Tuesday, February 08, 2005


There has been much ado of late concerning the saga of Ward Churchill, the chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado whose incendiary comments about 9/11 victims have caused many a call for his firing if not his head (some info about the brouhaha here and here)

There's a problem though: Mr. Churchill has tenure. And that means he cannot be fired for merely expressing his views, no matter how odious they may be (on the other hand, there are some allegations that Churchill may have engaged in academic fraud. If the allegations are valid, I am sure there is a clause in his tenure contract that would allow him to be fired).

Consideration of this case is likely once again to raise the issue of the benefits and costs of tenure as an institution. As even universities are increasingly influenced by business models, many wonder why it is that university faculty are guaranteed job security for life when everyone else has to compete in the Hobbesian marketplace. Well, I think there are a few reasons why the hoary institution is worth fighting for.

First, and in the interest of full disclosure, I am presently in a tenure-track position, with the prospect of my own tenure approaching in a year or so. Therefore, I have an obvious ulterior motive for wishing the institution to continue. However, I think I can make a case for tenure despite my obvious vested interest in the subject. Tenure is one of the attractions of working in academia; it goes a fair distance to make up for the relative lack of salary (as compared to other professions requiring similar investments in post-graduate education). If business-oriented administrators want to attract the same type of employees without the enticements of tenure, they will have to significantly increase the amount of money they devote to salaries, something that I would suspect that most University administrations and boards of directors would be loath to do. Of course some administrators may argue that their institutions would be better off without a bunch of intellectual prima donnas who have a far too inflated view of themselves and their own abilities. But it has been my experience that many of my colleagues in academia are smart, competent, capable people who could easily earn far more elsewhere but choose not to.

But even more significant than the fact that tenure helps lure better potential employees to academia is the fact that tenure secures academic freedom. What Ward Churchill said about 9/11 is in my mind reprehensible. But I still maintain that having institutional protection for faculty speech, research, and writing is an indispensable part of an institution of higher learning.

An anecdote I heard once: an economist at the University of Wisconsin consistently did research and published his findings that concluded that price supports for dairy products are economically counterproductive. The Governor of the dairy-rich state leaned on the University President:
"Isn't there some way you can shut this guy up?"
The reply:
"I'd love to, but he has tenure."
I have no idea as to the veracity of the story (perhaps Ann Althouse can shed some light?). I also can't make any learned judgments concerning the veracity of neoclassical economics' claims concerning price supports. But I can say that it would be a good thing for an economist to be able to explore politically sensitive issues and it would be a good thing for local politicians to have to engage with and confront his findings rather than simply silencing the messenger.

So, just as a defender of free speech might feel qualms about defending Larry Flynt's right to "speak" but nonetheless concludes that free speech is a principle and practice worthy of defending, so too do I feel compelled to defend Churchill's right not to be fired just because he stated something that I don't agree with (again, if has committed academic fraud, that is another story).

A corollary salutary result of keeping Churchill on at the University of Colorado is that is might force institutions to be a bit more careful in making their decisions to grant tenure in the first place. Based on what I know of the case, the U of C should be ashamed to have kept this guy on. But once they made that choice, the decisionmakers at the university should have to live with the consequences of that apparently heedless act.

A final observation: my defense of tenure and academic freedom is based on the assumption that there generally is a reality (or truth) that can be approached through rational discourse and analysis. I am still enough of an old fashioned Enlightenment-style thinker to believe this. The fact that many in academia, particularly in the humanities, seem to have reached different conclusions about this issue doesn't make it particularly easy to defend their unassailable position in the ivory tower. Neither does the fact that many seem to have concluded that, regardless of what they conclude about reality and truth, they are under no obligation to make their thinking and writing accessible to the educated non-specialist. I can sympathize with the business-oriented administrator wondering why her or she should have to defend the right of professors to write impenetrable prose, the gist of which appears to be that searching for truth is Sisyphean. Still, at the end of the day, I find tenure worth defending.

UPDATE: More thoughts (and more eloquently expressed at that) on the subject here.

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