teaching, tenure, and academic freedom
As events continue to unfold in Wisconsin, defenses of tenure are popping up in various places. For the most part, these are focused on how weakening tenure would 1) limit academic freedom, 2) drive faculty to other universities, and 3) subject them to political reprisals.
These are all true. One only has to think about climate research, or UNC’s Poverty Center, to realize that the threat to academic freedom is very real.
What is less clear is why the public should care. Sure, some will. But lots of people believe climate science is corrupt, and that centers like UNC’s are inappropriately political. Any good defense of the public university—of tenure within it or support for it more generally—has to appeal to a broad swath of people.
I suggested the other day that the business community cares about science, and that that is one potential source of support for higher ed, at least, if not necessarily for tenure. But what the average American cares about most with regard to universities is not science, but teaching.
Clay Shirky argued at Crooked Timber that in fact professors don’t do very much teaching, and when the public learns this they will revolt. I think he sees the world too much through the lens of NYU, and that if you look at the higher ed field as a whole, there is lots of teaching going on, including by tenure-track faculty.
But where he is right is that what most people outside higher ed care about is not research, but teaching. Fortunately, there are strong arguments to be made that link tenure and teaching quality. For example, Mikaila pointed out in the comments that
performance funding initiatives which emphasize on-time graduation rates would tend to encourage a decrease in academic rigor so that students make adequate academic progress and do not fail or withdraw from courses–something we could easily achieve by giving our students open-book fill-in-the-blank tests with As for all. It is tenure which protects us from such a demand and thus tenure that gives us the best chance of ensuring that students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality, rigorous education that challenges them and helps them learn and develop the skills which will benefit them economically, socially, culturally, and personally for the rest of their lives.
These are the kinds of arguments that are likely to have traction. Not that tenure is good for professors, or things like academic freedom that a minority of people care about. But tenure is good for students.
The flip side of that is that we can’t profess that tenure helps students and then denigrate or simply neglect teaching. Nor can we go along with “I won’t grade you too hard as long as you don’t demand too much.” Nor is this position compatible with allowing the system to continue to survive on contingent labor.
I’m still working out what the ethical thing to do is as someone who is (as we all are, in one way or another) caught up in this system. One thing I’m pretty sure about, though: appealing to faculty self-interest is not a winning strategy for gaining public support.