Dispatch from the Tenure Wars

David Clemens

Writing in the Wall Street Journal (June 18), Timothy Knowles, “a former teacher, principal and district leader” laments the difficulty of eliminating “low-performing teachers.”  Granted, there are abundant reasons for tenure reform at the K-12 level.  College, however, is a different matter. Marketing his new book, Cary Nelson, spear point of the AAUP, says

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, devout believer that you only have academic freedom and free speech if you have job security.  If you don’t have job security, you can’t speak out forcefully, and I think that means academic freedom will be diminished.

I rarely agree with Dr. Nelson, a fellow I find usually animated by left-wing, social constructivist, and Sixties sentiments, but in this case he is right. Mr. Knowles paints administrators as ex-teachers called to a higher mission.  However, in college, many administrators have little or no classroom experience, and Mr. Knowles seems oblivious to just how political, punitive, and self-serving careerist administrators can be (just look at how many of the cases at FIRE originate from administrative excesses).  Without tenure, my campus would have no discernible conservative voice at all.  I would have been fired by at least three different college presidents for a variety of transgressions:  organizing the faculty union, suing the college, publically criticizing multiculturalism, openly opposing “student learning outcomes.” Students can survive a poor teacher (how many great teachers are there?), but they can’t survive a university monoculture that is an ideological echo chamber.  Tenure may sometimes protect incompetent knaves but, where it still exists, tenure also protects vital intellectual pluralism.

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