Thursday, June 05, 2003

Another corrupt tenure case? 

Erin O'Connor believes she may have found another corrupt tenure case, this time at Smith College. There's a whiff of PC persecution, like the KC Johnson case (which Erin helped expose to the wider world) I haven't noted too many of these, since Erin covers that beat pretty well, but since this is an economist, I thought I'd look into it.

The fellow in question, Professor James Miller, has two articles in refereed journals according to my search on EconLit (a search engine available with FirstSearch) dealing with the use of economics in trial procedures. He also has a book on game theory (he's created an Amazon page to show his book with others in his area.) This isn't a stellar portfolio, but at the same time there are many schools like Smith where this would be considered sufficient.

The "coming out a conservative" part of the story is his occasional articles for National Review Online. His articles include pieces on deterring nuclear threats, airport security and copyright law. But the one mentioned in the Smith College Sophian (registration required) is one titled "Campus Colors". The article requires a fairly close read, because there are some things in here that one might want to question.

Professors' leftist beliefs primarily stem from their economic outlook. Most people in the not-for-profit sector are usually at least liberal (e.g. social workers, government employees, state-subsidized artists.) Not-for-profit workers voluntarily forgo the capitalist dream of achieving wealth through the marketplace and instead rely upon the government and private contributions for support. The conservative economic agenda of strengthening the business sector by reducing the burden of government is likely to have diminished appeal to those who work for organizations which aren't taxed or significantly regulated.
I think the observation is true, though I think the logic for it is a bit of a stretch.
The large number of non-U.S. citizens in American colleges necessarily makes these schools less patriotic. You wouldn't expect an American-based professor who is of Chinese citizenship to be as pro-U.S. as the average American is. As long as U.S. high schools continue to provide deficient training in math and science however, American colleges will have to continue to heavily recruit students and faculty from abroad if the schools want to remain world class.
I don't know if this is at all true, and it's this quote that drew one of the letters explaining a no vote for tenure for Miller. While international faculty may be liberal compared to the American public, it's been my general impression that they are not liberal compared to American-born-and-raised faculty. The ideological difference between African faculty and African-American faculty, for instance, is noticeable. I don't think this misperception by Miller is "extremely disturbingly [sic]" (as the letter against tenure states), but it's not helpful.
The best way for governors to reduce the influence of leftists in public universities would be to insure that professors are hired and promoted primarily on the basis of their teaching skills. Currently, most public universities care far more about research than teaching. For most professors in the humanities and social sciences (excluding economics) conducting research means getting published in leftist journals. Practically the only way for a women's-studies professor to get a lifetime college appointment is for her to contribute to the literature on why America is racist, sexist, and homophobic. If instead professors' career advancements were determined by their teaching skills, then professors would have to satisfy the needs of their students, not the ideological demands of radical journal editors.
Here he needs to be a little more careful. The large land-grant schools like those in the Big Ten certainly fit this description of needing to conduct research in leftist journals. But the state universities like SCSU don't even require this much. They can be satisfied with writing articles for conferences only attended by those of the same ideological bent. At a regional social science conference, for example, there are two groups of economists who meet -- an institutionalist section and a section for mainstream economics. The two seldom cross-pollinate, and when they do the sparks fly. (I've been involved in some of these sparks, but that's another story.) These presentations are listed by faculty for promotion and tenure decisions, and they count.
Students also bear much of the blame for political correctness on campus. This is not because students themselves are overwhelmingly left wing, but rather because they are often apathetic and infrequently challenge their leftist professors. Questioning a professor's politics is unlikely to endanger a student's grade. Even most left-wing professors prefer students who talk and challenge to those who quietly submit.
Again, that doesn't fit my experience or those of the students who submit to NoIndoctrination or Campus Nonsense. I think it borders on blaming the victim, actually.

I don't know enough to say whether this is a corrupt tenure case, and I suspect none of the outside commentators do. It's not at all unusual to see petitions filed for faculty who lose a tenure decision, and those petitions are borne of personal relationships between faculty and student rather than students making informed impassionate judgments on a faculty member's teaching. There's no record of a teaching award, though one student is quoted commenting positively on teaching. More than focusing on Prof. Miller's tenure, if I were President Christ I would wonder what could be done to improve a school where over 100 students sign a petition that expresses the concern "that this decision will decrease the little political diversity that exists amongst the faculty at Smith College."

One last short note: There is an impression by Invisible Adjunct (in Erin's comments) that economics departments are in general more conservative than elsewhere. At grave risk of overgeneralization: Yes, true for research universities, but not true for small private school economics departments. Since the research journals in economics are general pro-market (not necessarily free market, btw, but again, save that discussion) and since the publication requirements in the small lib-arts schools are less, more liberal economics professors tend to congregate more in the small private schools.

UPDATE: Critical Mass reports that the Smith College Grievance Committee "has unanimously agreed that Miller's academic freedom was violated. The decision to deny him tenure has thus been invalidated and he'll come up for tenure again".