August 31, 2006

Two fundamental confusions over tenure and academic freedom

Two stories this morning Inside Higher Ed highlight basic confusions many have about tenure and academic freedom, respectively. 

  1. Tenure protects miscreants. Wharton emeritus L. Scott Ward was finally fired after a third arrest for pedophilia-related charges. Over several Penn administrations, Ward had been untouched.  Uh, er, not fired. We don't know whether there was any private reprimand in his file, but we can speculate why an administration wouldn't move against him even after he was on probation. And it has nothing to do with tenure's on-campus procedural protections and probably everything to do with expectations of protracted post-termination proceedings. Having a faculty review panel is not the issue. If I were on a faculty review committee looking at a pederast with a criminal record (he pleaded guilty in 1999), I'd have no problem saying, Get rid of the guy. And most of my colleagues would agree. At a college known for such stellar graduates as convicted fraudster Michael Milken, maybe it's a bad signal to send students when you have a convicted professor on the rolls? Even after his 1995 acquittal, the university could have started an investigation separately; not guilty is not the same as innocent.  (After is the important thing here; someone who is charged is not necessarily and should not be presumed to be guilty. One of my irritations with USF's campus administration is that it equated the indictment of Al-Arian in 2003 with proof. But that's a separate topic.) The fact that due process can be protracted and sometimes expensive is no reason to avoid investigating a faculty member.
  2. Academic freedom is institutional, not individual. Former dean and provost John Friedl's commentary today at IHE is a standard rhetorical ploy: point out extreme interpretations of academic freedom and use it to stake a claim to a narrowed definition. Of course I agree with Friedl on the specifics at issue (that a university can have a moderated, announcements-only e-mail list, and that a university can suggest which things you need to "cover" in a syllabus). But we don't have to agree on the general principles as a result.* It is true that the legal status of academic freedom as an individual privilege is less certain than as an institutional privilege, but that means neither that courts haven't seen it and won't see it as attached to individuals nor that it's a bad thing to tie academic freedom to our broader political freedoms. Tying academic freedom to institutions and not individual faculty and students turns academe into a rhetorical Masonic Order, a privileged society with no clear entrance rules and no connection of privileges to the broader society. If instead we see academic freedom as part of the same Enlightenment-era ideals of inquiry and dialog that also gave birth to the First Amendment, we have much stronger ground and a much more sensible way to argue for academic freedom..

* The extreme-example rhetorical ploy is part of the structure of talk radio, and I wonder if any English folks have looked at talk radio seriously. (Hey, English and American studies grad students: Suggest it to your advisor as a dissertation topic! And never say I wasn't practical on my blog.) Most callers to the Dr. Laura show are dysfunctional enough that they want to air their personal problems to a national audience.  "Dr. Laura, I love your show, and I am my kid's mom. My personal dilemma: Is it okay if my boyfriend just released from prison on pederast charges sleeps on the couch until he gets a place to live, while my 11-year-old is in the house on the weekends? We're not having sex, but he needs a little bit of help right now." No, I haven't heard this call, but it would fit in with the show.

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Posted in Academic freedom on August 31, 2006 9:57 AM |