Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Reflecting on John's post 

I fell asleep before getting to a reply on John's guest post yesterday and so I must put them up now. We of course agree on the desirability of comments and the difficulty of dealing with trolls (that's why they've persisted for about as long as there's been an Internet). What I would like to do is comment on John's numbered points:
  1. Tenure criteria should be clearly spelled out. It's hard to disagree with this; I compare this to the rules vs. discretion argument in macroeconomic policy. Discretion, the story goes in economics, can lead to time-inconsistent practices -- tenure decisions that look like "the right thing to do" in one case may create precedents that are not optimal over the long run. (Think of negotiating with hostage-takers as an example.) And if you're going to use rules, then a big advantage is transparency, which John and I agree is desirable. The proponents of discretion will say that there are extraordinary cases which the rules cannot handle; human knowledge of all future situations is imperfect. That's true, but rules in my view look like they lead to fewer sub-optimal outcomes than does discretion. Tenure is a case in point.
  2. Who thinks tenure and academic freedom are absolutes?Certainly not the Left; having defeated McCarthyism in the 1950s (they didn't do it alone, btw, but don't let that stop a good story) they now seek to impose their own. Nor does the AAUP, whose 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure contains this passage:
    Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights. [1]

    Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.

    The footnote [1] refers to an interpretive comment adopted in 1970, to wit:
    1.The Association of American Colleges and the American Association of University Professors have long recognized that membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities. Both associations either separately or jointly have consistently affirmed these responsibilities in major policy statements, providing guidance to professors in their utterances as citizens, in the exercise of their responsibilities to the institution and to students, and in their conduct when resigning from their institution or when undertaking government-sponsored research. Of particular relevance is the Statement on Professional Ethics, adopted in 1966 as Association policy. (A revision, adopted in 1987, may be found in AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports, 9th ed. [Washington, D.C., 2001], 133�34.)
    The question in the Sami al-Arian case is whether he abdicated his responsibilities. As FIRE noted after al-Arian's indictment last February, when al-Arian spoke on campus after 9/11 his university explicitly called it "protected speech" but dismissed him anyways. One could have argued that his speech was not protected -- and I'd argue that his appearance on the O'Reilly Factor in September 2001 would not be considered ethical by the AAUP's Redbook -- but it's not clear that dismissal is always the proper response to an unethical act. That said, if al-Arian is guilty of the charges in the current indictment for abetting terrorists, he must be dismissed, as his ability to teach in the classroom would be forever compromised. As the first statement in the AAUP ethics states:
    Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry.
  3. Is tenure everywhere and always a good thing?No of course not; it's a good that creates both benefits and costs to the university, and to the faculty member. John and I engaged this debate a few weeks ago on Invisible Adjunct. (See also here.) Tenure is part of a labor contract; individuals add or subtract features to a contract to create compatible incentives for the employer and employee. I've accepted Richard McKenzie's thesis that tenure arises as an insurance in a labor setting where decisions on promotion and pay raises are made democratically -- a thesis testable by observation of co-ops and other types of labor settings with democratic features. There may be other types of contracts that create the right incentives as well that don't use tenure (buyout clauses, perhaps.)

    I'd also add to John's last question in this point that I did try to ascertain whether the criteria at Smith were met by Miller, and that in private schools that criteria could include some philosophical leaning of the faculty. Asking a devoutly Christian school like Magdalen College (which Critical Mass posted two weeks ago) to tenure a Muslim is absurd. I work in a state university, however, and here I would argue that there should be no philosophical standards asked of faculty approaching tenure. Again, transparency is key -- someone working at Magdalen must know at the time of appointment whether holding a non-Christian belief system will be cause for denial of tenure, and it is the employer's responsibility to make that clear.

  4. Are the problems systemic, or are academic bloggers just looking out for themselves? I can't speak for any other blog but this one, and we put this up to improve things at SCSU. We're not trying to "save the academy" because I don't think any of us feels capable of doing so. We connect to stories on other campuses only to the extent that they parallel what happens here -- and many stories do. As I wrote a week ago, the reason for Scholars to go public is that many of the symptoms of the Left's attack on the academy occur here without any attempt to hide what they do. (Of course, the hiding is beginning now in part because we've shed light on the problems.) And one of the problems that recurs on all campuses is exactly what John discusses -- the use of one's academic position to espouse views far afield from one's expertise. I would argue, for one, that the AAUP's guidance on "extramural utterances" should be seen as extending to speaking about areas outside one's expertise. The Ethics statement makes the point:"When they [faculty] speak or act as private persons, they avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university." This does not happen enough today.

I notice that Haloscan is working again, so comments are once again welcomed. Thanks for your offering of "intelligent cross-examination," John.