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Tenure and college controversies

By Sigurd Neubauer


In a wide-raging interview, an unnamed tenured professor at an elite university in the United States provides a behind-the-scenes look into why tuition costs only keep going up. The off the record and not for attribution interview is divided into a three-parts series. Part III.

Is tenure antiquated?

Like all organizations, universities have a hierarchy. What’s unique about academia is the tenure system that creates lifetime employment as a mean to protect academic freedom. The system has come under scrutiny, including from politicians, in part because some professors use their platform to criticize political leaders often along the left-right spectrum.

While no system is perfect, tenure is designed to ensure that people with extensive expertise can share their knowledge without fear of political retribution. At the same time, academics don’t always speak within their realm of expertise.

In addition, tenure creates a hierarchy in which individuals can exercise influence or even power over those who don’t have it and especially individuals who aspire to obtain it.  The tenure system exists in parallel with academic administration. Sometimes these come into conflict. The department head is responsible for salary increases and promotions. These dynamics are often where academic politics play out.

At the same time, people who are in a privileged position – in which they get to exercise power over others because they’re at the top of the academic pyramid – find that there is less tolerance in society for any abuse of power.

There are limited ways in which a tenured professor can be sanctioned without the consent of the university. Unless the university is on board, there is not much that can be done to upend his employment.

At the same time, the universities want good controversy, but not the bad ones. One never knows, of course, which controversy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ until the dust settles, the professor explains.

University leadership must be aware of all the existing trends impacting the reputation of academia in general and of their institution in particular to attract and compete for students.

The current controversy and outrage culture is not harmful to the universities per se, the professor explains, because there are segments of society who want to be engaged, including on some of the most controversial issues of the day.

The university leadership must be aware of all the existing trends impacting the reputation of academia and of their institution

The universities also must balance between keeping both students and parents happy. Parents pay now, students will do so in long term. If the student is happy with the college experience, parents continue to pay, the professor argues.

But universities draws a redline when students are not safe, either from violence or self-harm.

If an outsider criticizes the university or campus controversies – in an op-ed or in a television segment – this does not harm the university’s reputation, the professor says.  

 What the university cares about is its reputation. Controversy can be good for a university if it demonstrates that it is open to new ideas, thoughtful dialogue and freedom of speech.

 On the other hand, when controversies are perceived as harming students or otherwise putting them at risk, then the university’s reputation might suffer.

 Controversy becomes a problem once its moves beyond speech into violence or abusive behavior of any kind.

 Free speech

In an era marked by increasing societal polarization, academia finds itself squarely in the middle of a divided nation. On many college campuses, ideological battles – many of them tied to identity politics and the controversies of the day – are playing out and often in zero-sum games.

While the issue of free speech at college campuses are hotly debated today, the professor says that the academic institutions remain committed to the matter despite allegations to the contrary.

For the universities, the professor argues, it is about students enjoying their experiences. In the event their experiences are negative, they won’t send their future children to attend it or provide donations, the logic goes.

On the issue of Wokeism, an ideology that has become prevalent in large segments of society, including on various college campuses, the professor says that its impact ranges from faculty to faculty.

For instance, at an engineering department, there is increasing pressure to prioritize hiring from underrepresented groups. This is true for medicine and sciences in general. In the humanities that pressure is also present where the faculty is promoting it across various different causes.

This ideology, which constantly evolves, is a loosely connected set of ideas that some refer to as woke. Being woke is not only tied to the social issue of the day, but its theoretical framework was developed by American academics.

For the purpose of this essay, we shall not define what Wokeism is or what it represents as there are several commentators who have already done so.

But Wokeism as a concept is hotly debated both on and off campuses, today.  Students and faculty often associate themselves with affiliated causes. 

The public debate over what is happening on campuses are often generated by what causes various student organizations want to pursue

Thus, the public debate over what is happening on campuses are often generated by what causes various student organizations want to pursue, which can put the university in a delicate position between not wanting to discourage freedom of speech on one hand and the risk of angering donors on the other, who may not want their philanthropy to be associated with whatever controversies they may be, especially if students or faculty demand that the university take a position on contested matters.

Outside political groups, the professor explains, are also vested in taking advantage of the atmosphere college campuses provide to promote their own agendas with the goal of mobilizing youth to provide the impression that they represent the future.

Most universities won’t stop these rallies because they embody freedom of speech, he adds. However, some outside groups may come to campus to generate ‘noise’ and be disruptive of day-to-day operations. Importantly, a rally rarely translates into concrete policy. Therefore, these groups may not have any immediate impact. Thus, the university leadership frequently tolerate and, in some cases, supports as long as students are not harmed.

The media has reported a lot on the noisy part of the campus culture, which can be interpreted, at least at times, to tell a certain narrative. Much of the criticism of what some consider to be ‘college radicalism’ is, of course, also ideologically motivated. This is the strength of the American academic system which tolerates freedom of speech all the way as long as no one is harmed.

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