In Praise of Mouthy Malcontents

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My latest Verdict column, "Destroying Our Universities By Turning Us Against Ourselves," is a response to the recently escalating attacks on higher education, focusing on the divide-and-conquer tactics that university administrators have been using to advance their agendas.  The general idea, of course, is for the people with real decision-making power to turn the various constituencies within the university against each other, fighting over crumbs.  If you can get the students, faculty, staff, and alumnae/i bickering amongst themselves, life as an administrator becomes a lot less difficult.

Two years ago, I criticized (in a Verdict column and a Dorf on Law post) an op-ed by a former chancellor at the New School, who attempted to convince his readers that elite faculty should abandon the fight to protect tenure for anyone but themselves.  If that strategy were successful, the people with the most leverage in a university setting (the "star" professors) would no longer use their clout to join in solidarity with the non-stars.  That would dilute even further any remaining efforts by (the depleted ranks of) tenured faculty to protect the rights of nontenured faculty -- not just junior faculty, but adjuncts and others in tenuous contract positions.

The problem from the administrators' side is obvious: How can we load extra work onto the powerless workers without being resisted by the powerful workers?  The answer: Get the powerful people to think that the powerless "others" are unworthy.  (Sound like the strategy of a major American political party?  It should.  What is the academic equivalent of the "makers vs. takers" divide?)

I then noted a more recent example of divide-and-conquer tactics, which had been reported in GW's undergraduate student newspaper.  I should note that the GW administration now disputes The Hatchet's version of events, and there is a story with a much different hue available from GW Today (which describes itself as "GW's official online news source").  Readers can judge for themselves whether the two versions are mutually exclusive, but the particulars of that incident are hardly the point of my column.  Examples abound across the country of university administrators using the weak economy to justify disastrous challenges to what it even means to be a modern university.

Most recently, for example, the University of Southern Maine announced layoffs of faculty (including tenured faculty), on top of recent and impending staff cuts.  It certainly appears that the financial excuses are pretextual, with the university's president claiming that the system must "evolve from a liberal arts college to a 'metropolitan university' that is closely connected with businesses, residents and governments."  Yes, it is all about neoliberalism, with the goal of creating "results-oriented" universities being the new excuse to shut up dissent.

Beyond my argument about divide-and-conquer tactics, the more central point of my most recent Verdict column was to provide an aggressive argument in favor of tenure.  Students are sold the idea that cosseted tenured faculty are the problem (and, I should add, faculty are then told that spoiled students -- the results of helicopter parenting and soccer-games-without-keeping score emotional pampering -- are the problem).  Alumnae/i believe that both faculty and students are selfish.  Staff are encouraged to blame everyone (except the administrators).

It is not just that administrators are trying to divide the constituencies of the university, which is bad enough.  The specific attacks on tenured faculty have consequences that go far beyond the immediate battles over resources.  Tenured faculty, as I put it in my column, are almost by design a "mouthy bunch" who, in a healthy university environment, will use their job security for good purposes.  Being malcontents with employment protections, we can do things that others cannot do.  I know of at least one example of a school where the tenured faculty led the fight against a top administrator who was mistreating staff.  The tenured faculty had nothing to gain for themselves, but if they did not fight for the at-will staff members, no one else could.

In any such defense of tenure, one must take a moment to concede that, yes, there are plenty of examples of tenure-protected faculty who are problematic.  I offer such a paragraph in my Verdict column, but it is important not to concede too much.  There are people who stop writing.  There are people for whom one might wish that tenure was more easily revocable, for ideological reasons (Ward Churchill being a former example from one side of the ideological divide, John Yoo on the other).  But the benefits far outweigh the costs of deliberately cultivating and maintaining a group of mouthy malcontents, even if too few of them use their blessings as fully as we might hope.

There is, however, one "cost" of tenure that has always concerned me, and which merits special mention.  In every economics department and law faculty on which I have served, everyone told me that the smart thing for nontenured people to do was not to make waves, both in terms of our scholarship and in internal governance.  (For that matter, even tenured people who have not yet been promoted to full professor are advised not to rock the boat.)  This is well-meaning advice, and younger people are arguably wise to take it to heart.  The promise, after all, is that the day will come when they can unleash all of that pent-up independence and write what they want, say what they want in faculty meetings and in the larger university, and do what they want in the public square.

As many others have noted, however, timidity becomes not just a habit, but a personality trait.  When tenure is finally granted, far too many people who might have been fiercely independent have simply become accustomed to holding their tongues.  They might not even have to hold them anymore, because they have succeeded in stopping themselves from thinking unwelcome thoughts.  Some might overcome this, but there are too many examples of "broken spirits" to pretend that this is not a common phenomenon.

Even this, however, merely argues in favor of encouraging those faculty who are willing to speak up to do so.  The system winnows down the group of people who might speak truth to power (both inside and outside the university), but that is certainly not a reason to suppress, ignore, or reduce the power of those who do.