When Tenure Jumps the Track
To see where the balance of power lies in American academia, look no further than the University of Colorado, where the Ward Churchill scandal has claimed its first victim. No, not Churchill, the professor who gained national notoriety for describing the victims of the World Trade Center attack as “little Eichmanns” who basically deserved what they got. He’s stepped down as chairman of the ethnic studies department, but he’s still teaching classes and earning $94,242 a year, in spite of the university’s attempts to sack him.
It’s the university president who’s heading out the door. Elizabeth Hoffman tendered her resignation on March 7 because of the Churchill controversy and more familiar problems of hanky-panky in football recruiting and excessive debauchery at student parties. Whatever Hoffman’s alleged failings, they are dwarfed by Churchill’s.
Since the original controversy over his essay justifying the 9/11 attack, a gobsmacking litany of accusations has been leveled against Churchill. He has been accused of plagiarism, of falsely claiming Indian ancestry and a Vietnam War combat record, of threatening faculty members and punishing students who disagreed with him, of fabricating historical evidence and of getting tenure under suspicious circumstances (he lacks a PhD). If even a tenth of the allegations are true, Churchill deserves to be thrown out on his ear -- not for his pro-terrorist remarks but for all his other transgressions.
Easier said than done.
Churchill and his professorial colleagues are beneficiaries of the most ironclad protection for mountebanks, incompetents and sluggards ever devised. It’s called tenure.
To fire a tenured professor requires a legal battle that can make the Clinton impeachment seem like a small-claims dispute by comparison. Even if there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, professors are entitled to endless procedural safeguards against being fired. The University of Colorado wanted to offer Churchill a generous financial settlement to leave voluntarily, but that idea has been torpedoed by regents angry at the idea of buying off this buffoon. An epic struggle looms in which Churchill and his numerous faculty defenders will nail their colors to the mast of “academic freedom.”
One wonders whether so many savants would be rushing to defend Churchill from supposed “McCarthyism” if he had tried to justify the deaths not of the 9/11 victims but of the victims of AIDS (“little perverts”?) or the Holocaust (“little Shylocks”?). It’s a safe bet that if Churchill were a loony right-winger, rather than a loony left-winger, his colleagues would be forming a lynch mob instead of a defense committee.
Harvard offers a good illustration of how harshly transgressions against liberal pieties are punished within academe. President Lawrence H. Summers has been censured by his own faculty after daring to suggest that innate differences in ability, not discrimination, may explain why there are so few prominent women in math and sciences. Only weeks of abject groveling have prevented his ouster -- so far -- for the crime of committing free thought in public.
The rigid ideological intolerance of American universities makes a mockery of tenure’s primary justification: It is supposed to allow scholars to pursue their work without outside pressure. Professors like Churchill are all too happy to take advantage of this freedom to mock off-campus pieties. But few dare to disagree with the received wisdom of the faculty club, where the political spectrum runs all the way from left to far-left.
The primary practical effect of tenure is to make universities almost ungovernable. Those ostensibly in charge -- presidents and trustees -- come and go; the faculty remains, serene and untouchable. This helps to explain some of the dysfunctions that mar big-time universities, such as the overemphasis on publishing unintelligible articles and the under-emphasis on teaching undergraduates. Armies of junior faculty and graduate-student drudges have been enlisted to assume the bulk of the teaching load because most of the tenured grandees think that instructing budding stockbrokers and middle managers is beneath them. And there is almost nothing that administrators can do about it because mere laziness is no grounds for removing someone with a lifetime employment guarantee.
The solution is obvious: Abolish tenure. Subject professors to the discipline of the marketplace like almost everyone else. But of course this is an idea too radical to be seriously entertained on campus. Comparing the United States with Nazi Germany, as Ward Churchill routinely does, doesn’t raise an eyebrow among the intelligentsia, but suggesting that there may be something fundamentally wrong with a system that rewards a Ward Churchill is considered too outre to discuss.