July 31, 2007

On The Abolition Of Tenure, Ward Churchill Edition

David French outlines the debate on tenure with some pretty revealing numbers:
Despite the mountain of evidence against Churchill, it took more than two years for the wheels of justice to turn. As he received more due process than ordinary Americans ever receive in the course of their professional lives, Churchill's dogged fight to keep his job only reinforced for many the notion that faculty members view themselves as a breed apart - entitled to lucrative lifetime employment no matter what they do.

That will be Ward Churchill's lasting legacy. He was the tipping point. Now, it's not just leading conservatives who view the academy as an out-of-control, disconnected bastion of petulant entitlement. In a recent Zogby poll, 58 percent of Americans reported that they now believe that political bias of professors is a "serious problem." Even more, 65 percent, viewed non-tenured professors as more motivated to do a good job in the classroom.

These are not isolated findings. A survey by the American Association of University Professors found that 58.4 percent of Americans had only some or no confidence in our colleges and that 82 percent want to modify or eliminate tenure.

The academic left decries the "chilling effect" of Churchill's firing, but the only individuals who should feel "chilled" are those professors publicly spewing deranged invective at that same time that they conceal a professional past rife with fraud and abuse. In reality, there was no chilling effect in Churchill's case - only a cleansing effect as higher education scrubbed itself of the man who, more than anyone else, proved that something is very wrong with our universities.
Academics who view themselves, in French's words, "as a breed apart" should acknowledge that Churchill's dismissal was actually a demonstration that tenure should be restricted to those individual scholars whose high academic rigor bolsters their arguments in favor of employing just such a system. Guaranteed academic employment (barring academic misconduct such as Churchill's or "acts of moral turpitude") should come with some basic professional standards, just as membership in the legal or medical professions do. As the professors themselves are in charge of hiring and firing, they are entrusted with "policing their own", and in this case, the professors found Churchill's conduct wanting.

But why do so many professors from the left--those charging the public, the media, neocons, etc. with producing a "chilling effect" on free speech and academic discourse--fear Churchill's removal? Any clear-thinking individual who examines a scenario like this would determine that rather than having a deleterious effect on their profession, a removal like this would actually strengthen their claim to tenure's benefits, and further justify its existence.

In addition, why do these same critics find the whole process so unappealing (besides their own political motivations), and so threatening to their existence? They themselves are in charge--not politicians like former Gov. Bill Owens who called for Churchill's firing, nor state legislators, nor the public at large. Even the CU Regents and the President can not fire a professor until the due process review has been conducted. Are these professors really just afraid of each other? A bad review or denial of tenure can damage a career, so are many more deficiencies ignored or tacitly acknowledged in exchange for similar treatment down the line, an academic quid pro quo that mitigates worries about rival academics' abilities to throw another colleague under the bus? Maybe that explains at least some of the 199 named professors who called for the investigation of Churchill to be rescinded.

Stanley Kurtz, who calls for the abolition of tenure, has some thoughts on what would replace it, should academic reform ever be implemented:
What would replace tenure? Probably long-term contracts. I believe a few schools have already experimented with this. As noted, the change would be grandfathered in, and at best would only happen piecemeal. So prospects of a catastrophe would be slight, while there would be plenty of time for experimentation with new arrangements. But I guarantee you, even the slightest prospect of change (i.e. one state legislature seriously debating the end of tenure in its public university system) would send the professorate into a mad rage, and would provoke a major national debate about the state of higher education as a whole. That debate would provide an opening for all sorts of academic reforms, not limited to tenure.

More than anything else, the conversion of tenure from a protector of academic freedom into an instrument of ideological exclusion is responsible for the destruction of the campus marketplace of ideas. Tenure is the cornerstone of the campus political-correctness problem, and even beginning a serious effort to remove it would almost certainly shake up the entire academic system. The time to consider a serious campaign to eliminate academic tenure has come.
Replacing tenure, however, would not eliminate the type of wackademic frauds that typically find their way into places of higher learning, whether attracted by ideology or an escape from the real world of the marketplace of ideas to the insulated, ivory tower where proclamations that disdain the "unwashed masses" when they do not fall in line, are not only acceptable but encouraged. Restructuring or eliminating tenure would have a positive impact on the teaching at this country's universities, with more attractive compensation as the salaries are redistributed (the left should endorse that!) toward teaching load and quality (as reflected by peer and student reviews), and away from the sort of navel-gazing "research", extended sabbaticals, and diminished teaching loads that produces graduate student enmity and second-class status for non-tenured positions. Surely the entrenched left in the professoriate wouldn't mind a little redistributive justice and equality?

An LATimes columnist says CU didn't go far enough in firing Churchill--the whole Ethnic Studies department should have been examined and possibly eliminated as well:
What should concern us all, however, is academia's nurturance of loons like the hate-filled Churchill. No, they are not many, but they shout louder than their numbers would suggest. And though their influence is minor in American higher education overall, they can be very influential in particular fields, such as comparative literature and gender and ethnic studies. That's because the problem on campuses isn't rigorous Marxist materialists, as conservative stereotypes would have you believe, but craven emotional warriors in the arena of identity politics.

Ethnic studies departments, such as Churchill's, may be the worst offenders. Created in the wake of the ethnic pride movement in the early 1970s, many simply never had the same kind of academic oversight as more established and prestigious fields. Those professors generally toiled with little funding in isolated intellectual ghettos. Their scholarship wasn't tested in the high-stakes, high-profile competition that hones other academics and other fields. They earned their "psychic income" -- a phrase coined by former Gov. Jerry Brown -- trying to turn minority undergraduates into activists. (Meanwhile, the quality work on ethnicity was being done in more traditional disciplines.)

But by most accounts, today's undergraduates of all backgrounds tend to be in search of good jobs rather than ideological causes. If anything, ethnic studies are part of the accepted last stage of American education, the puncturing of myths -- in elementary school, we learn that George Washington could not tell a lie; in high school, we learn the dates and details of Valley Forge; in college, we learn that the father of our country was a hypocritical slave owner; and then, after college, few ever think about Washington again.

Still, just because an academic field is relatively harmless and even irrelevant (in the eyes of many fellow academics) doesn't mean that shoddy professors who can't sort fact from ideology should be tolerated, particularly at taxpayer expense. The Churchill case might be closed, but university officials nationwide have an obligation to bring scrutiny and the ideal of objectivity to these below-par departments -- perhaps by dismantling and absorbing them into more rigorous disciplines and insisting, not on any one set of views or conclusions, but on the high standards of scholarship that we expect from the best of academia.
**Update 2--
PirateBallerina notes that dissenting CU Regent Cindy Carlisle is catching flak from her constituents over last week's vote:
Local Republicans want Summit County's representative on CU's Board of Regents to better explain her reasons for casting the lone dissenting vote against dismissing controversial professor Ward Churchill.

The board voted 8-1 last week to fire Churchill, a tenured professor of ethnic studies, after determining he had "engaged in acts of research misconduct, including fabrication, falsification and plagiarism," according to a report from the regents.

Regent Cindy Carlisle, a Democrat who represents Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek, Grand, Gilpin and Boulder counties, was the only regent who didn't support Churchill's dismissal.

"If Ms. Carlisle could not vote to fire Professor Ward Churchill despite the overwhelming evidence of his academic fraud and misconduct, we would also ask her to explain what circumstances would lead her to recommend that a tenured faculty member be fired," said Summit County GOP chairwoman Debra Irvine.

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