A Conservative Case for Tenure

It is often claimed that supporters of academic freedom and tenure, like the AAUP, are simply left-wing or liberal professors seeking to protect their own positions and privilege their own views.  Those of us who know better realize how ridiculous this argument can be, but now, in the wake of Scott Walker’s attack on tenure in the University of Wisconsin system, come two self-described conservative-libertarians who make a strong case for academic freedom and tenure as a necessary protection for faculty members on the Right.   Donald Downs is professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison and John Sharpless is professor of history at Madison as well as a former Republican candidate for Congress.  In a piece published yesterday on p0litico.com they argue that “Scott Walker’s Latest Crusade Will Hurt Conservatives Like Us.”

I don’t agree with everything they write — hardly a surprise given that my own politics lean decidedly in the opposite direction from theirs — but the case they make is compelling and important and should give politicians like Walker pause.  Indeed, many of the examples they offer of threats to free expression and academic freedom have been of great concern to the AAUP as well.  I’m thinking here of the fight against overly restrictive “speech codes” and so-called “trigger warnings.”  The Downs-Sharpless article illustrates well how academic freedom, correctly understood, must protect scholars from all points along the political spectrum.  I encourage you to read the full article, but below are a number of choice excerpts.  Let’s hope the so-called “conservatives” in the Wisconsin Legislature are paying attention.

As far as college campuses go, we’re a rare, endangered species: two long-tenured professors who lean right and libertarian. But we’re increasingly worried that in trying to take up another conservative crusade, our governor, Scott Walker, is going to silence the very voices he claims to support. . . .

We harbor strong concerns about Walker’s proposed tenure revisions. Without tenure protections, professors like us who fight for free speech and liberty—values Walker himself espouses—could be even more at risk of being targeted on college campuses for our beliefs.

What exactly does Walker’s proposal entail? As part of the biannual budget bill, the Republican-led Wisconsin state legislature is considering a statutory revision that could fundamentally alter the status of tenure in the University of Wisconsin system. University bureaucrats and/or the Board of Regents, the UW governing body primarily consisting of Walker appointees, would have more leeway in tenure decisions, including the ability to fire tenured professors for reasons beyond economic necessity or “just cause” for termination, such as an act of moral turpitude, grossly unprofessional behavior or a felony. The proposed law also calls for restrictions on UW’s “shared governance” system—which has stood as a national model for decades, giving faculty, students and staff equal decision-making authority in certain areas of university policy.

The current Board of Regents remains dedicated to preserving basic tenure as a matter of official policy, and UW faculty appreciate their reaffirmation of the principle of tenure. But the budget bill’s new wording would at least introduce the potential to allow the dismissal of whole departments, programs and classes of faculty. And while drastic measures could, of course, be merited depending on circumstances, the proposed law does not clearly require a cause-based justification for firing, nor does it provide for a hearing for the parties involved.

. . . . we acknowledge that academics, to say the very least, are no more deserving of tenure-style job security than anyone else. In a world governed by the unprecedented economic forces of globalization and change, fewer and fewer Americans enjoy supportive job protections, which is why many of our fellow citizens construe tenure as an undeserved sinecure. We do not believe tenure is a “right” as some critics of the budget bill proposal have claimed.

Instead, the right at stake is academic freedom, which requires the honest and fearless pursuit of truth that lies at the heart of universities’ moral charter. Outnumbered and often targeted for our beliefs by members of the campus left, constitutional conservatives like us—who take individual liberty, freedom of speech and academic freedom very seriously—have long relied on tenure to protect our right to dissent and to preserve the free exchange of ideas in academia. . . .

. . . We know for a fact that many legislators are reacting to the intellectual intolerance they believe reigns on campus. But if indeed campuses are rife with liberal-progressive and politically correct orthodoxy, why expose on-campus critics of that liberal hegemony to greater chance at banishment? As leaders of a free speech and liberty movement at UW-Madison that has enjoyed considerable success over the course of the past 20 years, we can attest to the positive effects of tenure for those with conservative and libertarian beliefs. . . .

In 1991, a federal court . . . declared the UW student [speech] code unconstitutional. But the faculty code persisted. In reaction, a group of faculty members joined us in forming an independent group known as the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights [CAFAR], which consisted of both liberal and conservative faculty members who decried what was happening. After much struggle over a three-year period, we led the way in convincing the faculty senate at Madison in 1999 to abolish the faculty speech code in the classroom, a decision that was unprecedented in higher education at the time.

Since the speech code vote, CAFAR and its allies among students and faculty have won other major victories and provided legal protection to more than 20 individuals whose rights were in jeopardy. A strong majority—though not all—of our beneficiaries have been those who dissented from liberal-progressive orthodoxy. . . .

. . . Tenure was instrumental to our movement’s success. Many individuals who joined our efforts were willing to do so because they knew their jobs would not be jeopardized in the process.

Another important factor that helped the Madison free speech to succeed was the power of shared governance, which allowed professors like us to have a voice in university policy. Indeed, the long tradition of self-governance at Wisconsin is based on two basic and deeply held American principles. The first is that the governed should have some say not simply in the laws that govern them but in their application. Hundreds of committees have a mix of administrators, faculty, staff and students. In return for our voice in policy, we share the burden of administration. The second principle of joint governance is predicated on James Madison’s notion of checks and balances, which entails the balancing of contending parties in a republican system of governance. . . .

Students would be harmed by the new tenure rules, too. Liberal and conservative alike, they tell us that they would love to have more intellectual diversity and honest debate on campus. They want the intellectual adventure and controversy that is a hallmark of an education worth its salt (and cost!). But would faculty be more afraid to give it to them in the absence of meaningful tenure protections?

We recall a story we heard about what faculty members said to the legendary president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, when he raised the possibility of doing away with tenure at Chicago several decades ago. “Today we stand before you,” they said to Hutchins. “If we come to you tomorrow without tenure, we will not be standing. We’ll be on our knees.”

Ultimately, the prospect of such intellectual stultification is all the more troubling because some of the most famous cases in the nation’s long political battle over professorial tenure have been centered at UW. In 1894, the Regents rejected calls for dismissing Robert Ely, a left-wing economics professor who encountered political opposition for his pro-labor views. In so doing, the board adopted one of the most famous declarations of academic freedom, which included the following words: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” . . .

. . . the Madison class of 1910 enshrined the “sifting and winnowing” quotation on a plaque donated to the university. For many decades, what is known as The Plaque has adorned the entry to the administration building atop of Bascom Hill. What has long made the Regents’ words meaningful are strong safeguards for tenure bolstered by a system of joint governance. When the University at Madison was integrated into the statewide system in 1970, tenure was also embedded in state statutory law, making the University of Wisconsin system truly distinctive. Professors like us felt proud, and confident that our thoughts, whatever they may be, were protected.

Standing in front of The Plaque, one can see the state capitol dome less than a mile to the east. But today that very dome casts a long, sinister shadow on the university.

One thought on “A Conservative Case for Tenure

  1. Pingback: The National Review Defends Academic Freedom | ACADEME BLOG

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