Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Refuge of the Incompetent

Here's a proposal I could get behind: (read it all!)

No equivalent for chief executive officers or for dishwashers exists. Politicians, lawyers and others who take unpopular stands also lack guaranteed jobs. Doctors do not enjoy them. They can lose their posts, despite 30 years of reputable work, because of a single missed diagnosis.

Professors, however, after an initial probationary period of six years, win the equivalent of lifelong employment from their peers. Why does this strange practice linger on?

The standard rationale is that the stuff of higher education is unfettered inquiry. Only by enjoying shelter from the storm of politics can professors be bold enough to take up the tough task of challenging young minds to question orthodoxy. McCarthyism is evoked as the only bleak alternative to tenure. Once untenured professors find themselves on the wrong side of popular majority opinions, politicized firings will supposedly follow.

Why then does uniformity of belief characterize the current tenured faculty? Contemporary universities are among the most homogeneous of all American institutions, at least in attitudes toward controversial issues of race, gender, class and culture.

Faculty senate votes aren't just at odds with American popular opinion; they often resemble more the 90 percent majorities that we see in illiberal Third World stacked plebiscites.

Sometime in the 1960s, many faculties felt the proper role of the university was to gravitate away from the Socratic method of disinterested inquiry, and instead to press for a preordained and "correct" worldview. Since America was supposedly guilty of being oppressive to those not white, conservative, male, capitalist, Christian and heterosexual, the university offered a rare counterpoint.

Tenure became part of protecting this strange culture in which the ends justified the means: Bias in the classroom was passed off as "balance" to an inherently prejudiced society. Academia came to resemble the medieval church that likewise believed its archaic protocols were free from review, given its vaunted mission of saving souls.

Let's put the universities that supposedly teach our children how to think back into the marketplace of ideas. The professors should have to continuously earn the trust of not only their peers, but their customers.

Instead of protecting academic freedom, tenure has become the refuge of the incompetent. It's time to change.

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