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The Conservative Case for Tenure

After my essay defending tenure appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, the reaction was pretty predictable: colleagues — both people I know and people I don’t — sent heartfelt “attaboys,” while self-described conservatives wrote to explain why I was in error (to put it nicely).

The latter response is the one that interests me, not just because it always seems to be conservatives who oppose tenure but because I’m a conservative myself.

Surprised? You’re not alone. From their correspondence, my detractors clearly assumed I was just another misguided leftist professor. For that matter, those who wrote to agree probably thought the same thing (omitting the “misguided” part).

The truth is that I’ve voted for the Republican candidate in every national election since Reagan in 1980. I generally vote Republican in local elections, too, although I sometimes have to hold my nose while pulling the lever.

Moreover, as a local newspaper columnist in the Atlanta metro area — specifically, in Gwinnett County, a Republican stronghold — I’m well known for my conservative views. I’ve even been a guest on a local conservative talk radio show. No one who knows me, or who has ever read my column, would describe me as anything resembling “leftist.”

Which makes me, I suppose, a bit of an oddity: a conservative who supports tenure. In the interests of full disclosure, the fact that I’m a tenured professor probably has something to do with that. But the point is not that I believe in tenure despite being a conservative. Rather, I believe in it precisely because I am a conservative.

Before I explain that last statement, though, let’s examine some of the common objections to tenure put forward by conservative (or at least Republican) elected officials and businesspeople.

One is that tenure exists to protect bad teachers, providing them with “guaranteed lifetime employment.” Of course, anyone who actually works in higher education knows there’s no such thing. Tenured professors can be dismissed for any number of good and proper reasons, including plagiarism, sexual harassment of students, and chronic dereliction of duty. Moreover, in my 25-year career, I honestly haven’t known many “bad teachers.” The vast majority of them are hard-working and dedicated — even after they receive tenure.

Another, related complaint is that tenured professors “don’t have to do anything.” This too is manifestly untrue, as almost all institutions have built-in post-tenure review processes to ensure that professors continue doing their jobs and contributing to the profession. Again, I can say in all honesty that most of my colleagues work very hard. From where I sit, it looks like the politicians who, once they have established de facto tenure by getting reelected two or three times, don’t have to do anything.

Finally, I’ve often heard members of the business community — those I refer to in my Chronicle essay, not altogether charitably, as “chamber of commerce types” — complain that college professors are too coddled. They don’t spend enough hours working, some charge, while others respond to outspoken professors’ public comments with (real or feigned) incredulity: “How can he get away with saying that? I’d be fired if I said that.”

Such comments have always struck me as petty and ignorant. Few people understand what it takes to get an advanced degree and become a professor, much less the amount of work involved thereafter. But at least these charges bring me back to my main point, which is why, as a conservative, I support the concept of tenure.

As a conservative, I’m naturally distrustful of government; indeed, I believe that’s largely what it means to be a conservative. I don’t want government deciding where my children go to school, what kinds of cars we buy, or which doctors we see. I believe I’m better qualified than some technocrat to make those decisions for myself. More to the point, I believe that we as citizens are better off making such decisions ourselves rather than abdicating to government.

Similarly, as a faculty member, I don’t trust administrators (who probably don’t know anything about my subject area) or legislators (who certainly don’t know anything about it) to determine the curriculum for my students. I’m confident that I can do a better job of deciding how to teach my classes and that faculty members collectively know more about what students need to learn.

As a private citizen, I’m protected by the Bill of Rights — “freedom of speech,” we often call it. Thus I can’t be prosecuted or otherwise punished for saying that President Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal is a cockamamie idea or that Congress is a haven for con artists and scoundrels.

But what protects me as a faculty member, if I declare that the dean’s latest proposal is bad for students or that legislators have no business politicizing the curriculum, as they recently attempted to do here in Georgia?  (See “On the Hot Seat,” by Mindy Strombler, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 1, 2009.) Only tenure allows me to say such things without fearing for my livelihood. “Freedom of speech” doesn’t apply in this situation, any more than it applies to a corporate employee who publicly criticizes her CEO: she will simply be fired and no one will even ask questions. Without tenure, the college professor is no different.

But the college professor must be treated differently. The corporation that fires an employee for saying something that’s true but unpopular is only hurting itself, and perhaps its stockholders. But when institutions of higher education suppress dissent, to the detriment of students, it’s ultimately the public that is harmed.

In other words, the real purpose of tenure is not to allow individual faculty members to do and say whatever they want but to ensure that the faculty as a whole is able to carry out its real responsibility, which is not as much to the institution as to students and those who foot the bill (namely, parents and taxpayers).

There’s no question that tenure ends up protecting a few far leftists, the infamous “tenured radicals,” who sometimes say outrageous things — just as the First Amendment protects people like David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. But in my experience, most faculty members are closer to the center than to the far left — classical liberals rather than neo-Marxists. And conservatives, in any case, understand that for speech to be truly free, we must tolerate even — and perhaps especially — those utterances and ideas we consider to be most objectionable.

Furthermore, tenure — like the First Amendment — exists to protect us as well as them. Much has been said, in recent years, about the dearth of conservatives in higher education. That’s certainly true, although the reasons, I believe, have less to do with any left-wing conspiracy than with the fact that conservatives abandoned teaching as a profession a generation ago because it doesn’t pay well enough (which is perhaps a topic for another essay).

But if we ever do succeed in increasing the number of conservatives in full-time teaching positions, what then? Departments, colleges, entire universities, and systems will still be run by liberals. How will those conservative professors survive without tenure to protect them as they promote their values in the classroom and speak their minds during faculty meetings? Isn’t that what we want — outspoken conservatives firmly ensconced in the academy? That will never happen if we jettison the tenure system now just because the left happens to be in control.

The whole debate reminds me a little bit of the effort in Congress a few years ago — when Republicans were in power — to do away with the filibuster. Fortunately they didn’t succeed. Assuming we ever manage to get 41 senators again, the filibuster may well come in very handy in the future, as Republicans seek to block one socialistic proposal after another.

And that’s why conservative intellectuals, at least, should support the tenure system: without it we stand virtually no chance of ever stemming the tide of liberal hegemony in the academy. Assuming, of course, that’s what we really want to do, and not just put the screws to a group of people because they get summers off.