Tenure can do some strange things

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In the ideal sense, tenure provides professors with a sense of freedom, their capacity for intellectual inquiry unfettered by academic politics and immune from public controversy. Alan Dershowitz cites tenure as enabling some of his most courageous defenses; in other cases, it allows a professor to take a novel approach in the classroom.

Or in the case of Prof. Charles “Eon” Nesson, it gives you license to go crazy.

Nesson is supposed to teach evidence. Instead, his class has become a venue for the airing of his zaniest idiosyncrasies. These include making references to his penis size, videotaping students during class, recording his private conversations and referring to himself as “Eon.”

No serious-minded students take Nesson’s class assuming that they will actually learn evidence. But lately, Nesson’s antics have taken a turn for the bizarre, and may actually result in serious consequences.

This week, Nesson’s “evidence” has included the public airing, before his 100-student class, of an e-mail dispute between Professors Alvin Warren and Charles Ogletree. Though the two were merely sparring over the scheduling of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s speech this past Monday morning, Nesson decided to display their e-mails on a projector for all to see.

But Warren and Ogletree aren’t the only faculty members who might be peeved. Nesson has also described other professors’ feelings about Dean Robert Clark and his “imperialistic” practices. Though, it should be admitted, he didn’t back those statements up with evidence.

Some might feel inspired to decry Nesson’s behavior as another example of Harvard Law School’s misguided allegiance to individuals who have no business being educators. They could rail on tenure’s tendency not only to bring positive notoriety, but to entrench institutional disgrace. How, some might say, dare Harvard Law School, home to over half of the current Supreme Court, allow a class to be taught that not only fails to convey legally useful information, but makes a mockery of its faculty as well?

Some people might feel that way, but we suggest they lighten up.

If Nesson’s students are any indication, nobody minds the man’s bizarre behavior. Far from being a problem, Nesson is seen by many students as an endearing iconoclast, a ray of comedic hope in an institution plagued by over-serious bores. In his own unusual way, Prof. Nesson is a credit to the tenure system. He has transcended the role of evidence professor to become an institution — and an amusing one at that.

Just don’t ask him to teach you evidence.

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