If you ask professors why they need tenure, the first words out of their mouths will undoubtedly be some variation of this phrase: “To guarantee academic freedom.” I’ve asked this question dozens, if not hundreds, of times. I have asked professors at both ends of what amounts to a guaranteed job for life if, as the argument goes, they will be unable to speak or write freely without tenure. Will those with unpopular views—or views that upset the administration or the trustees or other members of the faculty—otherwise be run off campus? And if we allow such pressure to be exerted on our faculty, will the integrity of the university in America be compromised?
Three years ago, when I started a book about the institution of tenure, I made a promise to myself: I would severely limit my use of the words “Ward” and “Churchill.” The case of Ward Churchill (the tenured ethnic studies professor whose shoddy scholarship was brought to light after he referred to the victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns”) was invoked so commonly that his case started to lose meaning. Also, I figured he would be old news by the time the book was published. I guess the joke’s on me: Six years after an investigation was launched into Churchill’s work, and four years after University of Colorado President Hank Brown fired him, the Colorado Supreme Court announced that it would hear his lawsuit against the university at which he is seeking to be rehired.
But Churchill is only famous among the “tenured radicals” because someone actually tried to get rid of him. There are many more American academics who are still sitting pretty, long after their outrageous statements have been made public. Jews especially should be attuned to this problem, because among those afforded this ironclad protection are some notorious anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.
Take the case, for instance, of Arthur Butz, who has been teaching electrical engineering at Northwestern University for more than three decades now. In 1976, he published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry shortly after he received tenure. A couple of years ago, in interviews with the Iranian press, Butz was asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s views on the Holocaust. “I congratulate him on becoming the first head of state to speak out clearly on these issues and regret only that it was not a Western head of state,” Butz offered. For years Northwestern has been tacitly defending Butz’s Holocaust denial as within the bounds of his “academic freedom.”
A similar case arose last year when Kaukab Siddique, a professor of English at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, was found to be proclaiming the Holocaust a “myth” and a “story.” At a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington, he told the crowd, “We must stand united to defeat, to destroy, to dismantle Israel—if possible by peaceful means.” Because Siddique has tenure, Lincoln took no action against him.
Confidence in American colleges and universities is at an all-time low, according to a recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The public is upset over costs, of course. But as parents and taxpayers look more closely at the bottom line, they will also demand more accountability from universities. Unfortunately, professors and administrators seem to only want to dig in their heels. But is it worth letting these hate-mongers keep their jobs on principle?
Those with legitimate minority viewpoints claim that tenure is their only protection, that it is the only way to guarantee some form of dissent on campus. But one needn’t spend much time in the halls of academia to see that tenure has mostly been a failure on this front. Colleges and universities are some of the most intellectually uniform institutions around. Young faculty spend a great deal of time trying to ingratiate themselves with their senior colleagues in order to get tenure. Departments hire only clones of themselves. And even the faculty who have tenure are trained for so long in keeping their heads down and their mouths shut that they are reluctant to speak up, even once they have tenure’s protections.
In a recent article in the Chronicle, a veteran journalist who, after a long and bitter battle, received tenure at Ohio University, wrote about how he has resolved to act in the future: “I must try to be less bold in expressing unpopular opinions about campus policies [or] curriculum goals…I also have to learn to not always jump so eagerly into debates started by others. Instead of standing up and wading in, I must try to rise above and move beyond. Against instinct and training, I must try to avoid rocking the boat in a workplace that is hostile toward dissent.”
If this is what we mean by tenure’s ability to protect academic freedom, it’s time to try something new.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.