Another friend sends me a link late today to yet another story--this time in First Things, R.R. Reno's review of Naomi Schaeffer Riley's book The Faculty Lounges. The delightful pun in the title, which reminds me of a former colleague who to all appearances did nothing all day but wander from office to office with a mug of coffee in hand, seems to be the best thing about the book. Apparently Riley has produced another volume in what has by now become an almost venerable genre--the conservative attack on tenure. The instinct is understandable, for who does not lament the fact that virtually the entire system of American education, from elementary through graduate school, is in the hands of left-wing teachers? This system produces liberal students in schools of journalism, education, and liberal arts all across the country, who upon graduation spend years proselytizing for the left-wing cause until, in due course, they learn through experience that life is not at all the utopian concern they were taught it is and they begin on the way of wisdom to unlearn the teaching of the colleges.
That, as I say, is a huge problem. Would Barack Obama ever have made it to the White House with an electorate that had been educated in high school and college about the differences between Carter and Reagan? And yet, despite the damage that a bad system of education can multiply throughout society, tenure is not the root of the evil, nor is its abolition the solution.
One notes, for example, that while telling us that Riley explains well how tenure ensures conformity, the paragraph in which Reno summarizes Riley's explanation doesn't really explain anything at all: "Far from securing a free and open academic culture, tenure can have the opposite effect. Riley does an especially good job showing how tenure constricts rather than expands the intellectual diversity of most college campuses. Colleges and universities want to give jobs and tenure only to qualified applicants—and qualified applicants are those who think the same way as the already tenured professors on the tenure review committees." To some extent, this is true, as the case at the University of Kentucky showed last year, when a qualified professor was not hired to teach astronomy precisely because, as emails from the search committee revealed, they feared his Christianity. But it is unclear how precisely tenure causes this problem. The difficulty lies in the fact of the bias of those who hire. A left-wing system of education will produce a left-wing faculty, who will tend to hire clones of themselves. Whether or not those who hire have tenure will make little difference.
One suspects that the conservative opposition to tenure is two-fold. First, the university faculties really are singularly left-leaning institutions in the context of a generally conservative society. Since these faculty also enjoy the singular privilege of tenure, it seems logical that the tenure must be the root of the liberalism. But tenure is not necessarily the cause of the liberalism: if it is, the critics of tenure ought to provide a more convincing explanation for how the one causes the other. Second, conservatives, who tend to value the free market as a model for most human endeavor, are understandably suspicious of a system which, after a period of probation, provides a sinecure for whoever is lucky enough to receive one. That universities ought to be run as free-market enterprises, however, is far from certain. In their old traditional form, when they laid the groundwork for the magnificent tradition in the humanities, universities were grossly inefficient in economic terms. College faculties were assembled to teach a handful of matriculating students, an an entire Oxford College--All Souls--existed (and still does) purely for research, not educating any students at all. However, if one contrasts that inefficient system with the for-profit institutions of today or the general tendency of third-tier and regional universities to be run like businesses, one will find that the former system, which lavishes great expense on the relationship between teacher and student actually produced something worth having--a system that gave us a canon of great works of literature that nourish the human soul and the means for any curious mind to study those works through a body of helpful scholarship that guided the student through such works as docents through a museum. The current system is in danger of cranking the greatest number of warm bodies through the smallest number of classes to ensure that they produce the largest possible body of tuition-paying students, who are ensured of graduation so that they can one day contribute alumni dollars to administrations that are fat, happy, and completely in charge of the budget bag.
If we want universities that actually educate students, we will indeed need serious reform. But that reform should begin with administrations, which ought to be even more bothersome to conservatives than tenured faculty. University administrations continue to drive up the costs of education by providing ever greater salaries for themselves and their rapidly-growing armies of support staff, who make their jobs ever easier as they gain an ever-larger slice of the university finances. And since they are largely the ones who allocate those finances, they embody corruption. It is they, whose numbers since the late 1970s have been increasing rapidly, who drive up the cost of education, not professors, whose numbers and salaries have remained relatively flat over the same period of time. At the university where I teach, the only thing that stands in the way of the administration's turning the institution into another business on the order of Best Buy or the local Toyota dealership is a tenured faculty which can sometimes act as a conscience for the school and through opposition shame the administration into abandoning some of its most cynically self-interested initiatives.
Although conservatives often describe tenure as existing primarily to protect the controversial speech of some professors, such I think is not its primary purpose. Going back to the beginning of Western society is the idea that human beings can live two types of life--the active and the contemplative. This is in part what lies at the heart of Achilles' great choice in the Iliad, and it is the point of the Gospel pericope about Mary and Martha. Some do while others teach, and both action and contemplation are necessary for society to flourish. In part this realization is an example of the old medieval argument about whether knowledge or action is supreme: the answer is that the world needs both. Action without knowledge is dangerous, says Confucius, while knowledge without action is useless. Society needs librarians and researchers. We need the contemplative Einstein, Gödel, and Turing, as we also need the active Ford, Edison, and the brothers Wright. Those without tenure have the compensation of being free, if they work hard enough, to grow very wealthy indeed; those with tenure will never grow wealthy, but they will have the security they need to study, think, educate themselves in the sometimes impractical knowledge that in the end makes them better teachers. To use one's tenure, for example, to acquire a range of languages, which permits reading a rich variety of untranslated texts, makes one a better teacher than he would be if he had been forced by lack of tenure into the greater productivity of writing articles and books that would do neither him, nor other teachers, nor his students any good. Such studies deepen a mind to which any students who wish can have access: such access enriches their life and helps them approach the richness of culture that is one of the chief ends of a liberal education. A professoriate without tenure constantly worried about productivity on someone else's timetable will not be able to serve as such a guide.
One can respond, of course, that such a professoriate is rare these days, when more and more faculty members work themselves into ever narrower niches of bizarre specialization that end up as parodies of scholarship. But denying tenure to the few traditional scholars who occupy the universities will not solve this problem. We do indeed need a way to achieve greater diversity of opinion on college faculties, but leaving all professors without protection at the mercy of self-serving administrations will only make matters worse. Whatever the ultimate solutions to this problem, ending tenure will not in the end help anyone--except administrators.