The Trouble With Tenure

Last week, a faculty committee at the University of Colorado released its recommendation as to the fate of Ward Churchill, and it’s a disgraceful outcome. Despite the earlier finding that Churchill had committed research fraud – “multiple acts of plagiarism, fabrication and falsification”- the committee advised only a one-year suspension, not termination, for he engaged in “misbehavior, but not the worst possible misbehavior.” The rationale is a cheap example of rationalization. According to the Associated Press, which received a copy of the report, the authors observed that Churchill “did not fabricate data to obtain grant money, did not endanger people’s lives by ignoring research standards and did not damage the progress of important research.”

The response shows just how little professors are affected by massive criticism from the outside. Indeed, it’s been two decades now since William Bennett, Allan Bloom, and other traditionalists opened fire on the university and made the campus a central theater in the culture wars, and in spite of steady publicity and changing political scenes, the professors seem no less insulated and double-dealing than they were in 1987. More off-campus folks monitor the ideologies at work on the inside, and calmer heads on campus have learned not to let extremists speak for the rest, but a hard and fast recalcitrance endures among the faculty. They don’t like outside scrutiny, period. As Charles Miller, head of the U.S. Commission on the Future of Higher Education, put it last year in an issue paper, “There is a resistance to accountability and assessment, a fear of exposure and misinterpretation.”

To the faculty, scrutiny feels like meddling, an intrusion upon academic freedom and an insult to expertise. Who are David Horowitz, Senator Lamar Alexander, Anne Neal, and other critics to tell people with PhDs and ten years of teaching how to do their job?
Besides, they insist, one element renders all talk about accountability moot: peer review. “Faculty members are accountable for their work in many ways – much more so than many professionals in private industry,” the AAUP’s General Secretary Roger Bowen wrote in response to the Commission. Advisors approve dissertations, committees rank job applicants, students fill out teaching evaluations, experts review manuscripts and proposals, departments grant tenure . . . At every level, academics undergo a trial of judgments and selections, and the judges are rigorous and informed. “Trust us to police ourselves,” they say. The system works, and it guarantees the quality of higher inquiry better than anything outsiders might devise.
How, then, did a study concluding that conservative Americans, at least one third of the population, need professional help get conceived by four social scientists who’d earned doctorates, jobs, and awards, win support from distinguished funders, and appear in a flagship journal?

That’s what happened four years ago when the Psychological Bulletin published a paper on the conservative personality. In 37 pages of footnotes, statistics, and social theory, the authors drafted a profile of anger, fear, and fragile self-esteem. They didn’t discuss conservative positions on small government, traditionalist curricula, or free markets. Instead, reviewing decades of research, they uncovered a set of “motivational underpinnings” that include “intolerance of ambiguity,” “terror management,” “group-based dominance,” and “need for cognitive closure,” and they provided multiple examples. When George W. Bush told world leaders, “I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right,” he revealed the rigid dogmatism of the conservative mind. When Republicans in the 1990s cut funding for the arts, they proved they couldn’t handle “new and stimulating experiences.” Even “left-wing ideologues . . . such as Stalin, Khrushchev, and Castro . . . may be considered politically conservative” – after all, they did try to conserve their power.

Liberals, by contrast, are “open to experience” and less insecure, and they possess more “cognitive complexity.” One study cited found that “Republicans reported three times as many nightmares as did Democrats.” While liberals deal in the present, the authors stated in a follow-up article, “One is justified in referring to Hitler, Mussolini, Reagan, and Limbaugh as right-wing conservatives . . . because they all preached a return to an idealized past.”

To equate Hitler and Reagan was too much, and the public took notice. Commentators and bloggers weighed in on what George Will satirically termed “Conservative Psychosis.” The authors never explained what it meant for the United States to be led by disturbed minds in all three branches of government, but the implication was clear. If conservatives triumph, fascism may follow.

When such cases make headlines, people wonder what kind of crackpot attitudes circulate in classrooms. But if they think the sources are cranks, they haven’t checked their credentials. The social scientists were at Berkeley, Stanford, and Maryland, their work funded by National Science Foundation, National Institute for Mental Health, and Stanford Business School. Psychological Bulletin is an important bi-monthly with a strict evaluation policy. The study displayed all the machinery of the discipline – 11 columns of citations, complex charts, an academic idiom – and the wild conclusion it drew (conservatives are more or less deranged) was cast in a wholly scientific tenor. The authors and their study had passed through several stages of peer review, and apparently nobody thought to question the initial definition of “conservatism” as fear of change and comfort with inequality. Indeed, we should assume a positive relationship between the contents of the study and the system of peer review. The study was approved for funding and publication because of its premise and conclusion.

It’s a bad situation, worse than outsiders realize. The very system that academics invoke to fend off critics has become part of the problem. Ideological bias has seeped into the standards of professionalism. Peer review isn’t just the application of scholarly and scientific norms. It’s a system of incentives and rewards, and success depends entirely on what peers say about you. They examine your teaching and scholarship and deliver an inside opinion, and the process is easily corrupted.

The approval of the thesis “conservatism-is-pathological” by the highest judges shows how far bias has become systematized and normalized. Can one imagine a study of the liberal personality that defines liberalism as “love of change,” links it to burning visions of anarchy and violence, and aligns Teddy Kennedy with suicide bombers securing funding, appearing in quarterlies, and earning the authors promotions? Hardly, but it happened with liberalism’s opposite. The very procedures and protocols supposed to ensure fairness and objectivity ended up approving a hit job.

For this reason, critics of academia need to shift their focus. Highlighting the extremists, Ward Churchill & Co., serves a public purpose, but it won’t change things. The Colorado faculty committee recommendation shows the system at work, and it will go on unless critics start mounting arguments against its structural pieces, not against the ideological make-up of the personnel.

We need to break up standard operating procedures, and the place to start is the central event in the system – tenure. Tenure shores up everything else. It’s a do-or-die threshold, and success means permanent security, failure years of scrapping at adjunct posts, or expulsion from the ranks forever. The system affects professors at the top 200 or so institutions, but the habits it forms set the example everywhere. Untenured professors obsess over things that will get them through – not just scholarship and teaching, but conduct in meetings, manners with senior faculty, and peer-pleasing attitudes. Tenured professors enjoy their lifetime paychecks and proceed by professional habits. Both lose touch with common sense notions and real world implications. Whatever obligations to tradition and truth they once assumed, tenure nurtures other passions. It was conceived 90 years ago to protect inquirers from political intrusion. In 1940, the American Association of University Professors updated tenure as a social benefit. We need one space in our democracy, it argued, in which ideas may circulate and inquiries progress without intimidation. But tenure has turned into its opposite, an acculturation, an instrument of coercion and conformity. If conservative and libertarian critics really want to spark intellectual renewal on campus, they should start talking about tenure and watch as the academics rise up. The ensuing heat should be taken as a sign of progress.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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