The Tenured Conservative

In a recent piece for the Pope Center, I suggest that the real value of tenure is financial: tenure’s not about academic freedom; it’s about financial security. Both at the Pope Center and at the Phi Beta Cons blog at National Review, anonymous conservative academics have said that, au contraire, tenure is the only bulwark between conservative academics and a complete takeover of the university system by the left. We can put it another way (and still maintain the language of warfare): tenure protects the few conservative academics who stealthily outmaneuver their colleagues in the ideological turf wars on college campuses, and abolishing tenure will remove the last scrap of body armor they have left. If tenure goes, then out go the conservatives.

It’s the most compelling conservative argument for tenure: the tenured conservative.

But I don’t buy it. Here’s the argument in a sentence: there will be even fewer conservatives in the academy if tenure is abolished. On this view, tenure protects conservatives from progressive ne’er-do-wells. Before they receive tenure, conservative academics must stay silent, and for good reason: their progressive colleagues would surely dismiss them unfairly, in spite of voluminous publications and stellar teaching evaluations, if they let their true convictions be known. Once they get tenure, however, they can speak freely and openly of their conservative convictions, because tenure protects their academic freedom, in spite of my claims to the contrary.

There are five problems with this argument. First, it is simply hard to imagine that there could be fewer conservatives in the academy. One report says that President Barack Obama received 96% of Ivy League professors’ donations in the last election against Governor Mitt Romney. Another survey, taken before the election, tells a similar story: at Brown University, for example, President Obama received money from the outgoing president as well as several faculty members. Governor Romney received a grand total of one donation from … an apparently untenured clinical assistant professor of surgery at the medical school. “I am a microscopic minority,” Dr. James Fingleton said, though he doesn’t feel oppressed: “I don’t feel like a pariah,” he said. “I kind of carry the banner pretty proudly.” (In case you’re wondering, he’s still at Brown, and he’s chief of cardiovascular surgery at Southcoast Health System. So he either has tenure, or he doesn’t think he needs tenure to speak his mind.)

Second, these arguments assume that there’s a malicious conspiracy against conservatives in the academy. But in a new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, sociologist Neil Gross proposes an alternative explanation: self-selection. Professors are largely seen as liberal; liberal students find role models in their liberal professors, but conservatives do not. Gross’s work undercuts liberal crowing about liberals being in the academy because … they … are … just … smarter. But it also questions the conservative story about bright conservatives being forced out of the academy; they’re not being forced out, because they never entered the labor pool in the first place. If Gross is right, then conservative attempts to discredit the academy by calling it liberal only make young conservatives even less likely to enter that world. Let me say that I find some of Gross’s argument persuasive (though—true confession—I’ve only glanced at the book). We do have role models in our lives, and these role models encourage us profoundly. It’s also helpful to think through how conservatives may pursue nonacademic career paths that nevertheless rely on academic skills.

In my own discipline (philosophy), academically gifted conservative students may choose to pursue a career in, e.g., law or ministry. So Gross certainly is on to something. Nevertheless, I have two reservations about accepting his account wholeheartedly; first, the theory of self-selection explains why the imbalance continues, but it doesn’t explain how it started in the first place, and, second, it isn’t just having or not having a role model—it’s also whether or not there are viable research programs in the various disciplines that warm the conservative undergraduate’s imagination. For example, a conservative undergraduate in an economics department populated by Keynesians may think that his positions are nonacademic, rather than just unfashionable at his university. It’s not simply that he has no role models; it’s also that he mistakenly believes that research on a topic that interests him cannot take place in a university setting, when in fact it can.

We can frame the third problem with the tenured conservative as a question: can conservatives honestly be so secretive in their positions? In some instances, they can—in mathematics and physics, for example. In other disciplines—philosophy, political science, or economics—one’s views about the world are fairly obvious, or at least can be. Robert George, for example, published Making Men Moral before receiving tenure at Princeton; now, as a senior academic, he’s featured by the admissions committee. That’s not to say that George is asked to all the best cocktail parties. It is to say that it doesn’t look like he’s pursued a stealth strategy for his career; indeed, it’s hard to see how he could have, given his research interests.

Fourth, the tenure system, by having a timeline, creates the opportunity to eliminate conservatives via a vote against the candidate on the basis of collegiality. Without tenure, that would be … gone. With the tenure system, the question of one’s fit to the university culture becomes increasingly important, because promotion is not simply a change in rank but an offer of lifetime employment. The stakes are higher, and so people are more reflective about whether or not they want a colleague down the hall from them until they retire.

Finally, I wonder whether the stealth approach is the best one. Having gotten tenure with his promotion to associate professor, the covert conservative will surely begin to dream of a full professorship, and then maybe a named chair. Just when does he let people know what he really believes? More pressingly, conservatives who step into the closet confirm the notion that it’s shameful to be a conservative academic. I heard an academic in China say that academics should speak as though there was freedom of speech and religion, in order to create a culture that accepts freedom of speech and religion. I am starting to think that conservative academics in the United States should do the same. Honesty is the best policy.

Now consider—briefly—a tenure-free world. Even without tenure, there’d still be employment law, and promotion, too. Of course, at-will employment is hardly a consolation to the professoriate, but it’s unlikely that professors or universities would tolerate an arrangement that could leave the students in chemistry 101 listening to crickets at midterm, rather than the dulcet tones of their professor. There’d be some kind of longterm legal contract, presumably with a host of protections.

Someone could accuse me of defending tenure by another name; that’s certainly possible, but it’s not what I’m trying to do. Currently, a tenured associate professor can keep his job while offering a level of service that would be downright intolerable at a fast food chain. Burn the burgers, curse at the customers, and show up late for work, you won’t have a job for long. But with no further academic output, poor teaching evaluations, lackluster service, and a generally bad attitude, a tenured associate professor still keeps his job. In getting rid of tenure, we could get rid of him, too. Or, even better, our grumpy associate professor would become the hardworking, productive scholar he was as an untenured assistant professor.

Reader Discussion

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on August 19, 2013 at 15:17:37 pm

The notion that tenure serves no legitimate purpose in preserving freedom of conscience or inquiry is wide spread. As a generalization, it may at the broadest level be true.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to suggest that in recent history the institution of tenure has served well to reign in abuses of power by University administrators and trustees in at least some instances.

I will give two examples, one historical and one more recent. Anecdotes are at best suggestive, but they do serve the useful purpose of puncturing blanket or universal claims.

First, any tenured professor can be dismissed for cause. Tenure is protection from arbitrary dismissal, not protection from all forms of dismissal. A university facing financial hardship can fire tenured professors, for example. A professor who violates ethical codes established at an institution can be fired. Thus, for example, a tenured professor at the university at which I teach was recently terminated for cause, for having a sexual relationship with one of his students, in clear violation of the terms of his contract. I know of another professor at a religious seminary nearby whose contract was terminated for public advocacy of positions in violation of the religious tenets of the seminary. So it simply is not the case that tenure secures lifetime employment in all cases whatsoever.

Example One: in Virginia in the early 20th century, history professors at both public and private institutions routinely had their contracts terminated if they taught topics like the causes of the Civil War or the history of slavery that violated the established narratives advocated by southern heritage groups like the Sons of the Confederacy or the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In essence, these groups complained to boards of trustees, and the trustees instructed the university or college administrators to terminate the contract of the offending professor. I doubt that today anyone on this list would wish to argue that slavery was a benign or salutary institution, but that was the "party line" in the early 20th century, and professors lost their jobs if they tried to challenge it.

Example Two: More recently--in the 1990s--the President of the University at which I teach was offended by criticism from the head of the faculty senate, who happened to be a tenured professor of physics. The President had hired a relative--a man with only a B.A. degree--to a lucrative faculty position in the College of Business, a pretty clear example of neopotism and a blatent violation of the hiring policies of the institution, which require professors to possess a higher degree. The faculty senate was, correctly in my view, upset by this, and voted resolutions expressing their displeasure at the President's conduct. Because the head of the senate was tenured, the President could not fire him without cause. However, the President could reorganize the University in order to abolish the Physics department, and terminate such of the displaced faculty as he wished. This the President tried to do--at which point the state accreditng agency pointed out that any university worthy of its name had to have a Physics department. With University acreditation on the line, the President was forced to back down, and the Professor retained his job.

Tenure exists for cases like these. And it simply is not the case that these kinds of abuses of power never arise.

Whether or not they arise sufficiently often as to warrant the costs of the tenure system is another matter entirely. But we should not pretend that tenure serves no legitimate purpose. Tenure exists to prevent real abuses, and in its absence, there would be more of them.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on August 20, 2013 at 10:08:33 am

Many, many problems with this analysis, but I'll only raise two here.

First, if you think that Robert George is the prototypical conservative in the academy, and that generalizations can be drawn from his career, you need to meet more conservative academics. Recommending the Robert George path to a neophyte conservative academic is a highly dubious strategy, at best. Admittedly, it would be difficult for one to meet more conservative academics because there are so few of us--even in (especially in!) law, where your academically inclined students will rapidly discover that the situation is very little different than in the humanities (and if by "ministry" you mean "theology," I wonder if something like the same criticism applies).

Second, I don't understand the point about self-selection. Suppose that self-selection is occurring. So what? The point, I should think, is to ask *why* it is occurring. Why do faculty members duplicate themselves in appointments decisions. One obvious answer (not the only one, but certainly one) is that they favor candidates who share their own political and ideological predilections, predilections which they are then capable of re-transmitting to the new generation, a fraction of which in turn finds intellectual heroes in them, etc. If that explanation is correct, then ascribing the situation of conservatives in the academy to "self-selection" is little more than a fancy way of saying that they are discriminated against. Perhaps the discrimination is not intentional. But its effects are clear. And they are the kind of effects that can easily creep into discussions about scholarly merit in tenure decisions--all the more so because they often sit beneath the surface and are not overt.

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on August 22, 2013 at 18:45:50 pm

[...] “The Tenured Conservative,” The Library of Law and Liberty [...]

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The Social Conservative Review: August 22, 2013 | www.frcblog.com – Latest entries | Lunch time forum
on August 28, 2013 at 22:34:20 pm

This article is a load of pompous, arrogant rubbish. Tenure should be abolished. A perfect example is the Holy University in Northern California allowing a LAZY professor do anything but educate students. Every day is observed and defined--to see (year round) this complete dishonest fraud of an educator do gardening, carpentry, sit reading with his feet up, and possibly be on campus 1-3 hours a week during the academic year. Disgust and disgrace when parents (myself) and other neighbors watch this day in/out while most assuredly his TAs or adjunct professors do the work. Tuition is skyrocketing as parents and students dig deeper into pockets to fund this idiot's salary while he goes unmonitored by the Administration at this private Holy University. Such arrogance in this article!

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anon 2
on August 29, 2013 at 11:14:35 am

1. No institution requires a physics department. Physics is a high overhead discipline which attracts few students as majors. Leave physics to institutions with a large census or to institutions for whom science and technology is their book.

2. I would refer you to Tom Wolfe's assessment of the sources of newsroom culture as well as a commentary offered a number of years ago by a Republican academic of my acquaintance. There are people in this world who are not socially adept. They often have a certain amount of scar tissue and an affinity for a certain sort of social thought as a consequence. Keep in mind also that employment which lacks operational measures of competence or line administrative skills may also attract a certain sort.

3. Some attitudes come to be seen as understood as a marker of the educated bourgeois, as what distinguishes this person from the remainder of the world. One must not underestimate self-congratulation as a motivator.

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Art Deco
on August 29, 2013 at 11:27:54 am

You have to put the tenure question in the context of the massive expansion of the power and numbers of academic bureaucracy/administrators. US universities (especially large public institutions) are run more and more by technocrats who regard the faculty as their "employees". This trend is extremely damaging to education, since all the emphasis gets shifted to "throughput" and "measurable outcomes" (how many people graduate). In this picture, tenure is one of the few things that protect the faculty's "ownership" of the academic process. Obviously, it should not be abused, and there should be way to prevent abuses. But eliminating tenure altogether would be the final sanction in the transformation of large public universities in credentialing institutions run with the same mindset as the Department of Motor Vehicles.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.