Should universities end their mandate?

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The Column of Higher Education reported that a bill ending tenure of faculty has been approved by a committee of the Iowa State Legislature. He reports: “The bill is nothing new; similar versions have been introduced for several consecutive years, never to advance further than that. But this year, the bill was passed for the first time in Committee of the Whole. There have been similar attempts to end tenure in other states such as Wisconsin and Missouri.

The attempt to end tenure is led by conservatives who believe ending tenure will allow college administrators to punish professors who discriminate against conservative students in the classroom. According to the Chronicle: “The bill to kill tenure is necessary, lawmakers said, so that institutions can fire faculty members who discriminate against students expressing conservative political views.”

If successful, this push to eliminate tenure would likely have the opposite result of what the Conservatives want. This would make it even more difficult for conservative, or even insufficiently awakened, moderate and liberal faculties to express themselves. And if these professors are intimidated into silence, it will certainly have a chilling effect on conservative students.

It’s hard to understand what makes conservative lawmakers think university administrators would use this new power to protect conservative doctoral students. In these times of revival, they would be much more likely to use the power to contain teachers who deviate from progressive norms.

When it comes to university censorship, it is important to make certain distinctions. There are many conservative views that faculty and students can express without fear of being punished by the university. Professors and students can state they prefer lower taxes and less regulation, oppose nationalized health care, or say oil, coal and gas are still necessities, without being sanctioned.

The problem arises when someone expresses an opinion that touches on issues of race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. This represents a wide range of opinions. Being pro-life can be seen as degrading for women. Questioning some of the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement can be seen as anti-Black. Opposing transgender women competing in women’s sports teams can be seen as transphobic. Conservative views on immigration can be seen as Islamophobic or racist against Latina / o. Supporting Israel can be seen as racist towards the Palestinians. And so on.

We can see this pattern by looking at the examples that the Conservatives give when they criticize tenure. In another Chronicle article discussing why Iowa conservatives want to get rid of tenure, all of the examples were like this: faculty suppressing discourse on abortion, same-sex marriage, diversity and l inclusion, Black Lives Matter, etc.

The question is therefore to know what would be the most probable result of the end of the tenure? Would most university administrators be more likely to punish a professor for controversial liberal statements or for controversial conservative statements? Experience shows that it is the dissident professors of progressive orthodoxy who would have the most to fear.

To imagine what a post tenure environment would look like, it is helpful to look at the situation in institutions that do not have seniority. (All of the following examples are discussed in more detail here, here, here, and here.) A data analyst was fired for posting papers on research indicating that nonviolent protest is more effective than violent protest. (The post was viewed as implicitly critical of Black Lives Matter.) Stan Wischnowski, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, was forced to leave the site for authorizing the title “Buildings Matter Too.” (Also considered disrespectful to Black Lives Matter.) Sports announcer lost his job for tweeting that “All lives matter.” A college chaplain was fired for writing that we don’t know if George Floyd was killed because of his race. A Boeing executive was forced to resign because he wrote an op-ed (which he has since renounced and apologized for) in 1987, opposing the eligibility of women for the post of fighter pilot .

Even full professors can be punished for unawakened statements or posts. Although they cannot be fired, they can be punished in other ways. A professor was fired from a prestigious administrative post for publishing an article opposing affirmative action in a peer-reviewed journal. Another was temporarily removed from his post as a newspaper editor for criticizing Black Lives Matter. A professor lost almost all of his students when he was boycotted for attending a pro-police rally. Professors at Princeton University are calling for the right to punish other professors for research they consider racist.

Given all of this, it’s very hard to believe that the end of tenure will make things better for faculty or students who challenge prevailing views in today’s academic environment. It’s understandable why some people are frustrated by the stifling of free speech on college campuses. But ending the mandate would only make matters worse.

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