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The Collective
Saturday, February 5, 2005
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Many in the Blogosphere (and elsewhere—for example) are simultaneously calling for Ward Churchill’s head on a platter (figuratively speaking, of course) and for the reform/abolishment of the tenure system.

Below are some additional thoughts on the subject.

(Note: In regards to tenure we should start with full disclosure: I am a tenured professor of political science (for those who may be unaware). Hence, I have a vested interest in the system of which I am writing, so one can take that as one wills.)

I. On Firing Churchill

In regards to Churchill, there can be no doubt that he is, to use a term of art, a nut job (just see my post on the subject and the interview that it links to). The very fact that he is a tenured is indicative of a failure, in my opinion, of the review process at the University of Colorado and a set of questionable standards for naming a person to a tenure-track position in the first place given that he does not hold a terminal degree (it may seem intellectual snobbery, but it is not an insignificant point: given the nature of the academic marketplace and the typical requirements for tenured positions at practically any level school these days there is no reason for an individual sans a Ph.D. to advance as far as Churchill did, unless one’s scholarship is so remarkable as to warrant such a consideration. In this case in particular such considerations are highly suspect).

Still, like all protections (and tenure is a protection) it is one that can be abused but it is one that is dangerous to tamper with. To fire a tenured professor because of what he says or writes is a very dangerous road to tread, because just because the utterance is something we find offensive doesn’t mean that the next firing won’t be for an utterance with which we agree. The very concept of firing a professor for saying something is generically speaking a pretty horrendous thing to do, as when it comes to the academy, where the free flow of ideas is vital-even bad ideas (as I have oft noted on this point, see J.S. Mill’s On Liberty especially Chapter II).

As Eugene Volokh (blogger and law professor) wrote in the Rocky Mountain News, Churchill’s view of the 911 attack is “morally depraved” and “deserves the harshest condemnation from all decent people” but he goes to note:

Churchill ought not be fired from his tenured professorship for this view. Justice Hugo Black was right to say that First Amendment rights “must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.” And the same is true of broader academic freedom principles, which flow from not just from the First Amendment rights of public university employees, but also from their tenure contracts and from professional standards of academic freedom.

Put another way: often to protect the greater good, the bad must be protected as well. Such is the very nature, for example, of our legal system which is designed to make it more likley that a guilty man walks than an innocent man is wrongly imprisoned. Further, it is fundamental to the spirit of the First Amendment that neo-Nazis have the same rights as the Federalist Society and Satan Worshippers the same rights as Southern Baptists. To give the power to the government to expunge bad ideas is to give the government the power to expunge good ones as well. Similarly, to give Boards of Trustees the power to fire tenured professors over bad ideas is to give the power to fire tenured professors with good ones. It is worth letting Ward Churchill keep his job to stop that from taking place.

Volokh’s entire column is worth reading, it makes several valid points concerning the totality of this issue.

The problem here, I would argue, is not the tenure system, but a host of other things, including the bogus nature of “ethnic studies? and its non-rigorous, a-methodological, and intellectually incestuous nature. The problem started with having the program in the first place, and then, no doubt, populating it with people like Churchill who therefore helped Churchill obtain tenured status.

In this I agree with Evan Coyne Maloney of who wrote:

Shoddy scholarship-not a knack for generating controversy-is the primary reason Professor Churchill shouldn’t be holding his professor position. Still, the University of Colorado should have noticed that and acted when Churchill initially came up for tenure. Instead, low standards on the part of the university allowed him to gain tenure and even to chair a department. [emphasis mine] By giving Churchill tenure, the university made a tacit promise to stand behind him in the face of controversy. The university should respect that promise and protect his job.

I do agree that CU would have been within its rights to remove Churchill from his Chair position (had he not voluntarily resigned).

II. On Tenure

Yes there are flaws with the tenure system, and yes, there are professor who, once tenured, do as little as possible. And, yes, there are those who achieve tenured status who don’t deserve it (I have worked with some, and no doubt will encounter more as time passes). As a result, many (such as Amy Ridenour and Mike S. Adams-himself a professor, whose arguments I don’t find all that compelling such as citing that since he has a lot of friends who are lawyers means his job is safe or the fact that he can cite examples of abuse of the system) call for the end to the tenure system.

However, I would note a couple of things: it is often the case that the perception that professors “don’t do anything? is one we get while in school and because our professors was often hard to find and so seemed to be doing nothing. However, it is entirely likely that one’s absent professor was off writing, researching or engaging in any number of other scholarly activities that we didn’t see and that they didn’t talk about.

Certainly I have no problem with policies that would punish professors who literally did nothing once tenured (such as the examples Adams’ notes). If a tenured professor fails to have any office hours, and certainly if he or she doesn’t teach when they are scheduled to do so, then firing is fair. But such issues aren’t about academic freedom, they are about failure to fulfill one’s basic obligations. It isn’t as if one can never be fired or disciplined if one is tenured.

Further, while one may think that the incentive structure of tenure results in a system which, because there are less and less rewards to be given as times goes by (I am 36 and there is only one level left: Full Professor), means that at some point you say “screw it, there’s noting left for me to get? this is rarely the case. So while, again, there are no doubt counter-examples, consider the fact that the academic life is one that requires a great deal of self-discipline and self-motivation. One doesn’t get through 5, 6, 7 years of graduate school to obtain one’s Ph.D. unless one is especially driven and especially self-motivated (no one at the university is going to go out of their way to make sure you finish, I can assure you) and during that period of time the incentive structures are such that one is paying for the privilege to study (even if one has TAships or grants one is losing money as there is no doubt that if one is smart enough to get a Ph.D. in any field then one is sacrificing years of earning whilst one is progressing towards one’s degree).

If one is predisposed to such work habits, one is unlikely to simply quit working when a certain milestone is reached. Now, will I be less prone to do things I don’t like to do (i.e., committee work) once I am a Full Professor? Almost certainly—but I see that as a privilege of the level of attainment (i.e., being able to more completely pick and choose what I do with my time).

At least theoretically, people work their butts off to enter the professoriate because they love knowledge and wish to truly engage in a life in pursuit of it. As such, tenure helps free you up to do that, not the opposite.

It is also true that older scholars, like older people in general, do tend to slow down as they age (although I had a number of older professors over the years who were quite productive). For example: I did hear a story on NPR yesterday about a biology professor and researcher who recently died (he was in his 90s) and he was doing productive work up and until a few weeks ago.

I would conclude by noting that Churchill is an embarrassment to the academic community, but he is far from representative of it. He certainly isn’t indicative of any sort of widespread problem with tenure or the academy writ large.

And tenure is under attack for reasons other that escapades of people like Churchill. Trust me: a lot of university administrations would love to end the tenure system because it costs them money (and, indeed, as anyone vaguely familiar with higher education knows, there has been a growing diminution of tenure track positions as colleges and universities hire adjuncts and instructors to teach classes).

However, as incensed citizens call for the end of this system because it protects the likes of Ward Churchill consider it protects all the rest of us in the academy as well. Is “getting? Churchill worth damaging the rest of us and the academy as a whole?

III. The “Government? Employee Argument.

Another thing that rankles me (and that I blogged on in a slightly different context on Thursday) is the argument (rightly called by Bryan S. of Arguing with Signposts a “straw man?) that because professors are often employed at public universities that they are to be seen as civil servants. It is, I would note, an argument that is especially dear to conservatives.

However, that view utterly misses the point of what a professor’s job is and, as I noted in the posted mentioned above, it is radically simplistic to argue that university professors function wholly on the public dime—it simply doesn’t work that way. And, even if it did, the nature of the profession precludes treating professors like civil servants. For one thing, it must be considered what it is that professors are paid for, and it isn’t just teaching classes. Professors are paid to think and speak (there is a reason that they are called “professors”).

As the aforementioned Eugene Volokh comments on his blog about the nature of being a university professor and why it is fundamentally different that practically any other profession:

university professors are supposed to do a good job by saying what they think is right, even when that’s offensive or alienating to people. Such an ability to express highly controversial views, even views that many people find deeply offensive, is critical for the effective functioning of universities as institutions. If university professors know that expressing controversial views about the war effort, about racial differences, about sex or sexual orientation, and so on will get them fired, then effective scholarship and public debate about these issues would be very much stifled. A “don’t offend the customers” or “if it’s controversial, don’t say it” approach may be perfectly sensible for many kinds of businesses or even government agencies. But it would be awful for universities.

Quite right.

As such, I think that Hindrocket at Powerline gets it wrong:

The taxpayers of Colorado are paying Professor Churchill’s salary, and they and others pay tuition so that their children can be competently educated. Churchill is obviously not a competent educator. There is no reason in the world why taxpayers and parents should be compelled to pay his salary in perpetuity, no matter how much of an idiot he is. If it requires a change in the tenure system to inject a modicum of common sense into our universities, let’s reform the tenure system.
Some will say: but that will leave our universities susceptible to currents of politics or fashion. To which I answer: Really? You think? As opposed to what-the situation we have now, in which any scholar who admits to conservative or Republican tendencies is less likely to be hired as a professor than I am to play in the NBA? Cry me a river.

Indeed, his position is self-contradictory in my mind, as if he truly thinks that conservatives already have a massively hard time getting hired, why would he want to take away their protections once they are. Surely if he thinks that conservatives are a rarity in the academy, then it follows that universities, if they did away with the tenure system, would disproportionately fire the conservatives which they accidentally hired.

And again: the whole idea that they are to likened to civil servants who “work for the taxpayers? is to miss quite a bit about the professoriate, as I have noted.

Further, and I would ask this especially of small government conservatives: would it really be better if government bureaucrats could fire university professors for what they say? For that matter, do we what an atmosphere in which public outrage can to the firing of a faculty member?

I would especially note that those who thought that Larry Summers was unduly pilloried for one of his utterances and who nonetheless want Churchill fired to consider the contradictory nature of that position.

IV. Others Blogging the Topic

*James Joyner (a former professor) rightly notes:

Of course, as the huge swarm over his remarks made clear, the likes of Churchill don’t dominate the faculty. Contrary to mythology, Churchill is not representative of the academy. While it’s true that college faculties almost everywhere are well to the left of the community, the vast majority are serious scholars and teachers who operate well within the bounds of civil discourse.

And he is also on target here:

one could argue that, in small doses, these types of remarks actually serve the interests of the academy. I’m guessing that CU students are debating the issues that Churchill raised much more vigorously than before, often with the guidance of their other professors. Most students are bright enough and sufficiently independent minded to dismiss Churchill’s arguments as the vile rantings they are.

*Bryan of Arguing with Signposts (a doctoral student and university instructor) has extensive comments as well that are worth reading.

*Henry Farrell (a professor) comments at Crooked Timber.

*PoliSci Prof Chris Lawrence comments here and here.

*Law Prof Stephen Bainbridge considers Churchill “an ass” but wouldn’t fire him .

*Says the ever-amusing writer/teacher/I am not 100% sure of his position Jeff Goldstein:

Ward Churchill is the intellectual equivalent of a streaker. His wannabe-provocative rhetoric “makes you think” in roughly the same way that a bouncing penis flashing across the stage during an awards ceremony or a graduation “makes you think.” That is, it makes you think, “Wow. There goes a bouncing penis.”*

Having said that, the University of Colorado granted this lanky-haired mudflap tenure. And a public university threatening to fire a professor because it disapproves of his thoughts-and because it is being pressured by outraged conservatives and grandstanding politicos like Colorado congressman Bob Beauprez-is precisely the reason why tenure remains important, at least in theory.

*Ace of Ace of Spades HQ wonders that if Churchill has made statement from the loony right rather than the loony left, if the left would be defending him as it appears many right-leaning profs are defending Churchill’s job. Further, he would fire Churchill (or at least, that is how I interpret his post).

*The Baron looks into some of Churchill’s other “scholarship.”

*And, in case you missed it, Bob Hayes at Let’s Try Freedom has the internal CU e-mail that appears to spell doom for Churchill.

*Stephen Karlson at Cold Spring Shops has an extensive post on the topic (and my apologies for sending a trackback and failing to include this link, which was my intent).

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  1. Ward Churchill Debate
    Of course, Jeff still thinks he’s reached a logical melding of Churchill’s two points: a) I mourn those who died in the Twin Towers and the airplanes with b) I know of no more proper punishment for those who died in the Twin Towers and airplanes tha…

    Trackback by Hennessy's View — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 3:36 pm

  2. 2 points:

    1. If the University made a mistake in
    granting tenure to Chruchill, what kind

    Comment by Drew — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 3:53 pm

  3. You seem to be saying that we should subsidize idiots because we never know when some great idea might come flying out of a large enough group of them. As a math major I can safely say the probability approaches zero.
    I will wager that every field knows perfectly well who its Steven Hawkings are (even if no one else does) and takes care that they may do writing and research.
    Another implication is that if all ideas are not protected at universities, there is a chance the ideas themselves will be lost or suppressed comepletely. That is a strange position for a blogger to take. In fact, as I think over the history of universities from their beginnings, most were pretty tough on any truly radical thought and most society-changing ideas originally came from outside that environment.
    Finally, many seem to speak as though Chrchill’s ideas are a kind of dissent. They are not. They are a very extreme version of the status quo. A truly dissenting statement, at the same level of extremity as Churchill’s, would surely be against campus “hate speech” policies and *would* lead to dismissal.

    Comment by Meezer — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 4:04 pm

  4. Sorry.

    Point 1. If the university made a mistake in granting tenure to Churchill, why can’t the tenure system be reformed in a way that would allow them to correct their mistake?

    Point 2. I think that the real scandal here, as Cliff May notes in the Corner, is “ethnic studies” as a discipline. Until the academy begins to weed out this kind of nonsense, and there are quite a few of these disciplines, I predict many more Churchills.

    But since tenure is so ironclad, I think that Chruchill could be dealt with in such a way that his resignation would be a relief to him.

    Comment by Drew — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 4:06 pm

  5. Drew,


    That may be feasible, but just as it isn’t kosher to change the rules of the game in the middle of an election, so too is is wrong to change the rules on Churchill this far into the game. IN his case the errors and deep and endemic to your second point, which is, as I have also noted, the problem with “ethnic studies.”

    Still, I can see not legit reform of the tenure procedure that would allow for the termination of a ternured professor based on something he/she said.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 4:42 pm

  6. Meezer,

    I wouldn’t characterize my argument in exactly those terms. However, the fundamental element of my position is: who is it that will be granted the power to determine the “good” ideas from the “bad” ones. And, further, what is to be done if those who make those determinations aren’t aimed at idiots like Churchill, but at others.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 4:45 pm

  7. he lied about who is was (an indian). he can be fired for this, and should be.

    Comment by reliapundit — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 9:43 pm


    Trackback by The Astute Blogger — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 9:55 pm

  9. SOMEONE needs to remind me again why universities
    have tenure. Is the idea behind tenure that it is suppose to protect us from politicized schools? Then tenure is an utter failure at securing its ostensible objective -…

    Trackback by PRESTOPUNDIT — Saturday, February 5, 2005 @ 10:50 pm

  10. Just a matter of point:

    It used to be that CU didn’t require a PhD for a professorship or tenure within. IIRC, they only fixed that loophole while I was doing my undergrad there (early 90s.)

    I also think that in a case like Churchill, MA WAS the terminal degree in his area when he was appointed.

    I remember him always being a “special case” at CU, a guy with lots of weird exceptions to the faculty rules. It’s a lot more common than you think. I work with academic affairs at a university (not CU), and there are more “special case” faculty with exceptions to rules than there should be. It’s just the nature of working at a state institution with thousands of different funding sources.

    Comment by dw — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 2:41 am

  11. There are a slew of ethnic studies doctoral programs-now I don’t know when they were founded, and it is theoretically possible that they all were founded after Churchill was hired, but I find that unlikely.

    And while many universities did not require doctorates for tenure (indeed, many still don’t) my point is that given the sheer number of Ph.D.s out there that there is no excuse for a major shool to hire MA instead of Ph.D.s The ratio of jobs to applicants is often ont he order of 100s for one job.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 7:27 am

  12. Hmmmm…..Churchill can’t be fired because he has tenure — likewise, civil servants can’t be fired based on seniority….

    Your bias not to be grouped with the entitlements of civil servants (what does education level have to do with whether entitlements are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ?) is a telling arguement against tenure.

    I agree with Thomas Sowell’s position on tenure — it is a public entitlement (that has slopped over into private universities that receive public money) and it benefits the professor, not the customer. Private industries just don’t have the same luxury.


    Comment by PDN — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 9:20 am

  13. My point in evoking the “civil service” is not about tenure nor about any criticism about being int he civil service. My usage of the term was to describe the main classification of government employees who are hired to work specific jobs who are often asked not to comment on the government for which they work and tend to wokr 8-5 jobs (with obvious overtime and whatnot). A professor does not fit that mode, and that was my only point.

    If you prefer a different analogy: I would note that school teachers have a different existence vis-a-vis the government than do profs: teacher have set work hours and are paid wholly from funds that come from the taxpayers (and yes, given that my mother, sister and wife are all or have been teachers, I am aware of the work outside the classroom).

    Still, professors have less defined work hours, often engage in a variety of actions and activities that are related to their profession at any given moment of the day and even at a public university by no means do all the dollars which fund said prof come from the state.

    I would also note that teachers in Alabama, at least, get tenured automatically after a mere three years. I could not apply until after 5 and had to wait a year to find out. Further, it was far from automatic.

    To get to what I think is your basic point: I was not making a value comparison to civil servants, just noting that the conditions of hiring, compensation, promotion and work conditions are different. This is especially salient when one notes that the basic response to this debate by many is to over-simply and state the profs are just state employees and so that model should be used. I am simply arguing that the model is not apt for the discussion.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 1:32 pm

  14. And, while I respect Dr. Sowell, I am not fond of the customer service model or the utilization of its language in regards to education. Students are not customers (yes, they pay to go to school, but that doesn’t make them “customers”).

    Once you start applying a customer service model to the academy you start getting things like “Johnny got a D in your class, and he isn’t happy about that fact, and since the customer is always right, you need to do something about that D”.

    Do we really want that?

    And I think the tenure system promotes scholarship and the more scholarly activity a professor engages in, the more he/she can benefit his/her students.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 1:36 pm

  15. Thank you for responding to my comments. I appreciate your thoughtful replies here and in your blog.

    Although I see your point on the use of the term ‘customer’ and I also understand you feel there is not a fair comparison between a civil servant and a professor (although I wasn’t comparing your job to a civil servants, I was comparing your entitlement ‘tenure’ to a civil servants entitlement ’seniority’)…. I still have some questions/comments on this topic that I just can’t let go.

    If I pay you for your services, (or my parents pay you for your services), then we are customers receiving a service (regardless of whether you ‘like’ the terminology or not). The service provided is a good education by talented professors (just as medical service is given by talented physicians). If I do not follow my physician’s advice, I do not benefit from this medical service. Likewise, if I do not follow my professor’s advice/assignments, I do not benefit from this educational service. I don’t receive good health, or a good grade if I don’t do the work. You do not need to be afraid of the term ‘customer’.

    I understand that you make a distinction between the hours, services, compensation, promotion between civil servants and professors — never the less, my arguement was not that you are simply a state employee (although if your check comes from the state, you are a state employee), rather I was contrasting your point about tenure being different from other forms of seniority entitlements. You say you deferred compensation while attending graduate school and should therefore be rewarded for your self-discipline and dedication. Why? If you are good, you will remain good and will retain your position — you don’t need tenure. The only thing you need is protection from unreasonable dismissal. The private sector deals with this everyday, and ‘many’ employees have Ph.D.’s and do not receive any form of tenure. Chemistry doctorates, chemical engineering doctorates, physics doctorates, are just a few examples of rigorous graduate degrees with deferred compensation, self-discipline and dedication that are commonly found in the private sector without entitlements. I still do not see why professors are a special category. Freedom of speech is found in the 1st amendment and does not need ‘tenure’ to protect it.

    I think tenure is an entitlement that does not enhance the ’students’ education but only compensates the professor. The professor with tenure can do research (engage in scholarship)in the areas they prefer regardless of its benefit to the student (customer). This scholarship is tied to publication rather than student enrichment. Tenure also allows the professor to do more research (engage in scholarship) and perform less ‘professing’ and therefore again does not benefit the student (customer). Just like seniority entitlements benefit the civil servant not the citizen, tenure benefits the professor not the student.


    Comment by PDN — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 3:21 pm

  16. My check comes from Troy University, not the State of Alabama, but more specifically only 27% of Troy University’s budget comes from the State of Alabama, while in the case of, say, a school teacher, 100% of their check comes from primarily the state, plus local and federal funds. So, I would argue, the exact financial relationship is different. Whether that means much of anything is another matter, I suppose, but as a matter of fact I find it actually bit misleading to state that university professors are, per se, “paid by the taxpayers” as the statement is only partially true.

    My point about deferred compensation was not that that was what entitles me to tenure, but to point out that individuals who are already predisposed to work sans compensation are likely to continue productive work post-tenure (i.e., it was aimed at the “tenured profs don’t do any work” argument).

    You examples of chemistry, physics, et al. PhD’s are certainly example of hard work and dedication, but they are also examples of disciplines in which one is far less likely to say something sufficiently controversial to get into the newspaper (which is different, say, than from political scientists or law professors or any number of other disciplines). As such, I would argue that your examples don’t fit the issue.

    And in regards to research and students, I beg to differ. Part of what makes a good professor a good professor (and makes a professor different from a teacher) is that professor is supposed to do ongoing original research on their topic of specialty throughout their careers. I am a Latin Americanist and institutionalist who studies political parties, elections and the politics of Colombia, amongst other things. BY studying these things, and writing on them, and presenting paper on them, and so forth, I become, by definition, a better professor, as I, in turn, teach classes on these and related topics.

    If I am better equipped now than I was 7 years ago, to teach and guide my students because of the research, presentations and publications I had to do to get tenure, and that tenure, in turn, frees me to further pursue, how can you argue that there is no benefit to the students?

    If I were hired, and as long as I didn’t screw up, I got tenure in 3 years (like school teachers in Alabama) without having to actually do anything other than teach, then perhaps you would have a point. Similarly seniority alone is an insufficient tool.

    I figure to reach full professor at my institution (which is primarily a teaching school) I that I need to write at least one book in the next several years, present one to two professional papers a year, and write a few articles/book chapters. Certainly that will all make me a better scholar and professor. (Note: at a research oriented school, the demands would be far higher).

    Further, not having the stress associated with achieving tenure itself helps free me to more fully pursue these goals.

    Again, I ask: how is the student not benefited?

    Now, I will grant that the tenure system is not wholly necessary to foster what I have described. Still, it does have the benefits described and, even more importantly, it is the best protection of academic freedom that I can think of.

    Sure, sans tenure one could always sue for wrongful termination, but do you have any idea how hard it would be to prove that the reason you were fired was because of something you said? Employers always have the upper hand in most terminations. For that matter, the expense, time and effort are generally enough to stop the ex-employee from suing in the first place.

    And, again: who is it that you wish to set up as the arbiter of what should and shouldn’t be said?

    Tenure allows for as a free an academic environment as one could possibly create-which also benefits the students in the long run.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 3:44 pm

  17. Owens and Churchill
    Colorado governor Bill Owens has been mentioned as possibly running for President. The story about Ward Churchill’s anti-American statement is…

    Trackback by The American Mind — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 4:20 pm

    Welcome, Poliblogger readers…Sean At The American Mind has also been following …

    Trackback by Cold Spring Shops — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 5:27 pm

  19. There are plenty of professors who actually dislike the teaching aspect of their job. They feel teaching undergrads takes away from their research and ultimate promotion/prestige (not much of a secret). The publish or die road to tenure also inspires articles that do little to extend information (except in minor ways) rather than encouraging long-term unique research that does not lead to immediate results. This does not increase student knowledge as much as it helps the professors career. After tenure,(yes, I know this is where the in-depth research arguement belongs), much less teaching occurs by the professor to the undergrad student (although graduate seminars are often enjoyed) and again the student benefits very little from tenure.

    You do realize I am not specifically talking about you, but the problems with tenure in general. Obviously their are many good professors who would do well with or without tenure. However,the ‘publish or die’—’students take me away from my research’ attitude is prevelant and is a direct consequence of tenure (look at the California University system, Northwestern University, Stanford University, UVA, etc.). I am sure striving for tenure has not influenced the types of research you have chosen, or hurt your attitude towards undergrads —- but the others? Is your department truly that unique (or do you discount the grumbling about teaching undergrads)?

    And — although your check is from your university, student tuition still pays for your check. Therefore, the student is still encouraged to come to your university based on the teaching — not just your research. Look at most university admission catalogues … do they emphasize teaching or the professors research? Never-the-less, many T.A.’s teach these undergrads instead of the professor. Again, I am sure your university is the exception —- but many other universities promote professors based on publications, not excellence in professing.

    If good professors will be good regardless of tenure, why is tenure needed (or do you really fear the inconsistancies of any given administration)?


    Comment by PDN — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 7:08 pm

  20. A couple of quick responses, in no particular order:

    1) You have shifted the argument about the source of my/professor’s checks from the taxpayers to the students. That becomes a different issue than where the conversation started. And I would not argue about the importance of the students.

    I still reject the customer service model-it simply doesn’t apply to education. I am not saying that that means that serving the student isn’t an issue, but it far different than a straightforward consumer transaction.

    2) You are correct, there are profs who don’t like to teach and not all research is worthwhile. However, conversely there are a lot of profs who do like teaching and a lot of reserach that is worthwhile (and the worthwhiledness of a given bit of research is often difficult to ascertain).

    3) And yes: not do I think there are reasons to generically fear administrations, but more importantly one’s colleagues. Sadly, tolerance is not always the more prevelant virute on college campuses and one shouldn’t have to worry about what one says.

    One can accept this fact, or not, but I believe it to be true.

    Further, it seems to me to logically follow that the only way to wholly ensure academic freedom is the tenure system.

    4) I still dispute your thesis that a professor’s reseach doesn’t enhance his/her teaching. One guess this is especially true in the hard sciences.

    5) And yes, I realize you aren’t talking about me. And further appreciate the civil and interesting dialogue.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Sunday, February 6, 2005 @ 7:26 pm

  21. Although the benefits/detriments of tenure do not seem to be substantially altered based on whether the student (consumer? is that better?) is a public university student (thereby supplemented by taxpayers) or a private university student, I do understand it may have seemed I was shifting focus due to unedited comments using civil servant seniority as an analogy, and pursuing a tangent on the source of your income. My focus has always been on tenure and its detriments. Reviewing by previous comments I realize I could have been clearer.

    I did not mean to imply research doesn’t enrich the student at all, I was responding in greater detail to your analysis that tenure provides the freedom to do research without stress — the stress of trying to achieve tenure. My point is that tenure pushes the non-tenured professor to publish quickly primarily for personal promotion rather than student enhancement. Likewise, after receiving tenure, the focus of a professor’s professional life frequently turns primarily to research rather than professing to undergrads. My problem is entirely with tenure as the primary motivating factor for academic advancement and professional prestige.

    I obviously believe the detriments of tenure far outweigh the benefits of any increased academic freedom — and I am unimpressed with the idea that we cannot find a better way to protect academic freedom. You, however, based on professional knowledge and personal experience with colleagues who don’t practice academic freedom for others, believe tenure is your best hope for academic freedom, and any detriments are the price you pay for an imperfect system.

    If you are right, then academic life sounds like a broken system of colleagues trying to advance over each other, (or colleagues who only want to include like minded academics), rather than colleagues working together to increase the body of knowledge in their discipline, thus enhancing student education. But, if your colleagues have the power to grant you tenure, and you need tenure as a defense against your colleagues, how can tenure increase academic freedom?

    I may be wrong that academic freedom can be increased through better means than tenure — but until alternative means are fully explored, I am unwilling to accept the increasingly imperfect results of the status quo.

    Thanks for allowing me to continue the dialogue — even if you do think I am misguided.


    Comment by PDN — Monday, February 7, 2005 @ 2:29 am

  22. […] 221; I thought that the Democratic Party was the party of progressive thinking. Perhaps tenure has addled my brain, but at the moment the Democrats appears to be the tradionalistic reaction […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » I Issue a Challenge — Monday, February 7, 2005 @ 3:01 am

  23. Three basic issues come to mind:

    1) It isn’t so much the academy that is broken, but human nature itself.

    2) My thesis on research is that all research redounds, to one degree or another to the students.

    3) For all its flaws, the system works pretty well-for all the grief we take for K-12 in the US, our universities and colleges are the best in the world.

    Aside from Churchill and those of his ilk (who are, let’s be fair, in the vast minority), I guess I am somewhat vexed as to why you see the current system as so broken.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Monday, February 7, 2005 @ 6:39 am

  24. Don’t be ‘vexed’ (what a wonderful word) about my conclusion the system must be broken —- I actually came to this conclusion based on your belief that the people who are primarily curtailing your academic freedom are your fellow colleagues:

    “3) And yes: not do I think there are reasons to generically fear administrations, but more importantly ones’s colleagues. Sadly, tolerance is not always the more prevelant virtue on college campuses and one shouldn’t have to worry about what one says.”

    If you need tenure because you fear the intolerance of your
    colleagues, yet the only way to receive tenure is through these very same colleagues you fear, then yes, — the system seems broken.

    A tenure system that is needed because of the intolerance of fellow colleagues, which then uses these same colleagues to grant tenure, seems highly problematic. Wouldn’t these same colleagues primarily grant tenure to those candidates that already agree with their prevailing mindset, rather than granting tenure to those candidates that disagree or are controversial? This doesn’t seem to promote academic freedom as much as it promotes academic uniformity.

    My conclusion that the system must be broken includes (but is not limited to) the following:

    1) Professors have to publish or die to gain tenure, which leads to frequent articles that do little to extend information (i.e. ‘How many papers can I get out of this research’). This research does not enhance student knowledge as much as it helps the professor achieve tenure.

    2) Once the professor gains tenure, the focus for the professor’s prestige is in research and graduate seminars. Frequently, the perceived benefit of tenure is that the professor does not have to teach as many undergraduate courses — thereby limiting student enhancement.

    3) Based on your conclusion that the people who threaten your academic freedom the most are your colleagues, if these same colleagues are the people that grant tenure, then the tenure system must logically increase academic uniformity more than academic freedom. Tenure would be given to those candidates that primarily agree with their colleagues, thereby providing academic freedom to people of the same mind. Controversial candidates would be denied tenure, thereby hindering academic freedom for those who disagree with their colleagues.

    Although not a complete list of the problems with tenure, I would actually say the most compelling arguement that the system is broken is based on the fact that the people who grant you tenure (colleagues) are the very people you have concluded threaten your academic freedom the most.

    I hope you don’t find this too vexing!


    Comment by PDN — Monday, February 7, 2005 @ 4:05 pm

  25. With our workforce becoming more mobile, I think tenure is becoming obsolete. Today, people outside the academic community are changing career paths multiple times.

    I would love to see more people moving between the free market and university. Personally, I know lots of professors who are burnt out on their jobs and would love a stint in the free market. Conversely, I know a large number of great people in the free market with tremendous gifts and experience that would love an opportunity to share there experience with students, but who do not because the tenure track creates an iron curtain between the market at large and the university system.

    Tenure was designed for market conditions that no longer exists. Today, we have more social mobility and opportunities than ever. The tenure systems does a great deal of harm by reducing opportunities for people.

    Comment by Kevin Delaney — Thursday, February 10, 2005 @ 2:22 am

  26. PDN: I would use the word “flawed” rather than broken. And it isn’t that I am threatened, per se, by specific colleagues. The point is one doesn’t really know where the threat will come from and if one’s statements will result in punishment if there is no protection to be had, and tenure provides that protection.

    I ask you: if the goal is the cultivation of ideas and thought how can one fully cultivate those things if one knows there is a chance that a statement may get one fired?

    Kevin: Not to sound too direct, but tenure never had anything to do with the mobility of society. For that matter, if we used to have a non-mobile society, why would you need tenure, since there would be no reason to want to incentivize someone to stay put, if they weren’t going to leave anyway.

    Further, while it may make sense for a chemist or engineer to go back and forth to the private sector, I don’t see english lit profs or political scientists doing that with great ease. I culd certaily go work in government in some capacity, but I have a hard time seeing a bunch of humanities types easily slipping into private sector jobs.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Thursday, February 10, 2005 @ 7:55 am

  27. Hello. Wow. Lots covered. I will return to read more.

    Comment by James C. Hess — Wednesday, February 16, 2005 @ 6:24 pm

  28. […] chill Debate on Protein Wisdom

    UPDATE:  Steven Taylor favors us with an extensive examination of the Churchill debate with links to pertinent blogs and articles.  I und […]

    Pingback by Hennessy’s View » Blog Archive » Churchill Debate on Protein Wisdom — Sunday, July 24, 2005 @ 9:15 am

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