The Conservative Case for 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.