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.