Righting the higher-ed ship is needed, but eliminating tenure may have unintended effects
Three bills affecting higher education are moving slowly through the North Carolina legislature. The bills are a reaction to the widespread perception that higher education has been taken over by an anti-American ideology that undermines its purpose.
Students emerge from college notoriously ignorant of basic facts and convinced that the United States is an evil force. An essential feature of higher education is to pass on the culture. Cultural transmission has been perverted by doctrines that emphasize America’s flaws while discounting or even omitting successful efforts to overcome them.
The N.C. bills deal with three aspects of this problem:
- Correcting the distortion of culture, of America’s history, one bill requires that every UNC student take at least three credit hours of instruction emphasizing the Constitution and the historical founding of the United states.
- Another bill requires the elimination of all aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion, training.
- And finally, to correct the influence of what are perceived as ideologically biased faculty, a bill aims to abolish tenure. Tenure gives essentially permanent employment to faculty members who are perceived as undercutting the fundamental purposes of the university.
As the recent fracas surrounding the shouting down of an invited speaker at Stanford law school shows, the mandate, the motives, of the DEI administrator who intervened are simply incompatible with the idea of open debate. To her, the upset feelings of a small number of students trumped the speaker’s right to make his case. This is only one example of many. The situation at UNC Wilmington where state Sen. Michael Lee was harassed by a woke mob, that ruined a banquet in his honor and then followed him and his family to their car, was inspired by similar motives. DEI has consistently interfered with free discourse at universities. This action by the legislature is overdue and necessary.
In the second proposal, which says that all students should have to take a well-rounded American history course. A substantial number of faculty have objected for two reasons. The first, obviously, is that they consider curriculum to be their prerogative. The proposed action by the state therefore looks like usurpation of a faculty role. The second objection is that the kind of course that the legislation outlines is distasteful to some of the relevant faculty. Yet, promoters of the bill will argue, faculty have brought this on themselves by systematically neglecting their duty to pass on the culture. The intervention is minor. The legislation should stand.
A step too far
The third proposal, abolition of tenure, is more questionable. It’s easy to understand why citizens would resent the security that tenure confers: a guaranteed lifetime of employment for people who many see as behaving irresponsibly and betraying our trust. To eliminate tenure is a natural reaction.
But I think it is probably wrong. Tenure has provided some security for opinion dissenters in the past. The question is, why isn’t it working now? Perhaps the real problem is elsewhere: it may be that even though tenure seems to maintain groupthink, tenure is not where groupthink began. Indeed it may be precisely the opposite. Several decades ago most faculty were either tenured or on the tenure track, looking towards eventual tenure. A small minority were in what are called adjunct positions, on short term contracts tied to particular courses, to fill in teaching needs left by retired or on-leave faculty — and usually paid very little. Now the situation is almost reversed: half or more of the faculty are now adjuncts with no security whatsoever.
(Although it is hard to get exact figures. Institutions are far from transparent and titles for non-tenure-track faculty are variable: “professor of the practice” or “research professor “ are popular, for example. A Google search comes up with “75.5% of college faculty are now off the tenure track, meaning they have NO access to tenure…”!)
Adjunct faculty are highly vulnerable, especially as there is now an oversupply (too many PhDs). If adjuncts express opinions unpopular with tenured faculty and students (the growing power of students is a topic for another time), their contracts will not be renewed. Conformity is guaranteed. In other words, the proliferation of adjuncts may have contributed to the ideological uniformity at UNC and many other US universities.
So, rather than eliminate tenure immediately, it would be better to look first at exactly how tenure is awarded, and second try to understand the reasons for increasing reliance on adjunct faculty — faculty who have little role in the university governance, little freedom of speech or teaching content, and really exist only as relief workers for students and tenure-track faculty.
First, how is tenure awarded? The standard procedure is that faculty are “up or out” after seven years. In other words a faculty member has five to six years to prove him or herself. Is this too long or too short? Some may think it too long in the sense that no matter what the individual’s beliefs might be when she (nowadays it is more likely “she” in most disciplines) joins the faculty, after six years she will have been fully indoctrinated into the prevailing view. Tenure committees can check whether she conforms or not as well as looking at her academic record. In other words there’s plenty of time for the tenure committee to see whether she is “the right type.” So perhaps the tenure period should be much shorter, perhaps just two or three years for example (as it is in Britain). Let’s have some discussion about this.
Second, what are the reasons for, and the effects of, hiring so many non-tenured-track faculty? One possibility is that it will reduce the intellectual diversity of the faculty. Adjuncts will be less likely to express independent opinions that deviate from the norm. Tenured faculty are less likely to encounter criticism from their colleagues and more likely to double down on their ideological beliefs. I don’t know, if that’s the reason, but these uncertainties suggest that abolishing tenure may miss the target.
But the other two changes — abolition of DEI offices and practices; and mandating an introductory history course that has more allegiance to Jefferson, Washington, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution than the biased and cherry-picked anti-American history of Howard Zinn — are worthy ideas well worth a try.