Monday, January 8, 2007

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So that's why tenure is such a big deal

In my day, I have read many a rant about how the tenure system in academia is merely a con job that ivory tower types have used to hoodwink the lumpenproletariat not privileged enough to sit in on the mind-numbing minutiae that are facult meetings. Academics usually trot out the importance of "academic freedom," but this is dimissed by most as unimportant.

I will now refer these ranters to this Inside Higher Ed piece by Elia Powers:

Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School, lowered her spectacles and, as if addressing a group of students, presented her audience with a case study.

This one involved the University of Minnesota, where students had protested the hiring of a part-time Constitutional law instructor on the grounds that he was co-author of the controversial Department of Justice torture memo.

As dean, Kagan asked the audience, would you have hired the professor, Robert Delahunty? The answers were mixed.

Then Kagan changed the scenario. What if the professor was tenured at the time when the same facts came out? Would he be protected under the banner of academic freedom?

Yes, the audience of lawyers, law school professors and administrators almost unanimously agreed.

Read the whole thing to see Kagan's explanation of this seeming paradox.

Then again, Stanley Fish does not hold that capacious a view on academic freedom more generally:

[I]s academic freedom worth protecting? Only when one applies a limited definition, Fish argued. Worthy of protection: a professorís ability to introduce material and equip students with analytical skills.

ďThatís it,Ē he said. ďThereís nothing else. The moment a professor tries to do something else [such as inject a political opinion], he is performing an action for which there should be no academic freedom.Ē

Fish added that a professor who comes clean about her political view at the start of class still shouldnít be protected. ďAsk this question,Ē he said. ďIs it an account or an advocacy of an agenda?

I have to assume that Fish was limiting his remarks about protecting academic freedom within the context of a classroom setting. Because if he's saying that research topics and research output should not be protected, then dear God, keep that man away from my campus. One also wonders what Fish's views would be about blogging....

UPDATE: Only tangentially connected, but it seems appropriate here to say goodbye to Michael Berube's blog -- he hung up his blogging spurs today. He makes a valid point in his last post:

[L]et me try to answer the most serious question Iíve gotten about this decision: why not just cut down? Post something under 2000 words for a change? Post once a week or once a month, instead of maniacally posting every weekday?....

Iíve tried that, actually, but it doesnít work. Blog maintenance on this scale is a daily, sometimes hourly thing, regardless of whether thereís a new post up. And even if I didnít try to maintain the blog on this scale (a good idea in itself), thereís still the problem of the invisible blogging. I donít write these posts out in advance, you know. I sit down for an hour or two (more for the really long posts), write them in one take in WordPerfect, look Ďem over, transfer Ďem to the blog, preview, edit, submit, and then proofread one last time once theyíre up. (Because sometimes you canít catch a typo until itís really up there on the blog, and even then, Iíve missed a bunch so far.) Which means, among other things, that I do a great deal of the planning-before-the-writing while Iím not blogging. And thatís whatís been so mentally exhausting. Itís like ABC from Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Composing. And while itís been great mental exercise, and itís compelled me to think out (and commit myself in public to) any number of things that otherwise would have simply laid around the mental toolshed for years, itís not the kind of thing I can keep up forever, and it wouldnít be seriously affected if I went to a lighter posting schedule. Iíd still spend way too much time thinking about the Next Post and the Post After That.

posted by Dan on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM


My father was a college professor and I remember him telling me that he would pay for any college I chose to attend, except those that did not have tenure. I didn't think about it at the time, but over the years I have really come to understand why he took that position. I am not a college professor, but I have a daughter who is a junior in high school and I expect I will take that same position with her.

posted by: China Law Blog on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

Dan explains very well here why I don't operate my own blog, though I have guest-hosted for several blogs including this one and there are times when I write as much as regular bloggers do.

Quality blogging really is not the same as commenting. You can't just react and respond. Just setting up links for a longer post can eat up time, as can site maintenance. For people like Dan (and me) there are questions of how blogging relates to the day job to consider as well. I honestly don't know how Dan has maintained a quality blog (and comment section) for as long as he has.

posted by: Zathras on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

If you look for the promised explanation of this paradox, what you actually find is Kagan criticizing the limitation of academic freedom to diminishing minority. This is not even a weak defense of tenure, it's actually a critique of tenure!

posted by: slim on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

As with any of Fish's comments, the thing to remember is that he may be a "law professor" but he is not a lawyer. He is an English professor who teaches classes on language at law schools. His often bizarre views of the First Amendment are not an expression of any school of legal thought, but part of his own fairly extreme philosophies on what (as a normative matter) should be the law on free speach. As an English professor, he was one of the first advocates of deconstructionism. Not an honor I would advocate.

posted by: wcb on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

So the fact that a conservative professor cannot get hired unless he (1) has no past paper trail suggesting conservative leanings, and (2) conceals all conservative leanings from the time of hiring until the award of tenure is somehow meant to be an illustration of academic freedom? I don't see it.

posted by: Tom T. on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

A tangent, but tenure came up in a newspaper article about the arrest of Penn's Rafael Robb for murder:

"I don't think they're going to fire him before there's a jury verdict," Robinson said, adding that, if Rafael Robb is convicted, not even tenure can save him from being fired.

"University professors have tenure, but it's not that solid," he said

posted by: Rich Horton on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

Why do academics deserve freedom more than the rest of us? Are academics the only ones doing anything of importance in our society? Are they the only ones deserving of the "freedom" to be not fired even despite poor job performance? Heck, that doesn't really sound like freedom. That sounds more like power.

posted by: fling93 on 01.08.07 at 09:18 AM [permalink]

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