Monday, February 14, 2005
Bloggers love to go after politicians and the "mainstream media," but as John points out, tenured professors comprise an elite corps that's even less accountable than either. Ward Churchill is a lousy poster-boy for academic freedom, especially if it turns out to be true that he's not really an Indian but nothing more than a plagiarist and a poseur who makes up evidence to support his foregone conclusions. Still, I'm glad that this controvery has arisen. I don't think it's too much to ask that tenured professors occasionally demonstrate that as a class, their behavior shows some understanding of the responsibility commensurate with the astonishing privilege of lifetime job security. We shouldn't be expected to accept that tenure promotes humility in the service of truth when so much suggests otherwise. Prove it to us.If Churchill turns out to be a plagiarist, under no definition of academic freedom does he remain at the university. Proving plagiarism is damned difficult -- which I think is a good thing, because the charge goes to the very basis of scientific inquiry. A plagiarist isn't a poster boy for anything but a hearing before a disciplinary panel, and I do not know of someone convicted of plagiarism that has been protected by tenure.
The discussion is over whether the statements about America deserving more 9/11s are grounds for recission of tenure, and I'll stand by my belief that they are not. John's points appear to be threefold:
- A fighting words doctrine or sorts can be held to apply to faculty who speak in such a way that "may be disruptive to a university's purpose in maintaining faculty collegiality and attracting donors." Two objections arise: First, faculty collegiality is often a means of silencing opposition to the dominant paradigm on university campuses -- liberalism -- and John's standard would make it far more difficult for conservatives to continue to exist on campuses. Second, if universities want to produce intellectual diversity, they should approach disgruntled donors with the possibility of funding alternative speakers. This is my suggestion to the president of University of Wisconsin at Whitewater or other concerned presidents of university who've bought a pig in a poke with Churchill -- hold a teach-in about Churchill elsewhere on campus.
- There are some words that would be seen as showing a faculty member's unfitness for the position. What does this make of the tenure promise, which faculty receive in return for a lifetime income stream that is unlikely to keep up with the market? "We will guarantee you a lifetime contract because we think you're fit for a professorship -- but we reserve the right to rescind it if you say something really stupid." That's not much of a promise, is it?
- If you work for a public university, the public has the right to call for your removal even after you've been granted tenure. But on what grounds? Could a conservative professor ever teach at a public university in Massachusetts? A liberal professor in Mississippi? John calls this a political process worthy of trust, but that makes faculty members at public schools susceptible to lobbyists and letterwriting campaigns. Students of public choice, particularly those who teach at public universities, would find this possibility frightening. Moreover, it defeats the purpose of tenure to begin with: Promoting intellectual diversity on campuses. If we allow the public to fire tenured professors, faculties will become more homogeneous. And that's a problem we're already fighting.