Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It's not a postscript, it's a new challenge.

This article by Paul Campos of the Rocky Mountain News is the result of the Ward Churchill mess, but it raises larger issues about affirmative action and tenure. (HT: Prestopundit)


Affirmative action is a thorny, unresolved issue for me, and I acknowledge its unfairness, tendency to lower standards, but also its importance in helping good people into positions where they won't need it again. So that's not the drum I'm bangin' here. But let's talk about another face of virtuous discrimination. Let's talk tenure!

Campos writes,

The privileges created by tenure are supposed to insulate faculty from political pressures in general and censorship in particular. Yet those of us in the academy, if we were candid, would have to admit that few places are more riddled with the distorting effects of politics and censorship than university faculties...

Churchill thus represents the reductio ad absurdum of the contemporary university's willingness to subordinate all other values to affirmative action. When such a grotesque fraud - a white man pretending to be an Indian, an intellectual charlatan spewing polemical garbage festooned with phony footnotes, a shameless demagogue fabricating imaginary historical incidents to justify his pathological hatreds, an apparent plagiarist who steals and distorts the work of real scholars - manages to scam his way into a full professorship at what is still a serious research university, we know the practice of affirmative action has hit rock bottom. Or at least we can hope so...

Tenure and academic freedom are hard to defend if they don't provide us who benefit from them with the minimal degree of courage necessary to say, when confronted by someone like Churchill, enough is enough.

If even the extraordinary protections of tenure don't lead us to condemn a fraud of this magnitude in unmistakable and unapologetic terms, then we don't deserve them. What else is academic freedom for?

Tenure is a system by which faculty protect themselves from relelvancy. To attain tenure, it's "publish or perish", and your skills as an educator be darned. Many good associate professors who are well-rated as teachers by their students fail to make tenure. Many tenured profs treat their course reponsibilities (and undergrads?) with disdain, offloading their work onto grad students. This construct is as artificial as affirmative action. Employment for life means there is no way to dump a lousy educator and/or hidebound researcher. Worse, many of the tenured feel rightly sensitive at seeing any other tenured colleague targeted for accountability. These become comfortable, defensive, and loath to press for excellence.

I'd like to see "publish or perish" fade as the sole evaluation of a professor's merit. I'd like to see more funded university research positions without classroom teaching requirements for those completely who are ill-suited but whose research is valuable and appropriate for grad students or post-docs. (I dream on) I'd like to see a banishment of tenure because it lowers standards in general and I believe good professors ought to be able to survive occasional review. And because a college or university is a world unto itself and the inmates tend to conform to their internal culture, I'd like to see faculty from other institutions do the academic peer reviewing, not the local colleagues and department members. There are still drawbacks with this approach, sure. However, higher education would benefit, I believe, if review of professors were more frequent for long-term faculty, more objective, and less insular.

If we believe that tenure hasn't necessarily freed scholars to seek the truth, we must wonder what, in practice, is it promoting? Or protecting?

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