The case for getting rid of tenure

I think George Orwell was more right than he knew when he wrote in his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying that money was the ‘new faith’.

It was this new and emerging ethos that a young Gordon Comstock, the novel’s main character, set himself against. The poverty and utter misery caused by modern capitalism is all too apparent to Comstock, however, it is the corruption of it all that he detests most.

“What he realised … was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and Evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success … The decalogue has been reduced to two commandments … ‘Thou shalt make money’… [and] … ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job’.”

Whereas the well-to-do revolutionaries of today are all too happy to collect money for services rendered, Gordon Comstock felt that it was an utter mistake to think that “one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself.”

In light of that revelation he exiled himself. He refused to cooperate and make good by devoting his life to career and prospects. He condemned himself to poverty and a neurotic obsession with money but, as far as Gordon was concerned, it was far better than living an empty and meaningless life.

Whether Gordon Comstock is to be pitied or despised is for the reader to determine but one thing beyond doubt is that Comstock is the quintessential nonconformist and a man whose opinions are vividly contemporary.

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Comstock was absolutely right – as a society we do worship money. However, this is much easier to live with for people who accept that fact unconsciously. But for those who set their life railing against capitalism while they indulge in all its excess, spitting on modernity and detesting the mind-numbing decadence of consumerism, must feel as if they’ve stumbled upon a wonderful secret. The intellectuals can play revolutionary and shake their fist at ‘the system’ but don’t have to pay the dues.

Tenure was never meant to protect an intellectual elite, their job security or their ideas. It was originally conceived to protect academic freedom and ensure that professors and researchers would not be punished for either speaking their minds or publishing controversial research.

In 1915, the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) formulated the 1915 Declaration of Principles.

It set out a statement defining tenure and academic freedom. Over the years, the declaration has been amended a number of times. The 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure revised the original declaration and in 1940 and 1970 further amendments were added.

According to the declaration, its purpose “is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its exposition.”

Those who defend tenure today might find this statement unsettling. The original intent of tenure was not to secure the interests of the university or to protect the job security, income or career prospects of an intellectual elite. Of course this was part of it but it was about something larger: truth and the freedom to pursue it.

As the declaration states, it is above all else that freedom is its aim: “Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.”

It is better to think of the original intent as a well-meaning attempt to protect academia; not for its own sake but for what academia stands for as an institution: as the one place that unfettered investigations may be pursued and truth sought without fear or consequence.

In this sense, “Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

What do the proponents of tenure say today? They tell us that the intellectuals live in precarious times; benefits are being slashed; wages are being lowered; job security is uncertain; labour disputes and union battles are always a summer away; the administration refuses to cooperate; right-wing militants and the hounds of greedy corporations are forever barking outside the castle walls waiting for the opportune moment to pounce.

Frankly, tenure is no longer about academic freedom and hasn’t been for decades. It’s about a protected class of intellectual elites and their desire, indeed, their need to secure their protected status.

The fundamental problem is this: tenure has led us to a situation where a left-wing intellectual elite dominates the university. This would not be problematic or indeed cause for concern if it were not for the observable fact that universities today are in the consensus-making business. If there was ever a time when they served as a ‘safe space’ for the marketplace of ideas, those days are over.

What we as students are faced with is an elite that reproduces itself and reproduces its philosophies. It’s not my intention to lay this problem solely at the door of tenure; the problem is much more complex than that. However, we are in a situation where universities stifle freedom of speech rather than protect it, where liberty of conscience is regulated and controversial speakers are no-platformed.

As Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University, argues, “The most common pro-tenure argument is that it protects academic freedom. Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas.

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“The problem is,” says Taylor, is that “for every tenured professor who’s liberated at age 40 to speak his mind, there are dozens of junior professors terrified to say anything the least bit controversial, lest they lose their one shot at job security for life. Academia relies on young scholars to shake things up. Yet tenure incentivizes them not to. Instead, it rewards students who follow in the footsteps of the elders whose favor they will require when the Day of Judgment arrives.”

The reason I mentioned Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is because Gordon Comstock understood that a corrupt society inevitably corrupts the person living in it, however good and virtuous the person may be, there’s no escaping it. In a way this is what tenure has done.

We’re told that freedom is being defended and the pursuit of truth defended, yet in reality, it is the interests, ideology and job security of an entrenched left-wing elite that does not want either its status challenged or its ideas placed imperil by opponents or students who might take the risk of thinking for themselves.

If we want to push universities back in the direction of freedom this is but one small suggestion that would greatly advance that cause and make our campuses more open to intellectual diversity and the exchange of ideas.

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