Academic freedom in a tenure-based system is not freedom but rather special protection and privileges given to a handful of cronies.
Donald J. Trump’s supporters include not only Rust Belt rowdies in meth-riddled and declining factory towns, but also a cadre of scholars. If you glance over the list of people who signed on to “Scholars and Writers for Trump,” you will find living, breathing people such as myself who have paid their dues for decades in college classrooms.
It is no secret that Trump drew upon Americans’ frustration with “political correctness” to win votes and indeed the presidency. Campus Reform and College Fix have done a brisk business reporting on university follies, ranging from the ridiculous (like calls for people to stop using personal pronouns) to the truly terrifying (like bias reporting systems that surpass Soviet-era surveillance). The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has been heralded for the volume and complexity of the many such cases it takes pro bono.
Officially unveiled in 1966, the Chronicle of Higher Education is the trade journal for academia. I find many things about the Chronicle disturbing, not the least of which was its decision to fire Naomi Schaefer-Riley, wife of African-American columnist Jason Riley and mother of their biracial children. Crying racism, several thousand people demanded her dismissal after she derided black studies dissertations.
But the Chronicle’s a big deal. Sometimes eloquent and at other times bloviating and pompous, its columns have brought academic concerns to the public for half a century. Their biggest concern right now is the threat to academic freedom—from Trump and those mean conservatives, of course.
To Reiterate: We’re Politically One-Dimensional
Days before Trump’s inauguration, the Chronicle’s homepage headlines spoke volumes. Of 21 articles that pop up on the main feed, about half sounded alarms about an oncoming wave of repression. Becky Supiano’s top headline, “Uncharted Waters for Higher Education in the Trump Era,” claims perplexingly that we have no clue about the Trump camp’s plans for colleges (Inside Higher Ed seems to have gotten the memo the Chronicle missed—“Trump’s Emerging Higher Ed Platform” published in May 2016.) Within a few paragraphs, the focus shifts to the alleged rash of hate crimes after election night.
In “Five Things to Know about Betsy DeVos,” Eric Kelderman seems to admit he does not know much about DeVos, but he does know she is not a toe-the-line insider, has lots of money, and pals around with union-busters. This is a shock to academic readers who have acted for half a century as if there is no valuable incentive for talking to conservatives or listening to their ideas.
Then there is this article: “On Eve of Trump Inaugural, Harvard Official Takes Key Title IX Post,” by Katherine Mangan. Mangan stokes ongoing fears that Trump will end the overreach by sexual harassment investigators and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Mia Karvonides, the subject of Mangan’s article, had a conflict-ridden tenure as Harvard’s Title IX officer and was appointed under Obama’s supervision to head the national post. As Asche Show points out, “Now Karvonides will be at OCR unless the Trump administration fires her.”
Continuing with the “All Professors Must Hate Trump” theme, another article is entitled, “Following Plagiarism Reports, Trump Aide Bows out of White House Post,” about Monica Crowley. Here Nick DeSantis throws red meat to tenured faculty who would like nothing more than to speak contemptuously about other people’s research while skillfully evading any scrutiny of their own.
After tut-tutting about Crowley’s failure to place adequate quotation marks in her dissertation, Chronicle readers can bounce to “The Far Right’s New Offensive against Academia,” a cloying interview with Hugo Chavez enthusiast George Ciccariello-Maher, the Drexel professor who tweeted about wanting white genocide for Christmas. Since Maher didn’t violate the formatting standards set by the profession, his violent ideations are okay, because … well, I don’t know, and neither does the Chronicle, obviously. In defense of conservatives, Crowley stepped down when confronted about her plagiarism. Ciccariello-Maher proudly defends his tweet for white genocide as academic freedom and the use of irony to defeat white supremacy. (Cue Jonathan Swift reference in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….)
The Chronicle also bolsters innuendos about Trump riding a wave of misogyny, since other articles on the homepage are “Idaho Settles Sex-Harassment Suit for $170,000,” “When Students’ Prejudice Taints Reviews of Instructors,” as well as “Can We Finally End the All-Male Panel”?
Tell Me Why We Can’t Fire These People, Again?
Two scary articles on the homepage by Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez are “Lawmakers in Two States Propose Bills to Cut Tenure” and “Missouri Lawmaker who Wants to Eliminate Tenure Says It’s ‘Un-American.’” These showcase the doomsday scenario, the end of tenure, and its opening act in Iowa and Missouri. In both states, lawmakers have drafted bills to phase out tenure, something I have written about in the past. I used to be viewed as a lone crackpot when I talked this way, but now people are no longer buying the argument that tenure promotes academic freedom. Many now see that most of academia ought to be fired, just like anyone else doing a lousy job.
Also building on academia’s hysteria about Trump’s election are articles on how to get students involved in civic activism (presumably to resist Trump and protect tenure) and about “fake news” and what Facebook must do to combat it.
So, we get it. Trump is a game-changer in more ways than one. The Chronicle speaks for faculty, and faculty are suddenly terrified of losing their academic freedom, being persecuted with nobody to defend them, and facing the catastrophic loss of their livelihood over politics. I wish I could sympathize with and support these folks. I can’t.
The Chronicle’s new love affair with academic freedom is self-serving hypocrisy. The academy has deployed many tactics against Christians and conservatives, from firing them under phony pretenses to blocking them from getting published anywhere and then claiming they didn’t have enough publications for tenure. Aside from mild gestures lacking in any sincere concern, the Chronicle and its counterparts at the American Association of University Professors didn’t care about these issues until their liberal beliefs came under inspection. I know from my own personal experience, since I wrote to the AAUP on September 23, 2014 about the Human Rights Campaign blacklisting me in its “Export of Hate” report. The subject line of my email read “intimidation of scholars and translators.” The AAUP found no reason to worry.
We Don’t Care About Conservatives, Thanks
While the AAUP told me, “don’t worry, be happy,” things deteriorated. Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money” popularized the fear that the Koch family was buying up academia to turn campuses conservative, yet the now-defunct Clinton Global Initiative was setting up shop on various university campuses, including my own, with hardly a peep.
My dean, women’s studies scholar Elizabeth Say, directed the Clinton Global Initiative on campus when it was officially launched. The dean met with a student who filed a bizarre complaint under Title IX that I “retaliated” against her by not nominating her for an award that didn’t exist. The complaint that grew out of these meetings was suddenly decided by Provost Yi Li in October 2015, when Clinton and Trump were emerging as the leading candidates for the presidency.
How on earth did people see no conflict of interest when someone in the Clinton Global Initiative was tasked to evaluate my performance, given that the presidential race ended up between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, the man I endorsed for president in an article called “A Trump-Lover’s Manifesto”?
Less than two years later after being blown off by the AAUP, I was out of my tenured job. Thus concluded a long and public academic-freedom battle I had to wage without the help of any liberals. By the time I lost this battle, I was actually happy to go. Now I think America needs to throw higher education on the trash heap, including its useless view of academic freedom.
Tenure and Academic Freedom Are Deceptive Buzzwords
The problem is not that tenure and academic freedom are good ideas that some bad people have misunderstood or misapplied. The problem is that tenure is a corrupt concept in itself and academic freedom in a tenure-based system is not freedom but rather special protection and privileges given to a handful of cronies.
You don’t get tenure unless you’ve been scrupulously inspected to ensure that you won’t use tenure to challenge accepted ideas—which is why, supposedly, tenure exists. This is an infinity loop of bad faith. People without tenure have no freedom or recourse against the tenured.
People with tenure who run afoul of political heavyweights like my Clinton Global Initiative dean are not really given academic freedom, since they can always suffer backdoor retaliation through far-fetched claims of hate speech, sexual harassment, discrimination, or other violations designed not to protect people but rather to circumvent the whole notion of “free speech.”
My recent book on higher education goes into much greater depth on the complex decadence in higher education, including why many of its structures have become corrupted beyond repair. Trust me, conservatives: we should never want a seat at this table. We should want out.
Let’s let Carole King explain it to us in the song she released the year I was born: “It’s too late, baby, it’s just too late, though we really did try to make it.”
First published by The Federalist.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.