Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stanley Fish on the Problem of Tenure, Academic Freedom, and Free Speech

Stanley Fish is a blogger at the NY Times who is a distinguished professor of law. I like his stuff occasionally, but can't say I'm a huge fan. But I respect an academic who's very engaged with the public. This week he has a fascinating post about tenure and academic freedom. He explored this theme in his previous week's post, about a guy named Denis Rancourt (remember that name), a professor of physics at the University of Ottawa who has taken the cause of academic pretty to its logical extreme; he has not only been fired, but banned from the campus (read Fish's post for the graphic details).

The issue at hand is what responsibilities professors have to the university that pays them, and what to do when those responsibilities conflict with academic freedom. Rancourt, the guy in Ottawa takes the position that his responsibility is to undermine the university in the name of answering to a higher truth. Having worked in the real world ever since graduating from college, I find this a bizarre idea, but, having gone to a college that was a training ground for academics (Swarthmore), I'm not unfamiliar with the logic.

Most academics realize that they have responsibilities to their instiutions, to their departments, their colleagues, and their students. But a fair number also subscribe to what Fish calls "academic exceptionalism," the idea that, as academics, they are somehow better than the mere mortals who do not have advanced degrees. I am, again, familiar with this concept, largely because I have been on both sides of it. Swarthmore was very much a training ground for academics. Many of my friends went on to careers in academia (and a fair number started down that path, then diverged away from it). I majored in philosophy. Swarthmore had such a good track record of training philosophy professors that a professor there told me that there were more professors of philosophy with undergrad degrees from Swat than from any other college or university. And that was absolute numbers, not a percentage.

I once asked that same professor what the purpose of philosophy is. I figured that if there is one group of professionals who will be able to answer deep questions about the meaning of their occupation, it would be philosophy professors. This professor answered that I had a talent for asking difficult questions in an innocent tone of voice (when a philosophy professor tells you that you are asking him a difficult question, that means he is very impressed). But then he told me that, for him, the purpose of philosophy was to offer a critique of society.

Yet again, I've been on both sides of that perspective. I struggled with this idea of philosophy providing a "critique of society" because I wanted to buy into it. I wanted to believe that I could make the world a better place just by sitting around and thinking.

But there is a deep arrogance in the idea that your profession bestows upon you the right to "critique society." First, it implies that you understand society well enough to critique it. That may or may not be true. But there is, of course, a moral element to "critiquing society." To do so is to grant yourself the right to dictate to other people how they should act. To assume that you have the right to tell other people how to behave because of your job seems to me extraordinarily arrogant.

Of course, in a democracy we are all social critics. But we also respect each other's right to engage in the practice of arguing about politics.

This arrogance is part of what Fish is writing about when he describes "academic exceptionalism." He explores where this leads, and doesn't like where it takes him. Neither do I. One place it leads to is a denial of responsibility. Fish doesn't mention this, but it occurs to me that if you set up a situation where people are not responsible to other people, you will attract people who are irresponsible. I think that explains, in part, the phenomenon of people like this idiot Rancourt. They don't want to be responsible, and they are enabled by an environment in which they are allowed to develop highly intellectually sophisticated justifications for not being held responsible for the impact that their ideas have on other people. There's another term for this. It's called being a jerk.

One other aspect that Fish doesn't get into is that even if individuals in colleges are not held accountable for their ideas, the institutions ultimately will be. I was very disillusioned by my education, for a number of reasons. I have a love/hate relationship with my undergraduate alma mater. It was the perfect place for me when I started there, but I outgrew it quickly, without realizing it. So I wasn't happy by the time I graduated.

I have been the recipient of many requests for donations from Swarthmore since graduating. I have answered almost none of them. This is one way that accountability works its slow, slow way through the system; students are affected by the ideas of their professors. Then those students become alumni. And just about every college and university in this country depends on alumni donations for support. If the disillusionment that I experienced ever reaches critical mass, we will have an accountability moment for colleges and universities of catastrophic proportions. And professors will yell and scream and bitch and moan and protest and issue demands and be angry and confused because they will have no idea what hit them.

I am a strong proponent of academic freedom, but I am a strong opponent of tenure. I do not think academic freedom requires tenure; I think it requires strong leadership from each institution's managers. Of course, it also helps to have strong endowments.

There may have been a time when tenure was necessary. I'm sure there are still many professors who benefit from it. But those with tenure pay a high cost, and that is in respect. There's a reason professors are stereotyped as living in ivory towers; because many are not held accountable for their ideas, as the rest of us are. I make a key distinction between professors in the hard sciences and those in the social sciences and humanities. I have a great deal of respect for physicists, biologists, chemists, etc., because they are held accountable for their ideas by reality; they are answerable to their experiments. Some social scientists are good enough scientists that they are also answerable to their experiments. But many are not. Philosophy professors, of course, are very much in this latter camp. They are intellectually disciplined by the logic of their arguments.

There was a time when colleges and universities were bastions of enlightened and progressive thinking in a world where those qualities were not common. That is no longer the case. Colleges and universities have been extraordinarily successful at educating generations of students to be intellectually curious, to ask questions, to debate great ideas. Professors have, in a sense, created their own competition. Swarthmore generally ranks very high among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News and World Report rankings; I don't think it has ever dropped lower than three. Williams and Amherst are usually the other top two. But Swarthmore's competition is no longer Williams, or Amherst, or Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. It isn't Michigan, Berkeley, or UVA.

The great reason that academic exceptionalism is increasingly an anachronistic idea is that the centers of englightened and progressive thinking are no longer places like Harvard and Berkeley, but Google, McKinsey, and the NY Times. Great ideas are now debated in places like the ACLU; Skadden, Arps; Brookings; Kleiner, Perkins; and DreamWorks.

At some point the idea of academic exceptionalism is going to collide with the limitations of how much we, as a society, are willing to pay for college education. When that happens, the arrogance of the people who responded to Stanley Fish with eloquent articulations of their own unique responsibilities towards truth is going to be a poor defense against society's demands for accountability.

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