Iron "Mike" Bloomberg on the Purpose of Tenure

“Mike” (the name he has on his website) Bloomberg’s commencement speech at Harvard is quite a work of art. It criticizes liberal dogmatism on elite campuses and conservative dogmatism in our legislatures. In both dogmatic cases, the cause is fearful intolerance of diversity. In both cases, the cause is a lack of confidence in the truth of one’s own opinion. Bloomberg reminded the audience of what John Stuart Mill wrote on On Liberty, of “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth” that’s “produced by its collision with error.”

Liberals, of course, agree with Bloomberg on the outrage of the Republican members of Congress “trying to repress and undermine research that runs counter to its ideology” on climate change and gun violence.

Worse still is what goes on in the legislature of South Carolina. It simply denies the scientific evidence that evolution happened. The state senate even “passed a bill defining the Wooly Mammoth as having been ‘created on the 6th day with the beasts of the field.’” It might be appropriate for the legislature to take a stand against evolutionary scientism dogmatically ruling out creation as a possibility. But the legislature “block[ing] any mention of natural selection” in “new science standards for public schools” really is a fundamentalist suppression of an opinion held by the overwhelming majority of scientists that’s supported by tremendous evidence. In South Carolina, it really is the tyranny of the majority over free thought.

Bloomberg gives liberals the red meat they deserve by concluding: “Just as members of Congress fear data that undermine ideological beliefs, these state legislators fear scientific evidence that undermines their religious beliefs.” He even adds: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Both liberals and conservatives these days aren’t, truth to tell, shy when it comes to standing up for their own rights. But, as Bloomberg says, the truth also is: “Standing up for the rights of others is in some ways more important than standing up for your own rights.” And whose rights are under attack on our elite campus these days? Well, “There’s an idea floating around college campuses—including here at Harvard—that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice.” His reference here, of course, is to the claim of the Harvard Crimson that any prominent professor who votes Republican should be branded self-evidently unjust and so intolerable.

“Censorship,” Bloomberg proclaims, is the word that corresponds to the idea that the liberal view of justice trumps academic freedom. And here’s a phrase that does the same: “a modern-day form of McCarthyism.” McCarthyism, of course, was the suppression of ideas of justice thought to be communist. And every liberal believes that was a deep offense against freedom of thought cravenly accepted by universities fearfully pandering to the paranoid impulse in American public opinion. But today, Bloomberg observes, “it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas.” The so-called liberals, it turns out, act no differently when dealing with either communists or conservatives.

And once again, the offense against intellectual freedom is the tyranny of the majority against free thought, especially in the Ivy League. This time, the tyrannical majority is composed of professors, who virtually all voted for Obama and among whom there is less political disagreement than there was “among the old Soviet politburo.” The result is that “conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.”

The suggestion, of course, is that conservative professors are the dissidents, the ones who courageously (admittedly, at the level of loss of job, not loss of life) defend their unfashionable view of the truth. And, by so doing, they defend the truth itself. Nobody can deny that “neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.” That’s why “a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogeneous.” Ivy League professors are as “predictably partisan” as the white, Christian, and Republican members of the South Carolina legislature. They proclaim their devotion to every form of demographic diversity except diversity of political opinion. They think their devotion to diversity makes them better than those southerners, but, when it comes to devotion to intellectual freedom, they are, Bloomberg shows us, really about the same. Our universities these days can’t be called great.

The real issue, of course, is that you’d expect colleges and universities to do better than legislatures in resisting the inevitable tendency of the majority in a democracy to constrain free thought. The method our universities came up with, of course, is tenure. Bloomberg reminds us “the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors” is “to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms.” The intellectual freedom of professors is threatened by “societal norms” or public opinion. It’s also threatened by “university politics” or the opinions of other professors and administrators.

“When tenure was invented,” Bloomberg remembers, “it mostly protected liberals whose opinions ran up against conservative norms.” It still serves to protect professors from public opinion and intrusive legislatures in our more conservative states such as South Carolina. But now more than ever, “it must also protect conservative professors whose ideas run up against liberal norms.” Those, of course, are the norms of the overwhelming majority of professors and administrators.

The whole purpose of tenure turns out to be to keep all scholars and speakers from having “to conform” to any particular list of “political standards.” That coerced conformity “undermines the whole purpose of the university.” So it’s “disturbing, “a shock, an “outrage” that senior, tenured faculty members allowed invitations to speakers to be withdrawn just because they were “deemed politically objectionable.”

Bloomberg pointedly concludes: “For tenured faculty members to silence speakers whose views they disagree with is the height of hypocrisy, especially when these protests happen in the northeast—a bastion of self-proclaimed liberal tolerance.” What is self-proclaimed is not supported by the actual evidence, by human behavior anyone with eyes can see. Liberal tolerance, in the name of justice, has become an oxymoron.

The legislators in South Carolina certainly can’t be accused of hypocrisy; they were using the power they had as lawmakers to enforce the will of the people. The university claims to be about trumping public opinion with the truth, with a standard higher than implementing the will of the powerful. But administrators and tenured professors choose power over truth when they don’t “step in to prevent the mob from silencing speech.” They aren’t as different as they think from the democratic Athenians who shut down the in-your-face political incorrectness of Socrates.

Liberal intolerance can be arrogant and ignorant as were the students shouting down the New York Police Commissioner. It, too, can be a mob assembly that ostracizes professors who claim that liberals (such as followers of John Rawls) know less about justice than they think they do.

I have said time and again, in the spirit of Bloomberg, that conservative professors should support tenure as an indispensable requirement for protecting their capacity to speak truth to power. That means to public opinion, corporations, puffed up politicians, respected experts, entrepreneurs, the students who get to evaluate them, foundations, bureaucracies, accrediting associations, and bloated administrations. But that protection only works if the whole purpose of tenure is viewed non-hypocritically. All professors should share the good of the truth—including its pursuit through the method of the free or dialectical exchange of ideas—above all else.

It goes without saying, I hope, that ordinarily conservative professors shouldn’t be rousing up external stakeholders—such as trustees or legislators—against tenured radicals. But their liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) self-restraint depends upon their politically liberal colleagues showing the same kind of liberality or generosity to those with whom they merely disagree.