Could Governor Walker’s Proposals Weaken Tenure? This Prof Hopes So

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University of Wisconsin Professors Donald Downs and John Sharpless are two of my biggest heroes in academia. (It’s a short list). They oppose “Scott Walker’s latest crusade” to reform tenure. In the spirit of friendly criticism, I will explain why I side with Walker on this issue.

Let’s agree with them for the sake of argument that Scott Walker’s proposals may undermine tenure and shared governance at Wisconsin universities. If so, he impresses me as the first politician of our generation to have the guts, and the insight to challenge a deep flaw of higher education. Downs and Sharpless realize that universities are sinking into a financial crisis largely brought on by the costly rigidity of lifetime tenure for professors. As they point out, no other employees in America enjoy this level of privilege. Every campus faculty has its share of colleagues who effectively stopped trying, within a few years of winning tenure. Even though these “coasters” are only a minority, they are demoralizing to the rest of us.

A good number of these prematurely retired faculty are my friends; I see them as “victims of the system.” Downs and Sharpless seem to sense that we can hardly afford to continue the antiquated tenure system. But they are even more afraid of modifying it. Their fears are misplaced.

Maybe tenure was a reasonable idea at the time of the examples they nostalgically cite (1894 and 1910). But those were from a vanished era, before the ‘60s remaking of American universities.  And before the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory retirement. Over the last several decades, I’ve seen first-hand how universities irretrievably destroyed the original justifications for tenure, as well as shared governance. Those well-meaning experiments are now broken.

Profs. Downs and Sharpless actually explain this in detail.  Much of their essay shows that free speech is as dead on American campuses as it is in downtown Pyongyang. They are right; the situation is even worse than they describe. We are just too scared to hold a funeral.

They are also correct that the inmates do run the asylum. Shared governance is no Madisonian (no pun intended) balance of contending interests. It is one big Groupthink (or at least Groupspeak) that more closely resembles a Politburo.

Tenure actually reinforces this. It no longer protects academic freedom, certainly not for conservatives. I honestly do not see how weakening tenure could make the situation much worse. Downs and Sharpless repeat the standard defense that tenure protects the right of dissent, and preserves the free exchange of ideas. Although this might have been true in some theoretical sense, the actual exercise of these rights is now pretty much finished. It turned out to be easy to silence most conservatives. There is no need to threaten to fire them! After they receive tenure, they can still lose their future promotions, their professional respect and standing, their friends, their students, and perks like rewards and good assignments.

These threats are less heavy-handed than in 1930’s Weimar, but are still a big deal for us academics. And they accomplish the same thing — suppression of opposition. They grow more comprehensive every month. My boss spent this year perfecting speech suppression. And the example of the “Sieg Heil” professor in the article is further confirmation. Tenure saved his job in 1990. But that was little consolation, when a “ruinous” formal investigation “destroyed [his] reputation.”

Thus the current system makes dissent and expression of conservative views costly and risky. Most moderate and conservative academics (except Mike Adams) do not get a smug thrill from proclaiming their opinions to people who cannot and will not listen.  They also avoid high-risk activities like skydiving. Almost all of them have for many years decided to keep their heads down.

A small handful of brave faculty occasionally take a stand against the campus orthodoxy. Although I honor their courage, their results are usually insignificant in the long run. On a small scale, I’m reminded of many committee votes where I was the 1 Nay, against 9 Ayes. There was little need to retaliate against me, since everyone could see that I wasn’t making any difference.

The success that the Committee for Academic Freedom And Rights (CAFAR) has had at Wisconsin is unusual — almost unique. Curtailing the University’s tyrannical speech code would not have been possible without the support from old-time authentic liberals (God bless them), and the threat of external scrutiny from the courts (God bless FIRE, too), and the right-wing media. Those forces can still sometimes limit the worst abuses of University leaders.

Similarly, I honor CAFAR’s defense of their innocent faculty colleague in 2007. They saved him from being formally charged. But the final result, Downs and Sharpless correctly conclude, was a strong chilling effect on intellectual honesty in the classroom. University leaders made a clear example of that professor. The First Amendment can no longer be relied on to protect politically unpopular speech on college campuses, regardless of what their codes say. And regardless of the fact that their senior faculty have tenure.

The CAFAR defense of tenure rests on this claim of some of their noble supporters:

“We could only stand up with you because we can’t be fired.” But I submit that these faculty — who have more courage than 99.9 percent of their colleagues — are being overly modest. The repressive current system was not enough to silence them. They are the exceptionally principled individuals who would do the right thing even without a permanent job guarantee. I’ll bet that they are more diligent and hardworking, and more accomplished and admired than their typical colleagues. I’ll bet that none of them would get fired, even without strong tenure. Sparing this small group the added discomfort they feel when they oppose the administration and their colleagues, is not a sufficient justification for a corrupted faculty system which has become dysfunctional. The supposed benefits of tenure are a widespread illusion.

Everything interesting in life comes down to trade-offs. This one seems clear. Even if tenure reform might tip a few more conservative professors into timid silence, some limitations on faculty privileges must be attempted, before the system becomes unsustainable. Governor Walker may have given us a unique opportunity to fix higher education. We cannot afford to pass it up.

I am sending this response to Profs. Downs and Sharpless with a request: please do not forward this with my name on it to anyone connected with the University of California system. I’ve had tenure there for many years, but I cannot afford to be publicly identified as expressing these views. I know exactly what academic freedom I have. Take my tenure. Please. It’s of no use to me.


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