The tenure trap


1. I don’t think my experiences are unusual, so I’ll say from the start that I’ve never once seen a professor intimidate a student for political reasons or otherwise. After over five years of harboring profound political disagreements with many of my instructors, I’ve never felt silenced or pressured in any way. No faculty member has ever leveraged his or her authority against me. So I’m skeptical when I hear conservative students whine about the terrors inflicted against them by left-wing academics.

On the contrary, articulating right-leaning views is often a good way of gaming the system. Conventional wisdom says that professors like students who parrot the professors’ own views back to them on exams and papers. In fact, the opposite is true. A better strategy is to argue against your professor’s politics. Professors know their own positions a lot better than you do. But no matter how lamely you argue the opposition, your professors will be reluctant to mark you down. They’re less familiar with the other side of the issue, and, whether consciously or not, they don’t want to give even the appearance of politically retributive grading.

Like I said, I’d guess that my experiences with campus political opposition are typical: sometimes-heated but respectful disagreement. All professors aren’t like that, though. And tenure should never shield professors who use radical politics to intimidate students.2. Accusations of intimidation and outright harassment have gotten so bad at Columbia that, last month, President Lee Bollinger assembled a committee to investigate. Dozens of Jewish students allege rampant mistreatment by professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture Department. Over the years, several dozen students have lodged serious harassment complaints. For example, in one case, students corroborate the story of a Columbia professor yelling at an Israeli student in class, “How many Palestinians have you killed?” Another instance has a professor commenting on the color of a Jewish student’s eyes, telling her she’s not a real “Semite.”

Now, the accusations are disputed. The better supported ones took place in the classroom with fellow students present; those we should be more wary of took place one-on-one, in the halls or at office hours.

Critics of the University claim that Bollinger’s committee is a fix, comprised of several members who last year signed Israeli divestment petitions. (In Bollinger’s defense, you try finding five faculty members in a single university not hostile to Israel.) In any event, no matter the committee’s findings, the investigation’s ultimate outcome is predetermined: all but one of the professors under investigation is tenured.

3. Political intimidation isn’t the half of it. The real scandal is tenure’s nearly absolute insulation against utter teaching and scholarly incompetence.

University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill is this month’s faculty poster-boy for “academic freedom.” It all started when someone at Hamilton College took the time to actually read something Churchill wrote – years ago, no less – and canceled Churchill’s scheduled lecture. It turns out, in his essay Some Push Back, Churchill wrote, “If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.”

When given the opportunity to retract what he wrote, Churchill declined. He preferred to elaborate. “What I said was that the ‘technocrats of empire’ working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of ‘little Eichmanns.’ Adolf Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide.”

Well then…. Glad he cleared that one up for us.

This has nothing to do with academic freedom, free speech, civil liberties, truth, justice, or the American Way. Churchill can rant and rave all he wants in our town squares without any fear of “silencing tactics” or “the chilling effect.”

What this is about is academic standards. Left-wing boilerplate is par for the course, but Churchill is just plain laughable. He’s not even offensive, just sad. It’s as if Colorado snagged a random Lyndon LaRouche leafleteer from Harvard Square, handed him dark sunglasses and an assault rifle (see picture!), and guaranteed him a $90,000 salary at taxpayer expense for the rest of his life. No take-backs.

Now the University is digging up the obscure Marxist journals that published the bulk of Churchill’s “scholarship,” and they’re unhappy with what they’re finding. (It seems to me someone should have looked into these things, y’know, before the school offered Churchill tenure.) But Churchill’s not going anywhere. All the administration can do is thrown its hands in the air and capitulated to the same line of reasoning: “What can you do? He has tenure!”

4. Tenure has become the most peremptory word in the American intellectual life. The very idea of tinkering with it is taboo. Grad students and young professors bicker furiously over the process by which tenured positions are granted, but no one questions the strength tenure affords once bestowed. Why is that?

There are obvious and powerful arguments underpinning tenure. Teaching is a sensitive and politicized profession. We want university professors, especially, to feel free to speak their mind, to provoke students to think, to raise difficult and uncomfortable issues without fear of political reprisal. Teachers undoubtedly deserve a layer of job security and procedural protections beyond the ordinary profession.

But near absolute immunity? Professor Wilkins jokes, “Tenure means never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s no joke.

It should be hard, and it should be rare, but it should be possible to fire intimidating and incompetent professors.

Mitch Webber is a 2L. Will you be his valentine?