Commentary Magazine


Topic: tenure

The Problem Isn’t Salaita; It’s Tenure

Jonathan Marks has written well on the current controversy over whether the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was within its rights to revoke an offer of tenure—an offer which was not formally finalized—to Steven Salaita, an academic whose says he supposedly specializes in indigenous Native American and Palestinian studies.

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Jonathan Marks has written well on the current controversy over whether the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was within its rights to revoke an offer of tenure—an offer which was not formally finalized—to Steven Salaita, an academic whose says he supposedly specializes in indigenous Native American and Palestinian studies.

But let me chime in with a modest proposal. Whether the controversy is Salaita; Joseph Massad; or Ward Churchill, who famously called the victims of 9/11 “little Eichmanns,” is beside the point. Rather, the question policymakers should ask is why give tenure to anyone?

Today’s academic system is the last vestige of the medieval guild system, and reflects that system’s strict hierarchy. Tenure was initially implemented in order to protect free speech and prevent administrations from arbitrarily firing those who might challenge the status quo, or ask tough but unsettling questions.

Nothing has done more to undercut free speech than tenure, however. Junior professors self-censor so as not to upset senior colleagues ahead of tenure decisions. The nature of scholarship often involves utilizing new or more complete sources to reconsider problems or revise current understandings. That means, in some cases, revising the work of those who have become petty dictators in their fields who would prefer to seek unquestioned affirmation rather than revision of their own work.

At the same time, tenure has undercut productivity. Too many senior faculty look at tenure as retirement in all but name: Rather than provide them the safety to really dig deep into problems in their field, they do the bare minimum required. They will show up for class, but put little effort into it. Forget any path-breaking research; that’s too much trouble. There are exceptions to that, of course: Bernard Lewis, Paul Kennedy, Michael Mandelbaum, or the late Fouad Ajami. But for every productive faculty member out there are scores who contribute little to anything post-tenure. The idea that anyone, at age 40, should receive a free ride is noxious, especially if their free ride prevents younger scholars willing to work harder and outperform from having a chance to do so.

Certainly, professors deserve job security; but lifelong tenure is a bit much. Perhaps it would be more productive to create a series of contracts which increase in length so long as the requirements for each are met. Professors might start out with a two-year contract replete with teaching and article publishing requirements, to be replaced upon completion with a four-year-contract during which they must complete their book if in the humanities or social sciences, or corollary papers if in the sciences. Perhaps then they might receive a series of eight- or ten-year contracts that will continue until their retirement so long as they continue to teach and pursue relevant research.

A side note about freedom of speech: There was a joke that circulated in Iraq soon after liberation in which a looter, asked to explain himself, said he was embracing democracy which he interpreted as doing whatever the heck he pleased. Too often, professors have a juvenile understanding of freedom of speech. While I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech and would agree that every professor should enjoy it without qualification, freedom of speech was never meant to supplant or substitute for quality of work or accountability for actions beyond the scope of their research.

Do professors want to pontificate on politics? No problem. Should they be worried about offending? No. Should campuses have speech codes? Absolutely not.

But does that mean that any political polemic should count as academic work? Or that professors should use for their political whims the time for which they are paid to pursue work outside the field for which they are hired? If a neurologist decided to dispense with the work for which he was hired and instead dedicated himself to alchemy, administrations should be free to fire, even if his lengthy blog posts or 140-character tweets about alchemy were just manifestations of his free speech.

Now make no mistake, within their fields, professors should have absolute freedom to pursue the unpopular regardless of the complaints of donors. But they should also have to adhere to rigorous standards of scholarship. Professors can whine all they want that they cannot do what they want 24 hours per day on the public dime, but let’s hope those whines fall on deaf ears: the academy was never meant to be a free ride.

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Diane Ravitch’s Sexist and Tendentious Attack on an Education Reformer

In the past I’ve had my differences with Jonathan Chait, but he does a splendid job of eviscerating Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has become among the most prominent defenders of teacher unions.

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In the past I’ve had my differences with Jonathan Chait, but he does a splendid job of eviscerating Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has become among the most prominent defenders of teacher unions.

Ms. Ravitch has undergone a radical change in her views. She was once a vocal advocate for reforms; she’s now among the fiercest public critics of reform. More on that in a moment, but let me begin by setting the context.

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi did a profile of Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist. One of Ms. Brown’s concerns is teacher tenure, which she (rightly) believes protects terrible teachers from accountability and creates the wrong metric by which to judge teachers. Apparently this was too much for Ms. Ravitch, who said this:

“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”

As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters. . . . I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”

To which Chait responds, “Why, yes, that does sound rather sexist.” He goes on to explain why the elimination of our current system of teacher tenure would help attract better teachers, including pointing out that last-in, first-out hiring rules lead to teachers being let go regardless of quality. “The basic problem is that some proportion of American teachers is terrible at their job and immune to improvement, yet removing them is a practical impossibility,” Chait writes. (He supplies an overview of the research here.)

“In most fields,” Chait adds, “your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job.” He goes on to say of various reforms, “nearly all of them work better than paying people on the basis of how long they’ve held a job and making it functionally impossible to fire them for being terrible at their job.”

Some final thoughts, the first of which is that it’s a shame that Ravitch has become such an angry and embittered critic of those arguing for many of the reforms she once favored. In a devastating COMMENTARY magazine review of Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Liam Julian of the Hoover Institution wrote her book was “nothing less than an act of emotional and ideological capitulation to those who fought her tooth and nail all along the way.” Changing one’s mind is not in principle wrong, of course, but in Ms. Ravitch’s case her complete shift on education reminds me of the words of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons: “Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate — Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning, your face is to the front again.”

In the course of her volte-face, Ms. Ravitch hasn’t simply shifted her views; she’s gone from being a serious scholar to an intemperate polemicist. (See Sol Stern’s Autumn 2013 essay in City Journal, “The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind,” for more.) Her sexist attack on Campbell Brown, while ludicrous, was entirely in keeping with her corrosive and dyspeptic rhetoric these days.

As for Ms. Brown, she put things rather well in the profile by Farhi:

I’m a mom, and my view of public education begins and ends with the fundamental question: Is this good for children? In a situation where it’s the child or the adult, I’m going with the child…. Tenure is permanent lifetime employment. There’s no reason why anyone’s job should become untouchable for the rest of their life.

To be an advocate for the education and wellbeing of children is a rather high calling, even if the advocate happens to be attractive as well.

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