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If You Oppose Academic Freedom, At Least Have the Guts to Say So



Bernie Sanders has a higher education plan intended to diagnose its major ills. It would make tuition free — in other words, have the federal government directly rather than indirectly subsidize students. It would also, inter alia, require 75% of courses to be taught by tenure-track faculty and ensure that instructors were provided with office space, participate in the governance of the institution, etc.

Kevin Carey’s reaction:

In other words, states would be required to embrace and the federal government would be obligated to enforce a professor-centered vision of how to operate a university: tenure for everyone, nice offices all around, and the administrators and coaches can go pound sand.

75% of faculty being tenure-track is “tenure for everyone.” (On many levels, it’s not!) The administrative and construction bloat that is driving increases in tuition — as Carey later essentially concedes — is no big deal. Sure, there are schools where inexorably rising tuition funds stuff like multi-million dollar annual salaries for legendarily incompetent coaches, but surely there’s an instructor who got reimbursed for travel to a conference somewhere we can focus on instead — heaven frobid Charlie Weis have to “pound sand” by trying to live on an associate professor’s salary.

But the most offensive line is turning Sanders’s argument that instructors should have access to office space (something many adjuncts don’t have) into “nice offices all around.” As a friend observed, this is the higher ed equivalent of going on about welfare recipents and their Obamaphones and color televisions. Carey should put his money where is mouth is and give up his own office — no big deal, right — while also agreeing to be available to meet with interns several hours a week.

Given the realities of teaching for many people, Carey’s flippant snark is quite repellent. If he believes that even more teaching should be done by adjuncts making starvation wages with no job security or institutional resources so that universities can fund more Associate Vice Provost Deans of Strategic Dynamism, he should make the case for it rather than sneering at the very idea that instructors expected to prepare classes, interact with students, and (if they have any hope of professional advancement) conduct research should have access to office space.

And then there’s this:

Instead of tenure, classically defined, they might protect academic freedom in a different way.

You will be unsurprising to know that Carey does not even hint at how academic freedom can be protected without tenure. The reason he doesn’t do this is that it cannot, in fact, be done. If there’s no tenure, instructors can be fired for expressing unpopular views, the end. The case of Steven Salaita should be instructive two ways here. First of all, it should make it obvious that vague requirements that faculty be fired for cause without the due process provided by tenure would be worthless. Someone has a long cv and excellent teacher evaluations? No problem — some non-experts in the field can skim one of his books and declare that his scholarship is incompetent, and someone who’s never observed him in the classroom can declare he’s an incompetent teacher based on his Twitter feed. And second, the ability of UIUC to fire him depended on the fact that tenure had not formally attached.

Look, you can support tenure, or you can support academic freedom, but to pretend that you can oppose the former while supporting the latter is laughably disingenuous. And you certainly can’t speculate about other methods for protecting academic freedom without even hinting at what those might be.

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