those of us willing to express a “conservative” point of view, as the cases of Amy Wax or Jordan Peterson illustrate, but they also point to an atmosphere that favors a Jacobin excess in the pursuit of “purity” that bodes ill for any individual wishing to live and speak in ways that upset the powerholders in academia. Just ask Ronald Sullivan, who was dismissed from Harvard for defending Harvey Weinstein.

The changes to the tenure, promotion, and dismissal policy recently adopted by the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees solidifies power for the state in a way that is antithetical to all who aspire to live in a free society by defining tenure protections so loosely as to give the state carte blanche in dismissing professors upon almost any pretext. This is not just bad for conservatives—it is bad for everyone.

But here is the paradox: When conservatives defend bedrock principles, they defend the right of progressives—who would bulldoze and bully them out of the public square—to espouse views that are antithetical to conservative views.  And yet, conservatives, to be conservative, must defend those principles. Progressives tend to defend those ideas with which they agree. Conservatives do the same. But both ought to defend the foundational principle that underpins free speech. The answer to the restrictions on free speech, as Justice Louis Brandeis argued in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California in 1927, is more speech, not less:

If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

A threat to tenure is a threat not only to my ability and freedom to express my ideas as I see fit in my own classroom: It is a threat to my ability to participate actively and effectively in the administration of the university community to which I belong. It also threatens a robust exchange of ideas in a free market that is one of the principles that serves as the foundation for the free inquiry and expression that a university affords the State.  The new UA system policy will harm the state’s ability to attract talent to its student body and its professoriate and, in the long term, will harm its ability to deliver on its core promises.

Tenure guarantees that someone can say the Emperor has no clothes—no matter who holds is in power at the moment.

So long as my administration can fire me for lack of “collegiality” or for failing to aid in the university’s “goals,” then there really is no freedom of the citizens of Arkansas to have any say in what it means for the university Board of Trustees to live up to its own mandate. Professors, lower-level administrators, and other staff members must stay silent and avoid criticizing the university publicly not to run afoul of the new standards. Without a free exchange of ideas, the university becomes an echo chamber in which only favored speech and ideas can be expressed.

Conservatives are not immune to the Jacobin impulse to purge, just as progressives employ the puritan’s guillotine when the opportunity presents itself.  So—if the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees is allowed to write into the DNA of its own policies a means by which it can rid itself of troublesome professors, who is not at risk?

It is never a question of if such abuses will occur, but a question of when they will occur and against whom. The existence of a new power is a temptation to wield it. In contrast to David Clemens’ eloquent defense of tenure for conservatives, now it is a question of defending tenure for progressives on conservative principles.

This policy as enacted by the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees will be employed sometime in the future to exclude from the public square voices that are aligned with the current regime. What happens the day after they find themselves in the minority?

If they are smart, they will support the current lawsuit and stop this madness before university boards in every other state follow the UA system.

Gregory Borse is a tenured associate professor of English & Philosophy at the University of Arkansas at Monticello where he currently teaches world literature, philosophy, film, and literary theory.