Academic Freedom & the Search for Truth

February 8, 2005 | 64 comments

The University of Wisconsin takes great pride in its tradition of academic freedom. As a new professor, I was told repeatedly the story of Professor Richard T. Ely (watch the video), a labor economist who was accused by Oliver E. Wells, Wisconsin’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction and a member of the Board of Regents, of providing a moral justification for strikes and boycotts.

Wells made his accusation publicly, in a letter to the editor of The Nation magazine, entitled “The College Anarchist.” This letter was later reprinted in the New York Evening Post. Labor unrest was the dominant social issue of the 1890s, and Wells published his letter in the midst of the Pullman Strike, when fears of anarchy and violence were widespread. As a result of the attention focused on Ely, the Board of Regents appointed a committee to study his work. The committee held a hearing in the old law school building (since demolished to make room for the current building). Although Ely did not rely on the principle of academic freedom for his defense — instead successfully contending simply that Wells’ charges against him were false — one of the regents named John M. Olin (not that John M. Olin) encouraged the Board to adopt a public endorsement of academic freedom. Within that statement was this oft-quoted passage: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” (This language apparently was drafted by C.K. Adams, then-President of the University.) That passage was later placed on a bronze plaque, which is mounted on the University’s main administration building.


I was prompted to think about the statement again this morning, as a listened to a radio program on Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who called the victims of 9/11 “little Eichmanns.” His essay “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” contains the following passage, which sparked the firestorm in Colorado:

True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” – a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

If Churchill were a professor at the University of Wisconsin, his statements would still be controversial, but I am confident that he would not be in danger of losing his position. At least not for his statements alone.

For present purposes, however, I am not interested in debating Churchill’s position, but rather in the notion of academic freedom and its relation to truth seeking. The Wisconsin Board of Regents endorsed “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Were they right that truth is found only by “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing”?

Appropriately, given that the University of Wisconsin is widely known for agricultural studies, “sifting and winnowing” are metaphors taken from ancient agricultural methods by which grain was separated from chaff. In the scriptures, this metaphor is often employed to describe the separation of the wicked from the righteous. (See, e.g., Amos 9:9; Alma 37:15) As far as I can tell, it is not used as a metaphor to describe the search for truth, the separation of the false teachings from true doctrine. Nevertheless, we are admonished frequently to seek truth through a process that sounds like sifting and winnowing. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims:

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Metaphorical sifting and winnowing seem both familiar and necessary to spiritual growth, and I suspect that most of us would agree that such sifting and winnowing should be continual. (See, e.g., Alma 26:22) But why “fearless”? When Ward Churchill compares the victims of 9/11 to Nazis, is he being courageous? Or simply reckless in the pursuit of his own political agenda? Although I find his description of the victims outrageous and offensive, it’s impossible for me to judge his motives from this distance. But I can assert this with some certitude: the process of seeking truth necessarily entails some false starts, and it may involve thinking thoughts that some people would consider wacky or even heretical. In my experience, such thoughts are rarely the end of the search, but closer to the beginning. Expressing such thoughts, allowing other people to evaluate and discuss them, can be frightening. In the end, however, I believe that the Wisconsin Board of Regents was right: only by working through this process can we find the truth.

64 Responses to Academic Freedom & the Search for Truth

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 8, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    I agree with what you say, Gordon Smith, but only because I believe you have shifted the emphasis of the original words. You’ve made the process of “fearless sifting and winnowing” an internal one. It is the person who keeps sifting and winnowing the truths the truths they have, fearlessly exposing them to ridicule in order to see if outsiders can add more truth to what they have or find flaws in the truths in they think they know.

    But the original quote is a proclamation of academic freedom. I don’t think its so much about the personal search for truth as it is the remorseless emergence of truth from the marketplace of ideas, in which all ideas are subjected to the withering blasts of criticisms and only the strongest (and therefore the best) survive. In your version, truth is sought after. In this version, truth is imposed. In your version, the will to criticism is primarily self-directed. One is concerned with finding truth. In this version, the will to criticism is outward directed. One is concerned with exposing falsehood in others.

    These distinctions blur, of course, but they do represent genuine poles. Given the context of the quote I would think it’s not as close to your pole as you think, but by all means keep thinking that. Redeem the quote by reimagining as you have. See if you can redeem the idea of academic freedom while you’re at it. Because it’s come to mean something very much like my second pole.

  2. Boris Max on February 8, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    When the UW Regents talk about being fearless, they mean it in the sense of not being afraid to say things that may be extremely unpopular. So, yes, you do need to be fearless. Whether or not Ward Churchill’s use of the phrase “little Eichmanns” was appropriate or even accurate, it was fearless of him to say this in the extremely paranoid, reactionary times that existed right after 9/11. It is easy to go along with recieved opinon, costly to go against it. If you don’t believe this, just look what’s happening to Professor Churchill. But since recieved opinion is not allways correct, there is a need for people to disagree vocally.

    Truth seekers also need to be fearless in the sense that they admit that they might be wrong. Churchill isn’t the best model here because his comments are so accusatory–it would be better to have asked if the technocrats in the towers could be compared to the Adolf Eichmann that Hanna Arendt recreates in _Eichmann in Jerusalem_. Instead, they always already are Eichmanns. Fredric Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, gave us a better example of fearless inquiry when after 9/11 he quietly asked why so many people who were not personally involved in the tragedy attached so much personal meaning to it. No hint of accusation here, just an observation that this relatively small-scale tragedy–think of the death toll from the recent tsunami–had been turned into a very large metaphor that was then defining recieved opinion in the United States.

    What does this have to do with mormons? Well, Joseph Smith said some extremely unpopular things about recieved religious opinion when he was alive, and he paid the ultimate price for it. All of us who are active members of the Church, at least by implication, say the same unpopular things. If you live in Utah, it doesn’t cost you that much, but if you live in Birmingham–Alabama or England–it does. So even though we may violently disagree with Churchill, we should have some degree of compassion for a man who genuinely believes what he says and is not afraid of the consequences.

  3. Nate Oman on February 8, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    Adam: I am not sure that the marketplace of ideas is necessarily some horrid institution that must be redeemed. By and large, I think that open debate and criticism of ideas is a pretty good way of improving our ideas. One interesting thing about the Wisconsin formulation — which you rightly link up, I think, with turn of the century pragmatism — is that it is essentially a communal exercise. We do not protect the speech and freedom of others necessarily because we see them as heroic intellectuals fighting the shakles of past ignorance. The formulation is not really individualistic at all.

    Gordon: It is interesting that you linked the Churchill controversy with Wisconsin. I finished “reading” (ie listening on tape while driving to work) a book on Vietnam a short while ago — _They Marched into Sunlight_ — that dealt in large part with the protests at Wisconsin against Dow in the late 1960s. The book provides a wonderful portrait of the conflict between older, essentially progressive era pragmatic liberalism and the pseudo-Marxist New Left. When I read about the Churchill story on Sunday, I thought of the Wisconsin battles. Churchill, of course, is an aging child of the New Left, which seems to have largely exhausted what intellectual energy it had by the mid-1980s. In this sense, the Wisconsin ideal has — blessedly — proven much, much more durable.

  4. Nate Oman on February 8, 2005 at 12:41 pm

    Borris: Respectfully, I think that you have missed the point of the pragmatic ideal of free inquiry. It is not the sincerity or the courage of the individual that motivates openness, but rather a recognition that we need more ideas than we have and the best way of generating those ideas is to open up the field and allow ideas to stand or fall on their own merits. As near as I can tell, there is no particular reason that we should lionize Churhill. He seems like a garden variety campus radical who enjoys playing revolutionary leader to undergrad groupies who will be working at PWC as consultants in a couple of years. Rather than lauding his courage, a better tribute to free inquiry would be and explanation of why his thinking on this topic is basically asinine. For example, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Churchill actually understood what the people killed in the WTC actually did. He has a cultural vision of wicked yuppies playing out their role as cogs in the evil onward march of global capitalism, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he understands what the complicated work that they did was actually about.

  5. Adam Greenwood on February 8, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    “I think that open debate and criticism of ideas is a pretty good way of improving our ideas. ”

    You’re taking Gordon’s approach, Nate O., that having a forum of debate and exchange is great way for people to find the flaws in their own thinking. I’m deeply suspicious, though, that behind much academic freedom talk nowadays and marketplace of ideas talk back then was the idea that other people were the one’s who needed their thinking criticized and reformed.

  6. Clark Goble on February 8, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    It seems that Adam has a point. Academic freedom, open debate and criticism function only if there is simultaneously intellectual diversity. While I tend to doubt a lot of recent conservative handwringing regarding hiring, I think there is a point. A lot of departments don’t have the kind of diversity that would be helpful. Often even when there is a degree of diversity real intellectual engagement rarely happens. Instead we get superficial sniping and overgeneralizations. (I think of the Analytic – Continental divide in philosophy for an example of that)

    Regarding Churchill, I note that most of the conservative pundits I’ve read don’t want him canned and are quite vocal about academic freedom. They do question how he got his position though. It does appear that he was cherry picked precisely because his views accorded with what the administration wanted presented. It’s that backdoor way of avoiding academic freedom and diversity that I think causes worries.

    Having said that though, I’m not sure I’m opposed to universities doing this. After all, in effect we silence voices at BYU in just that fashion. We limit who we hire to a certain narrow span of acceptable voices. The diversity comes not within an university but between them. And having universities that can do that ensures that voices do get heard or at least developed.

  7. annegb on February 8, 2005 at 1:43 pm

    We recently had a problem similar to this at SUU. A popular professor was denied tenure, I can’t remember if he was fired, for shouting at students, bad language, and I can’t remember the other thing.

    I had mixed emotions about that. If I was in his class, I’d be pretty torqued if he cussed at me, I doubt I’d stand for it, I can’t see that as any kind of educational tool, but did he have the right to his opinions, and how can a university fire someone who is exercising his right to free speech?

    You lawyers, is that even legal? How is it justified? As to that Churchill guy, his views are sort of repugnant, but I would “defend to the death” his right to have them. If he can’t say what he believes, neither can I. Where does it stop?

  8. Jed on February 8, 2005 at 1:49 pm

    Gordon says: “But I can assert this with some certitude: the process of seeking truth necessarily entails some false starts, and it may involve thinking thoughts that some people would consider wacky or even heretical.”

    Why “necessarily”? Of course there are times we have to discard false and counterproductive notions that impede us from finding the truth, but are there not other times when people find the truth immediately or intuitively? Here I am thinking of spiritual promptings. The truth may come to us in a sudden burst of intelligence as Joseph Smiths says.

    The Wisconsin statement privileges truth as a thing to be apprehended at the end of the winnowing. This conception has its obvious strengths, but it also has its limitations. It cannot, for example, adjudicate competing versions of truth. It does not say much about the relationship between truth and temporality. And it cannot tell people what to do with the truth once than they possess it. Because of these limitations, we might question whether winnowing is the only way to truth, and whether truth must be a thing to be “found.”

  9. Jonathan Green on February 8, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    Adam, academic freedom is working, for me, so far. A long time ago, I found a topic where I thought everyone else who had ever writte about it was wrong, and wrote a master’s thesis. Recently, I dusted the thesis off and winnowed out the parts that I didn’t believe anymore and adopted a more measured tone in describing previous research. Then I realized that the article I had turned my thesis into wasn’t going to get any better by my own efforts. I submitted it to an academic journal just so I get could someone knowledgeable to read and respond to it. The article was accepted, but I also got some important suggestions from the reviewers. The article is still not perfect, but now some punk kid grad student can read it and come up with a better approach to the problem.

    Gordon, Churchill might be an unfortunate springboard for discussing academic freedom; bad cases make bad law. I’ve refused to inform myself about his case until I read the two links in your post. From them, Churchill doesn’t seem like a good poster boy for academic freedom. Maybe he would be better suited as a cautionary tale on the value of third-year review, or whatever; I don’t know where Churchill is in his career, and don’t care all that much.

    Clark, I’ve had a little experience with the academic hiring process, and I’d be surprised if the college’s administration could have much effect on it. Not impossible, though. I would venture to guess, however, that it is nearly impossible for anyone outside of the hiring committee deliberations to say why he was hired and why someone else wasn’t. Sometimes things make perfect sense, sometimes the opposite.

    Jed, I think you’re engaging in an epistemological argument that I’m not really tuned in to, so I’ll mostly stay out of it. Academic freedom as a means to discover truth seems a good fit, I think, for the academy. In my case, the spirit was not forthcoming with a document that would meet all the usual requirements for master’s theses, so I had to take the mundane approach. I think the record of universities as knowlege-generating institutions is pretty good, probably better than most of the competition. However, as much as I aspire to nothing higher than writing fact-laden treatises devoid of metanarrative, I also recognize that universities haven’t cornered the market on truth. Publishing my testimony and waiting for critical comment would be a stupd way to seek gospel truth, for example. Here Adam’s take on winnowing truth from falsehood as an individual pursuit works much better, I think.

  10. Gordon Smith on February 8, 2005 at 5:32 pm

    Adam: “In your version, truth is sought after. In this version, truth is imposed. In your version, the will to criticism is primarily self-directed. One is concerned with finding truth. In this version, the will to criticism is outward directed. One is concerned with exposing falsehood in others.”

    Even if the participants in the marketplace of ideas are self-interested and biased — even if some of them might profit quite handsomely by peddling falsehoods — the marketplace can still operate in the way that Nate imagines. The issue is not whether all of the producers of ideas are virtuous, but whether society embraces virtuous ideas.

    You are right to distinguish the individual from the collective, and I intended to shift the focus to the individual. Nevertheless, I imagine the individual search to be much like the collective search. Sifting and winnowing all the way down.

    Jed: “are there not other times when people find the truth immediately or intuitively?” You have tapped into one of the points I was trying to make rather subtly, namely, that truth is acquired (“found”) through diligent effort. When Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” do you imagine only one door, with Jesus on the other side? If you take the “seeking” part seriously, I think you have to imagine more than one door. In my experience, revelation is not like the Vulcan mind meld. It’s more like Thomas Edison’s laboratory.

  11. Adam Greenwood on February 8, 2005 at 6:31 pm

    “You are right to distinguish the individual from the collective, and I intended to shift the focus to the individual. Nevertheless, I imagine the individual search to be much like the collective search. Sifting and winnowing all the way down.”

    This is helpful. I’m as sappy as anyone (sappier) so I am moved by your vision of inquirers after truth getting together and winnowing and sifting and what all. I guess I’m inclined to think that academic freedom is as much about bringing unenlightened outsiders to the understanding of truth that the university collective holds as it is about the collective search for truth.

    And I share Jed’s disquiet. You give him short shrift. Revelation requires work, you say. Agreed, mostly, but why does that work have to be a process of ratiocination and debate? The work that precedes revelation can be prayer, anguish of soul, and wearing out one’s life in good works, as it is concentrated thought and inquiry into a subject.

  12. Matt Evans on February 8, 2005 at 6:50 pm


    If your Wisconsin colleagues imagine themselves steadfast advocates for academic freedom and free inquiry, what do they make of the fact that aspiring academics are always told to avoid viewpoints unpopular among university faculty?

    Kaimi wrote yesterday of a friend who believes he was denied an academic job because the interviewer projected views on homosexuality to him that the interviewer didn’t like. A brilliant friend of mine with excellent credentials (Harvard Law Review, multiple law review articles) won’t circulate his intelligent pro-life writings because he doesn’t want to “close the door on an academic career.”

    Randy Barnett told the HLS Federalist Society to never reference the Federalist Society on an academic CV. He said that when he was first involved in the faculty hiring process, having clerked at the Supreme Court was a fail-safe ticket to teach at his school. That changed in the late 80s, “once too many clerks with the names Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy or Thomas on their resumes came knocking on the door.” (Incidentally, to stave off one rejoinder, the Fay Diploma winners – first in class – at HLS in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 were all conservative. I don’t know the leanings of the winners in other recent years.)

    Academic freedom is a ruse — tenured professors wave the card to immunize themselves against their stupidness while engaged in political fights over which applicants to hire.

    Hopefully Colorado will do what’s best for advancing freedom of thought: tank Churchill plus 3/4 of the university’s tenured faculty. The ex-profs can contribute to the marketplace of ideas off the public payroll: blogging!

  13. Stephen M (ethesis) on February 8, 2005 at 7:46 pm

    Matt, I think you would agree with the posts at while I suspect Nate is more in line with — though you are both right about many things.

  14. Gordon Smith on February 8, 2005 at 9:58 pm

    Adam, I like sappy. Sappy is good. I didn’t intend to give Jed short shrift, but I was being hailed to a Cub scout activity. Still, I don’t have a lot more to say about that topic. When I reflect on my own experiences and read those of others, I am reminded that the person receiving revelation has to be open to a new idea. Usually (always?) this entails some serious contemplation of the issue in advance. Reason combines with faith to yield a teaching moment. I think Joseph Smith is a great example of this. He thought a lot of pretty wild thoughts, some of which were inspired and some of which were just false starts. I admire his curiosity, and if the connection between sifting/winnowing and revelation is the issue on the table, he is exhibit A.

    Matt, I missed Kaimi’s post (comment?) yesterday. That could have been about me. It happened when an openly gay professor asked me what I thought about benefits for gay partners. I was completely thrown by the question, as it has nothing whatsoever to do with my area of legal expertise and was not an issue that had come up at any of my prior places of employment. Moreover, it was not an issue on which I would have had any vote as a faculty member. Why did he ask me? I assume because he could tell I was a Mormon, though I don’t know that. Anyway, these things have a way of coming around, as that school later called one of my mentors for a recommendation on another candidate, and my mentor said that he would not assist a school that treated me in that way. (There is a lot more to the story, but you get the idea.)

    On the other hand, my experiences have been different than Randy Barnett’s. I still list the Federalist Society on my resume and have from the beginning of my academic career. At almost every school where I have interviewed, I have heard positive comments about this from self-identified liberal professors, who said that the school needed more professors to serve as mentors for the conservative students. Indeed, I was told more than once at my prior position that I was a diversity hire. It helps that I teach corporate law, where people are mostly expected to be conservative. I suspect that criminal law or constitutional law professors may have different stories, though one of my law school mentors, Mike McConnell, could have written his ticket to any law school in the country, and you would have a hard time out-conservativing him.

    But all of this is really beside the point. Even if you believe that academic freedom in practice is a ruse, I was addressing the aspirations expressed by the Wisconsin Board of Regents. That aspirational search for truth still has lessons for our personal search.

    [I edited this comment to delete the name of the school in the second paragraph. I am not interested in embarrassing the school, though I believe that what I wrote is true.]

  15. Bryan Warnick on February 8, 2005 at 10:10 pm

    What is interesting is how all this hubbub about Churchill will actually work to benefit both him and the University of Colorado. After a few months, when all the fuss has dissipated and the media’s attention has moved to the next sensational headline, things at Colorado will get back to normal. But by then students will be flocking to Churchill’s classes and will be coming from all over the world to study with him. Colorado will benfit from the publicity and from having highly visible people in its faculty. The outrage, for better or worse, will have greatly worked in his favor.

  16. Jeremiah J. on February 8, 2005 at 11:27 pm

    “Academic freedom is a ruse – tenured professors wave the card to immunize themselves against their stupidness while engaged in political fights over which applicants to hire.”

    I’m assuming that this is a bit of hyperbole here, motivated by frustration at hearing story after story about put-upon conservatives on campus. As many know, there are whole newsletters devoted to collecting and spreading these stories.

    I have a little bit of experience here (besides just being in academia), having attended two of the most conservative campuses in the country and been trained in part by the put-upon right-wing academics par excellence, Straussians. The conservatives I know (in political theory) have had no trouble getting into grad school, getting funding (the Liberty Fund, Olin, Earhart etc. coffers at times seem endless), and getting jobs. And coming out of a conservative school like Notre Dame has not been a hinderance to the last half dozen candidates (all at tenture track positions).

    There are plenty of prejudices (in the broad sense) in academia. Perhaps this is shocking to us since our impression is that academics promote themselves as examples of impartiality and rationality. But these prejudices are not all leftist ones (or even ideological at all), and I don’t see how we get around the existence of prejudice in academia (or any kind of human thought). It’s probably true that pro-life academics, who argue for pro-life positions in their scholarly work, might run into problems in the job market. But is this because academics only believe in academic freedom for those who think just like themselves? I suppose some people think this way, but it’s not the only explanation. With more charity one might imagine that because most people in academia are ‘pro-choice’ they therefore have a harder time taking pro-life views seriously. Even for the most open-minded among them the range of pro-life arguments they are likely to think are thoughful is narrower. One cannot wholly divorce the content and conclusions of scholarly arguments from our judgements about the ultimate worth of those arguments. This doesn’t only apply to issues which fall upon a neat left-right spectrum. There are scholarly positions in my areas of expertise which I find childish. If I read a paper in which the author takes these positions, I will likely have a low opinion of the paper. I can’t step outside my own accumulated, limited knowledge about things and assess all positions from some perfect standpoint. If I had access to such a position, I would likely know the full solution to the problem, and the give-and-take of academic life would be much less necessary. Distinguishing the prejudice from truth is precisely one of the things which academics disciplines intend to do. Obviously the task is unfinished; but that doesn’t mean that it’s fundamentally bankrupt. On the other side of the coin, maybe my academic understanding of an issue–on say, Middle East politics–along with my views about what is reasonable and what is absurd in this area, is not primarily based on prejudice but really is better than that of your average man on the street. And maybe among all those who have academic training in this area, views which are held by half the general public or more are held by a very small minority of these scholars. Since this is at least a possibility, I think we should avoid at all costs simply because a popular position, or in our view the correct one, happens to be currently an embattled minority view.

    As for Churchill, I think his words are disgusting and I would not feel that I would be violating his freedom of speech by opposing his being hired or granted tenure if he were up for such in my department. But there are outlandish and radical views which, though unpopular in the general public, have advanced human thought very much. On the left I think of Marx and Fichte, but also on the right you have figures such as Nietzsche or Nozick. In many cases the views themselves are completely refuted, and yet talking about them envigorates a discipline like a dozen more sensible views do. This is why I am saddened by the recent push on the right to expose “anti-Americanism” and “radicalism” on our campuses. Rationalism (like religion) is very frequently radical and unpalatable, and would likely lose an election.

  17. Matt Evans on February 9, 2005 at 12:51 am

    Gordon, the story Kaimi’s related was too recently for you to have been the protagonist. It’s in his “Guest Blogging” thread — Kaimi and his friend are very concerned about ideological discrimination (particularly that Mormons might be viewed as bigots toward gays). It’s good to know that at least in your case you got a good position even with the Federalist Society on your resume. (Mike McConnell’s is a less compelling case after he had become a prominent scholar. I’ve always thought the faculty figure that if they’re going to have a couple of token conservatives, they may as well get some high-profile bang for their buck.)

    Jeremiah, I think you’re right about why professors fail to privilege the research of potential hires with the same freedoms they expect for themselves, but isn’t the whole point of “academic freedom” to safeguard against the typical bias you explain? Everyone thinks ideas they don’t like are bad ideas, and that, it seems to me, is why we find the concept of “academic freedom” useful. Professors should institute some mechanisms to improve the process.

    Also, I was struck by your comments about Marx and Nietzsche. As you know, they “invigorated” far more than academic disciplines. Do you think their writings were, on the whole, good or bad for humanity? I would have used them as counter-examples to the idea that “free inquiry” is all upside.

  18. Jim F. on February 9, 2005 at 2:31 am

    Matt: I think Nietzsche’s works were, on the whole, good for humanity. The cartoon versions of his works are not, but that’s a different matter.

  19. Bill on February 9, 2005 at 2:45 am

    An interesting story about a similar incident at CU a half-century ago:,1413,36%257E53%257E2688722,00.html

  20. Jeremiah J. on February 9, 2005 at 5:04 am

    Matt, I’m not sure if the point of academic freedom is to safeguard against what you call bias or what I call prejudice from entering into hiring, promotion, funding, publishing, etc. decisions. It’s an interesting question, but at this point my thinking is that “academic freedom” means that an academic isn’t generally silenced for non-academic reasons and through non-academic avenues. The obvious general example is a professor being fired, the given reasons being that the public or board of trustees disapproves of her views on some ethical or political issue. The alternative (consistent with academic freedom) would be an academic being rejected for employment, funding, publication, etc. because the scholarship or teaching of the academic is lazy, unoriginal, dishonest, etc. The private motivations may be the same–I don’t know what you can do about that. But the public reasons given are very different, and I think that this matters. If these reasons are flimsy, there are many avenues in which we can show them to be flimsy. This doesn’t guarantee justice in employment, funding, etc., but I do think that it meets a reasonable standard of academic freedom.

    As for safeguarding against what you call bias and what I think I have called prejudice, I think that the standards of the discipline and the decentralized system of authority seem to serve that purpose, though I admit they don’t do it perfectly. While the number of top journals and presses is not huge, it is too large to be controlled by an cohesive ideological clique. What one might call market forces work to the extent that good work which is systematically excluded tends to find a way to get heard, e.g. by being picked up by up-and-coming journals, or by journals which decide to break ranks with the clique as the opportunity cost of rejecting good work becomes high.

    Do conservatives still get held to higher standards, and get rejected unfairly more often? My sense, as I implied before, is that this may well be true, but in truth I don’t know how to answer the question definitively. I’ve spent my grad school years reading enough conservative thinkers to find it hard to believe that conservatives, at least in political science and political theory, are rare. But are they still *too* rare? It’s tempting to compare the proportion in the discipline to the proportion in the general population, but I don’t think that’s appropriate, for reasons I mentioned. Engaging the standards of the discipline is unavoidable, since the hypothesis is that some group is not as well represented or respected as they *should be*. But the argument about how well they should be represented or respected is inevitably an argument about the academic worth of certain strains of thought. I may think that Marxism is not very profound, and thus conclude that there are way too many Marxists in political science. But I can simply argue that Marxists have made intellectual mistakes without charging that they are part of a dangerous conspiracy to maintain Marxist power in academia. Nor do I know at which point I am required to abandon the standards of the discipline and start making this kind of charge instead.

    Of course, in a broader political context we might ask ourselves if there are academic views of which we must, in some sense, be intolerant. In this context someone might argue that Marxists or Nietzscheans are bad for humanity. So I’m not suggesting that just because there are academic disciplines with standards that societies don’t have to make this kind of decision. I could imagine views which might qualify, but I don’t think any currently do. And as Jim alludes to, the practice of putting Socrates (or pseudo-Socrates) on trial before the people often involves a heavy amount of charicature and demagogery–either of the frustrated academic who wants to use the demos to stick it to his intellectual opponents, or politician who wants to make a quick score off an easy target, the nerdy personification of the guy who gave you a C freshman year.

  21. Diogenes on February 9, 2005 at 11:15 am

    Academic freedom is a ruse – tenured professors wave the card to immunize themselves against their stupidness while engaged in political fights over which applicants to hire.

    Yes, well, then I suppose moral agency is a ruse — mortals wave the card to immunize themselves against their stupidity while engaged in license and debauchery.

    The fact that a certain freedom doesn’t result in outcomes that one approves of doesn’t mean that the freedom doesn’t exist, or that it’s not important for it to exist.

  22. greenfrog on February 9, 2005 at 11:18 am

    Metaphorical sifting and winnowing seem both familiar and necessary to spiritual growth, and I suspect that most of us would agree that such sifting and winnowing should be continual. (See, e.g., Alma 26:22) But why “fearless”…?

    Because our fears, whether individual or communal, tend to obstruct our ability and our willingness to consider, recognize, and acknowlege truths when we encounter them. We are perfectly capable of living and embodying falsehoods throughout our entire lives. Sometimes truth is as tenuous and evanescent as the morning dew. In those cases, the slightest preference for our own comfort or our own safety can obscure it altogether. Academic freedom, like the first amendment protections of freedom of speech and of the press in other contexts, is one way to address a natural fear that might otherwise incline a professor to explore more conforming ideas that support status quo falsehood, at the expense of the unpopular, and as yet undiscovered, truth.

  23. Matt Evans on February 9, 2005 at 11:42 am


    The structural problem that gums up the faculty hiring procedure is that when a candidate’s ideology enters the hiring process, as it unavoidably does, the faculty are not only rewarded by amplifying the voice of an ideological brother (or by diminishing the reach of an ideological opponent), but to win another ally for future faculty decisions. They’re voting on who will get to vote. The Harvard Wars, an episode in the 80s when the HLS faculty was so fractured many professors wouldn’t talk to each other, was primarily due to the fear (or goal, as the case my be) of the crits reaching a tipping point. (That particular split was between crits and realists. The tipping point for professors with socialist and anti-religion sympathies was reached eons ago.)

    Because academic freedom is supposed to insulate professors from political bias, a system of checks is needed to offset the faculty’s biases. There is no reason to privilege the litmus-tests of the faculty over the preferences of the alumni, trustees, donors, legislature, or public.

  24. Nate Oman on February 9, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    Matt: I think that we have two interrelated but different problems. We have the classic case of academic freedom which is when a tenured professor is fired or disciplined on the basis of the content of his expressed views on some matter related to his area of expertise. Then we have the problem of ideological bias in hiring.

    Taking on the second problem first, I have absolutely no doubt that there is ideological bias in hiring. My best evidence for this is that I think that the average intelligence of conservative law professors is higher than the average intelligence of liberal law professors. I don’t take this as evidence that conservatives are smarter than liberals. I take it as evidene that conservatives face a slightly higher bar. Hence, when Mark Tushnet argues to the AALS that their is no ideological bias in hiring by pointing out how many smart conservative law profs there are, he is missing the point. This being the case, the very best thing that conservative scholars can do, I think, is to basically ignore it. With the exception of real political jerks — ie some of the CLS folks at HLS during the 1980s — I don’t think that there is really a vast left-wing conspiracy. In my experience, most liberal law professors are not jerks. They are by and large people who care about ideas and have a particular set of ideological biases. I think that best thing that one can do is embrace their commitment to ideas. Hence, I would embrace whole-heartedly the sort of academic mythos represented by the Wisconsin statement. Be smart, reasonable, and willing to articulate the basis of your beliefs while responding respectfully and calmly to counter-arguments. Don’t play the victim card. The idea of Horowitz et al that one should further politicize the hiring process by creating affirmative action requirements for particular ideologies is, in my mind, and extremely bad idea.

    The first issue is the more classic problem of academic freedom. The problem here is that tenure is tied up with debates about censorship. They are not the same thing. In theory, tenure is supposed to create an enviroment in which professors are free to express ideas without fear of reprisal. In reality, I think, it by and large creates a really awful set of incentives. First, the goal of getting tenure means that most junior profs spend their time worrying about whether or not their writing will get them tenure. Second, for a scandalously large percentage of senior faculty, tenure basically means that they can check out. The real scandal of tenure is not that it lets light-weight jerks a la Churchill to have a bully pulpit for their cartoonish political views. Rather, it is that it means that many, many scholars do very little scholarship at all. However, the question of whether or not tenure creates a rotten set of incentives (and it more or less does and most profs more or less respond to these incentives) is quite different than whether or not profs should be professionally sanctioned on the basis of the content of what they say. The hypocrisy that I think so upsets you and Adam is in part tied up in the sleight of hand involved in much academic rhetoric. Tenure provides a cushy life for those who have it and the promise of such a life for those who seek it. This, however, is not a very good public reason for supporting it. Hence, we can wrap tenure in the banner of free inquiry. The is not an utterly unjustified move, as tenure does allow for the possiblity of valubable but controversial discussion, but tenure is not the only way of accomplishing this, and much of the academic braying on the subject is tinged with more than a little bit of self-interest and hypocrisy.

    Frankly, I see no way out of these quandries. I think that the best thing would be for everyone involved in these discussions to ratchet back the rhetoric and the sanctimony a bit and acknowledge the reality of the trade offs involved. At the end of the day, I am inclined to side with the free speech folks, especially when we are talking about a public institution, but regardless of his fate, I will not shed any tears over Churchill.

  25. Adam Greenwood on February 9, 2005 at 12:44 pm

    “Mike McConnell, could have written his ticket to any law school in the country, and you would have a hard time out-conservativing him.”
    Well, no, you wouldn’t. He is conservatish, though.

    The real problem with Jeremiah J.’s stance that the public aren’t really in a position to judge the the professoriate is that the public is nonetheless being asked to foot the bill. There’s something unseemly about the demand that one be cossetted with public funds while spending one’s times informing the public what fools, blowhards, bigots, and sheep they be. Unless one is confident that the academic enterprise is in the nature of things much more likely to produce truth and a vision of the good than the life that the public leads is, I think this demand is unjustifed. And I do not have that confidence. As Mr. Buckley famously said, I would rather be governed by the first 500 names in the phone book than the faculty at Harvard.

  26. Nate Oman on February 9, 2005 at 1:00 pm

    “I would rather be governed by the first 500 names in the phone book than the faculty at Harvard.”

    Yes, but what are your chances of finding someone to teach you Latin, the rule against perpetuities, literary criticism, or jurisprudence via this method? It seems to me that this is the more relevent question.

  27. danithew on February 9, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Nate writes well in this thread about how the desire for tenure negatively influences those who are doing research and writing.

    I had an interesting experience this past month. I wrote a paper about the Iraqi elections, just before they happened. The professor who graded the paper had a very bleak outlook of Iraq’s future and of the elections in general. [I wonder sometimes if the intense liberal bias against Bush has pushed many liberals into a zone where they would rather see Iraq's future be a disaster than risk any ultimate success to the mission of a democratic Iraq]. I sensed this even as I was writing this paper, having read an article he wrote on the topic.

    Ultimately, in the paper I addressed the numerous challenges and problems the elections faced, but I still allowed the tone to permit for some hope that the elections might be successful to a certain degree. The paper was graded before the elections actually happened and I received something slightly less than I would have hoped. It wasn’t a terrible grade but it was the worst I’ve received as a graduate student.

    I remember feeling a mixed feeling of bitterness and happiness after reading in the papers that the elections had been (by most accounts) a success. Obviously the votes are still being tallied and who knows what future Iraq will ultimately face. But I did feel the professor’s biases and opinions unduly drove him in his grading of the paper and that events as they happened ultimately supported my perspective. Of course, Iraq’s future is much more important that some useless paper I write.

    What can I do about my feelings on the matter? Very little. The only comfort I have is that I don’t ever do research or writing merely with the intent to please other people or gratify their points of view. As long as I’m true to my own views and perspectives and my research and writing meet what I feel are acceptable/excellent standards, I can live with the grades I receive, even if they suffer a bit at times.

    My mother got a master’s degree and when I mentioned to her some of the perspectives (contrary to mine) that I encounter at the university she basically told me that I have to face the fact that a big part of being a graduate student is “kissing up” to the faculty and doing what they want you to do or writing what they want you to write. But I simply am not willing to be utterly enslaved to what others think on things. What Nate has written seems support the idea that once kissing-up begins it will never end — though I suppose those who have tenure may beg to differ. But as Nate suggests, some tenured professors might not have much initiative left over to write anymore either.

    Overall I’m not overly or unduly impressed with academics and their perspectives on things. Some of them are truly brilliant but the ivory tower has its fair share of fools as well. Even the most intelligent and scintillating experts are often completely surprised by what they learn and by events that transpire.

  28. Jonathan Green on February 9, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    Matt, I think you’d be well served by putting some kind of disciplinary boundaries on what you write above. If this is all about law professors, say so, and I’ll stay out of it. I know very little about how law professors are created, but if you say that their political ideology is obvious for all to see, I’ll believe you. In my field and in many others–I would guess nearly all others–it’s impossible. No one knows the first thing about my politics when I send out applications.
    But you talk about the faculty in general, and Horowitz is specifically targetting the humanities. Maybe in your field it makes sense, but calling for political balance in my field or in the humanities in general makes absolutely no sense. I don’t mean just that I disagree, but that the proposition is completely alien to the world as I experience it.

    Nate, academic freedom may not be the right perspective from which to analyze tenure. Tenure makes a lot more sense to me in the context of shared academic governance. Most of my colleagues don’t really care what anyone else does in terms of research, but they care quite a bit about general education requirements and things like that. Tenure seems far more useful as a way of protecting reformist or obstructionist faculty committee members from the wrath of a provost or president. I mention this only by way of observation; I don’t currently have and may never have a personal stake in the issue.

    Adam, take a look around. The public is financing less and less of higher education all the time. At my institution, it amounts to under 20% of the budget, if I remember correctly. Take a closer look, and you’ll recognize that your characterization of how the professoriate spends its time is a caricature, and a bad one at that. It is true that the public who funds 20% of my salary is in no position to judge my research or to have a voice in hiring me. On the other hand, the budgetary process gives legislatures, donors, and all the other stakeholders a place at the table. If I don’t do my job, if my department hires people who can’t do their jobs in ways that the public can evaluate, things can get difficult in quite concrete ways. I suggest that this is already very much like the checks and balances that Matt is calling for.

  29. Nate Oman on February 9, 2005 at 2:39 pm

    “Nate, academic freedom may not be the right perspective from which to analyze tenure.”

    I would probably agree, however my perception is that academics will almost always defend tenure in terms of intellectual freedom, open inquiry, and the like. These are simply much more powerful rhetorical trumps than are the sort of administrative arguments that you allude to. (And it is not clear to me that those administrative arguments hold much water. Periodic outbreaks of public dismay and hostility toward tenured professors are always met with solemn lectures by those with tenure on the needs of open inquiry. There is an unseemly self-serving smell about this particular rhetorical dynamic.

  30. Nate Oman on February 9, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    Jonathan: In fairness to Adam and Matt, I think that you must admit that there is a very prominent strand of academic rhetoric that regards the checks and balances that you describe as essentially illegitimate and that the public should cough up more money for education and complain less about who it is spent on. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to suppose that declining levels of public support for higher education are not unrelated to public perceptions that the academy is largely composed of elitist snobs mainly interested in pissing on the beliefs of the benighted masses. Whether or not this perception is in fact accurate is another matter, but I don’t find it difficult to believe that it is politically powerful. There was a time when the modus operendi in most state legislatures was that the state university got basically whatever it asked for. This may have simply been the product of more prosperous times, but I think that there has been a shift in political friendliness toward higher education since the 1960s and 1970s.

  31. greenfrog on February 9, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    Is there a reason here not to apply the same evaluations of professorial tenure to the tenure of federal judges?

  32. Adam Greenwood on February 9, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    “what are your chances of finding someone to teach you Latin, the rule against perpetuities, literary criticism, or jurisprudence via this method?”

    I doubt that the public at large has much of an opinion on these subjects or wants to censor professors who teach about them. I think the real concern is when academics start to concern themselves with ‘large matters under heaven’ and do so with the attitude that they are enlightened in these matters while non-academics are not. This is not just a political problem, by the way.

  33. Nate Oman on February 9, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Adam: But if we are concerned with academics pompously spouting off about all matters under heaven, are we in core First Amendment territory, at least with regard to public employees. Let’s get this strait: we are talking about retaliation by the state against a person on the basis of what the person said. We are not talking about the government controlling its own speech, but rather about the government controlling the private speech of those whom it happens to employ.

  34. Adam Greenwood on February 9, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    Nate O.,
    I though we were having a discussion about whether “academic freedom,” as done in this country, was an ideal. Whether it’s a requirement of our current version of the Constitution is beside the point, though you’re probably right that individually firing professors because of their speech is probably illegal right now, though I can think of some somewhat dishonest ways it could be done. Getting rid of tenure or changing governance or even something silly like requiring that hires reflect the diversity of views among the population doesn’t seem illegal, though.

  35. David King Landrith on February 9, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    Why does academic freedom always consist of only the professor (as opposed to his employers) doing whatever he wants to do? Why are professors alone given the special privilege of hijacking the forum and credibility provided by their employers? How exactly is the “marketplace of ideas” furthered when universities take it as a point of pride that they sometimes hire parasites that leach off of their reputation? After all, we aren’t talking about burning them at the stake, just firing them.

    It seems to me that this notion of the desirability of “academic freedom” comes from the mistaken conventional wisdom about unpopular ideas. Bertrand Russell stated it thus:

    Some “advanced thinkers” are of the opinion that any one who differs from the conventional opinion must be in the right. This is a delusion; if it were not, truth would be easier to come by than it is. There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths.

    At any rate, I don’t understand professors aren’t employees at will.

  36. Matt Evans on February 9, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    Nate, thanks for bringing up tenure and tying it to academic freedom. I wanted to address it too, but didn’t have time in my prior comments, and you did it better than I would have. As for a left-wing conspiracy, I didn’t mean to suggest that. The factors I was speaking of happen implicitly, even when the faculty member isn’t deliberately voting for an ally, because they assume associates who agree with them are more reasonable.

    Jonathan, I was using political in its broad sense. Within most disciplines there are schools and movements that wish to influence and direct the field. In the law these movements are open and unavoidable. Because the law is such a central, powerful, and controversial aspect of modern society, which movement shapes its direction has enormous real-world consequences. For that reason law schools are politically charged. Art history departments are presumably less charged than law schools because the potential real-world effects is smaller. For that reason I suspect art history departments are less politically-charged than law schools, and disciplines with de minimus ideological components — like the hard sciences — would be less charged still.

  37. Jonathan Green on February 9, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    First, a few arguments for tenure, none of which involve freeing acadmics from outside interference. This isn’t pesonal; I’m only interested in tenure as an example of imperfect public understanding of how academia works.

    One reason to grant tenure is that doing so frees a professor from the need to publish as much as quickly as possible and allows him or her to focus on quality or to undertake big projects that might not pay off in time to win tenure.

    Another reason is competition: if your school doesn’t offer it and others do, it will have to pay more to retain its best people, all else being equal.

    Gaining tenure does not remove the pressure to research and publish. Promotion to full professor is predicated on continued professional accomplishment. Some schools offer financial incentives for publication. Also, professional standing requires continued publication; never underestimate intellectual vanity as a motivating factor.

    There are certainly problems with tenure, and none of these arguments for it make the case by themselves. However, I don’t see tenure as being a fundamental flaw at the heart of academia.

  38. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2005 at 12:22 am

    Matt, you seem to be saying that all academic departments have politics in the broadest sense, while law is also caught up in politics in the narrow sense. I don’t object to that. Are you saying that hiring in law therefore needs extra scrutiny from outside the law school? Perhaps; I don’t have a dog in that race. Or are you arguing in essence for more checks and balances on whether, say, the English department hires a composition specialist or someone in British lit, or an aesthetic critic versus a postmodernist? Then I disagree. My point is that there are already such checks and balances, both within and outside the institution. This is not to say that a department can’t make wrong or even disastrous choices, for which there will be consequences, but only that no one else is qualified to make those choices.

  39. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2005 at 12:27 am

    Adam, could you give us an example of academics concerning themselves with “large matters under heaven”? I don’t know if you mean professors speaking out on topics where they actually know what they’re talking about, or professors speaking out on topics that affect them personally, or professors exercising their right to speak out on topics on which they know as little as everyone else.

  40. Matt Evans on February 10, 2005 at 12:51 am

    Jonathan, I didn’t mean to make a binary distinction between the law and other disciplines. My point was that the disciplines vary in the real-world impact their different movements have on society. Theories within the social sciences have tremendous real-world consequences; theories of baroque music have little.

    I’m arguing that because ideology is necessarily a factor in the hiring process, and cannot be removed, it should be checked. There is no reason to privilege the ideological preferences of the university faculty, as is currently done, over the preferences of the alumni, trustees, donors, students, legislature or tax payers, who also have a stake in the composition of the faculty. To the degree those constituencies don’t care who is hired, or to which theory of baroque music they subscribe, they’ll defer to the faculty. But in cases where they do care, they should have a way to check the ideological biases of the faculty.

    It’s no more true that only professors can determine who is qualified to be a professor than that only judges can determine who would make a good judge, politicians who would be a good politician, or pianists who is a good pianist. It would be foolish to require gymnastics judges to be active gymnasts — there are too many potential conflicts — but that’s how the system to judge professors works. The faculty hiring committee should include representatives from the other interested parties.

  41. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2005 at 1:03 am

    Nate, I’m actually not familiar with the kind of academic rhetoric you mention. It strikes me as a relic of a long lost era–although there are plenty of those in academia to go around. I don’t claim to have much experience with academic rhetoric, but in a half-dozen years of religiously studying one section of the Chronicle of Higher Education each week, I don’t recall a serious proponent of the idea that the public should pay up for universities and then shut up. I do think that there are good things that universities do well, and that they should do them, and that state legislatures should stay out of the way of those things being done. But accountability in higher education is not a new idea.

    I agree that public perception of higher education is important, which was my only reason to comment above on tenure. I have no personal stake in tenure at the moment, but quite a large personal stake in the public perception of higher education. If my students are dissatisfied or incompetent after taking my classes, I’ll be out of a job very quickly; if the public or the state legislature decides that I or my institution are elitist snobs, the same thing can happen. Academia is where I spend my working life, so I care what perceptions people have of it. My perspective is also colored by my institutional location. My colleagues teach a lot of students, fit in research on the side, and just don’t have time for preening. My tenured colleagues work long hours.

    I’m somewhat mystified why I should be the one defending academia. I rather like it, and I’ll be sad when I leave it, four months or forty years from now, but ten years spent in pursuit of a job with mediocre salary shouldn’t make me the first to step into the breech for it.

    What I really don’t get, Adam and Matt and, to a lesser extent, Nate, is: what’s your grudge against academia? I mean, you’ve all done pretty well by it. First a solid undergraduate education, then law degrees from top-rate private institutions that have launched you towards professional success. For an outside observer, it seems that the American university system has served you well. Were your Harvard years that trying? Or are you just responding to what others say about academia? Because academia is where I work and live at the moment, and I’m just not seeing what you’re upset about.

  42. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2005 at 1:21 am

    No, Matt, you’re just plain wrong on this one.

    First, you’re wrong because every field is one which some outsider potentially cares about, even Baroque music. Do you hire a great Bach scholar, or a dynamic choir director eager to build ties to the community? No matter how seemingly trivial, someone will care.

    Second, you’re wrong because caring about hiring in some academic field is not the same as having the expertise necessary to evaluate candidates. A lot of alumni, donors, trustees, and taxpayers probably have strong feelings about evolution at the place I teach, which is precisely why they should be prevented from interfering in the hiring process.

    Third, you’re wrong because checks and balances already exist. If a department staffs itself in a way that is at odds with the institutional mission, or if it hires incompetents, there will be swift consequences. Departments get periodic outside reviews. Deans and provosts have to sign off on big decisions.

    Maybe the English department will decide to focus exclusively on composition studies, because the composition cabal has taken power. Few outside the department, and even fewer outside the university, will even be able to tell what’s going on, and those who do won’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. If the English department is wrong, there will soon be dissatisfied students and unprepared graduates of their program. Enrollments will drop, the dean will notice, and money for new hires will not be forthcoming. If the department doesn’t turn itself around, worse things await. That is how it works where I live, at least.

  43. Jim F. on February 10, 2005 at 3:00 am

    I don’t work at a private university and at the university where I work we have “continuing faculty status” rather than “tenure”–not the same, but close enough. But it seems to me that Jonathan Green’s descriptions of how universities and colleges and departments at universities work is accurate. Where is the real, non-anecdotal evidence for the problem that everyone is so concerned about?

    Are there non-productive, tenured scholars? Of course, but there are also non-productive partnered lawyers, and non-porductive bank VPS, and on and on. For the most part, however, professors at universities do the jobs they were hired to do and are productive. They have biases, just like everyone else, and some are better at keeping those biases from influencing their judgments than others. It will surprise no one that BYU is much more conservative than most schools, but we seldom know about a person’s political persuasions during the hiring process. From what I see in my work with other universities, all of them more liberal than we, many of them much more so, neither do they.

    I am sure there are cases in which tenure protects some dolt who ought to be fired, either because he hasn’t produced anything in the classroom or the journals or because he is an offense. But for every one of those there are several hundred others for whom tenure functions as Jonathan describes it, as a means for allowing the professor to concentrate on things that are genuinely meaningful rather than on things that will be published quickly. I have reviewed a lot of applications for continuing status at BYU as well as a lot of applications for promotion to full professor. There is very often a marked difference in the kind of publication work done after continuing status is granted, a difference that is also a good.

    In the absence of solid evidence, I see no reason to assume that tenure is the source for great problems.

  44. Nate Oman on February 10, 2005 at 9:42 am

    Jonathan: I don’t think of myself as having a particular ax to grind against academia. I enjoyed HLS, although it was not without its problems. Imagine that instead of reading me gripe about HLS you are reading Russell gripe about BYU. I had “liberal” law professors who were very kind and generous to me — Larry Tribe and Elizabeth Warren stand out in my mind — and were also excellent teachers. Warren even tried to recruit me to do some free-lance policy analysis for Senator Kennedy’s staff. I was flattered, but I also declined. On the other hand, I don’t see that this means that my role should be that of constant apologist. As I said, I think that there are problems of idealogical bias in the law schools, but I am no where near as apoclyptic about them as many conservatives and I think that the best responses to them are precisely the virtues that the academy tries to extol — civil, open, reasoned discussion. I even think that there is some value to tenure (largely for the sorts of reasons that you set forth), and I am not arguing for its abolition. I am simply saying that it is an institution that is not without its problems, problems which academics rarely seem to acknowledge in discussions with outsiders.

    Jim: “Are there non-productive, tenured scholars? Of course, but there are also non-productive partnered lawyers, and non-porductive bank VPS, and on and on.” True enough, but I am really rather suspicious of the analogy. I am extremely skeptical that the pressures put on tenured faculty to perform are anywhere near as strong as the pressures put on partners at law firms. (My conclusion here is based mainly on stories from tenured faculty who have also been partners at law firms.) This doesn’t mean that law firms are superior to universities. Far from it. I would rather be a tenured professor than a partner at a national law firm. However, it is going to take some real persuasion to convince me that tenured professors on average are as productive as partners at big law firms. Productivity is not the end all and be all of existence, but I don’t think that this is the line whereon to place one’s defense of tenure. I have personally had experience with tenured dolts who were unproductive. I can think of two striking examples, one at BYU and one at HLS, but I would rather not name names. Admittedly, I have only my andecdotal evidence here, which is easily dismissed (probably rightly so).

  45. Jeremiah J. on February 10, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    “The real problem with Jeremiah J.’s stance that the public aren’t really in a position to judge the the professoriate is that the public is nonetheless being asked to foot the bill. There’s something unseemly about the demand that one be cossetted with public funds while spending one’s times informing the public what fools, blowhards, bigots, and sheep they be. Unless one is confident that the academic enterprise is in the nature of things much more likely to produce truth and a vision of the good than the life that the public leads is,”

    I basically agree with Nate’s position in almost all of its particulars, so I don’t need to add much, but I can’t see anyone responding to the above quote.

    Adam, the public is asked (by, indeed, itself) to pay for many, many things in which they have little expertise. Of course as responsible citizens they still must think about how much they are going to pay for these various expert-governed things–NASA, science funding, public education, military protection, etc. The experts themselves of course cannot relieve citzens of this duty. The public sphere also must debate what it means by education and what kind of education it wants to pay for. But this discussion is still different from what constitutes a good political scientist, philosopher, or law professor. the public has little or no knowledge about this. And yet when we talk about bias then we are talking about good political scientists or good law professors being denied jobs, tenure etc. because of ideology: being treated unfairly. Or are we? If you want to begin to claim, like some seem to have, that the postmodernists, critical legal theorists, Marxists, Nietzscheans, whatever are morally corrupt and therefore bad for the moral education of young people (however good their *scholarship* is by academic standards), then we should make that claim explicitly rather than focusing on this issue of bias against qualified candidates. Then the issue becomes good versus bad bias rather than bias per se.

    In this vein, the idea that academics spend their time “informing the public what fools, blowhards, bigots, and sheep they be” is silly and you know it. Is this the way your professors acted at BYU and Notre Dame? But maybe the problem isn’t elitism at all. As you know from reading conservative thought, making academia more ‘ideologically balanced’ would hardly reduce the elitism anyway. And while I don’t care for arrogance or snobbery, I often agree with those who ‘keep telling the world that its ways are bad’ (immoral, irrational, unfeeling). In fact there are plenty of those who say these things on T&S. So is this populist rant really the heart of your criticism, or is it merely the most politically convenient way of undermining the academic left (and incidentally, the academic establishment as a whole)?

    Matt: In my experience, Jim F.’s observation, that you rarely know the politics of applicants and even many colleagues is very true. And I am in a *political science* department! The last class I taught, about 2/3 of the way through the semester, I talked about American ideologies. I could tell you where at least 3/4 of the students were ideologically. But they were all completely stumped about me. In my experience, a political scientist is someone who can talk to you about politics for days without announcing her most unexamined political views. This is why I think that the current attack on academia, by people who have been to college and should know better, says little that is true about how most of us actually behave toward students, relate to colleagues, or conduct our scholarship.

  46. Nate Oman on February 10, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    Jeremiah: How are you so certain that you are an ideological cipher to your students?

    Let me give you an example of a very real and concrete problem. A sizable portion of law professors in the United States are convinced that Clarence Thomas is an idiot. I think that this is a fundamentally unfair and unjustified position. I think that it is transparently obvious that it has to do with political ideology and the perpetuation within the academy of ideas basically drawn from the op-ed pages and propounded by idiot-pundits who don’t know what they are talking about. The scholarlly treatment of Thomas is an intellectual disgrace. There are exceptions to this. My civ pro professor regularlly dismissed Thomas as a know-nothing and a light weight. My con law professor (Larry Tribe) did not, although it was obvious that he violently disagreed with Thomas. Tribe, however, was capable of offering a fair and recognizable precis of Thomas’s arguments and then offering reasons as to why he believed that they were mistaken. As I said, my civ pro professor did not have this capability, and I can think of half a dozen big names in academic constitutional law who have a similar incapacity. I think that one of the reasons that conservatives over-state the issue of left-wing bias in the academy (and I do think that their is a bias and I do think that it is overstated) is that whenever the issue is raised they perceive the dominant response to be that there is no issue.

  47. Jeremiah J. on February 10, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    Nate: The 3/4 number would only be about 1/2 if I only count those who eventually told me who they voted for, their party affiliation, the disgust they feel thinking about the idea of progressive taxation, how much they despise Bush, etc. The rest I suppose I was less than absolutely sure about. That 50% is still more than zero–the number who had any indication about my views (which I admit, may be more complex, convoluted and changing). The point is that in my role as a teacher of political science or political philosophy I spend a vastly smaller amount of time telling people whom to vote for, which party to belong to, etc. than most people do when they talk about politics. This does not entail that there is no problem with ideological bias in any part of academia, but it does stand in stark contrast to the image that Adam conjures up, of the academic spending his time “informing the public what fools, blowhards, bigots, and sheep they be” and in contrast to the image of the professor indoctrinating undergrads (which image serves as the justification for making academic bias a *political* issue rather than merely a scholarly one).

    As for your example of Thomas, though I don’t know the Thomas scholarship, I think you point to something which is real. So I agree with you that there is bias of the kind you point out. In political philosophy one parallel is students of Leo Strauss who have worked on Plato. Some of this Straussian work is quite good, and it has broken tangible ground in Plato scholarship, and yet there are still many Plato scholars who are totally dismissive of the Straussian stuff, they’ll never cite it. It probably has something to do with ideology. But the reason I point to this example is that there almost always seems to be something besides ideology. Look at Brian Leiter. He is very dismissive of conservative academics (except I guess Posner who was a guest on his blog), but his irrational ire for political philosopers working in political science departments seems to know no bounds. He’s a disciplinary bigot. Likewise I think the fact that Straussians are disproportionately political scientists rather than classicists or philosophers adds at least as much to the prejudice against them as their ideology does. Similarly, If I were writing my disseration (on Hegel’s political philosophy) 50 years ago, it would be given little respect by Anglo-American philosophers influenced by Popper and Russell who hated Hegel for very poor reasons. The bias would have little to do with ideology in the sense we seem to be using the term. This, along with the fact that much of the content of ideological bias or prejudice also happens to be the subject of explicit scholarly investigation, I don’t see how one can single out ideological bias as something which we need to correct from the outside or can correct from the outside.

    I can sympathize with people frustrated with blanket denials of any bias, but I fear that academia may be going down a road similar to that of journalism over the past three decades, driven by (not wholly undeserved) charges of left-wing bias. That road is the road of declining respect and public trust. At the end of it are more, not less academic crackpots. If had to judge it on its face, I’d be inclined to guess that the crusade by Horowitz, et al. aims to destroy public trust in academia rather than correct ideological bias.

  48. Matt Evans on February 10, 2005 at 9:42 pm


    To every hiring committee, I propose adding four members: one representative selected by each of the alumni, the trustees, the legislature, and the governor. Those representatives would have expertise in the required field and would offset the biases of university faculty, which we have no reason to privilege over other constituencies. I would also give professors multi-year contracts, rather than tenure. To compete with universities who offer tenure, we would have to pay more per year, but we’d get better candidates because only the best would accept performance-based pay.


    I’d bet you’d be surprised by the number of students able to peg their professors’ political persuasion. Many students would know that the overwhelming majority of social science professors lean left — if they guess Democrat they’ll be right more than 80% of the time — so the trick is just picking out the handful of professors who buck the trend. There are also lots of indirect cues about party affiliation beyond their expressions about Clarence Thomas or Leo Strauss. I’d guess that polisci majors could read T&S, confine themselves to topics that don’t mention politics, yet pick frequent commenters’ binary presidential vote 75% of the time.

    Horowitz’s stated objective is to correct ideological bias, but I think you’re right about the ancillary effect, though I would frame it differently: he’s educating consumers of expert opinion. (And like all consumer advocates, he frequently aggrevates the salesmen.) One of the greatest effects of the Churchill affair will be the exposure of his academic frauds that have been widely circulated due to this fiasco, further reminding people to not believe everything they read.

    DKL, you made excellent points in Comment 35. Hopefully some of the defenders of the robust academic freedom model will respond to it. It seems defenders of academic freedom overestimate the number of Socrates and Gallileos, and underestimate the number of village idiots.

  49. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    Nate, if I hadn’t been trying to deal with a newborn who’s still on the sleep-all-day, party-all-night schedule, I probably would have phrased some things differently. I don’t mean to imply that there are no serious problems with American higher education worth discussing. I actually feel like I could sermonize for hours about its problems. What you or I identify as problems may differ. Some of this is situational; you probably saw different problems at HLS than I saw at the U of I or that I see at the C of C–so I’m hesitant about blanket diagnoses of all that ails academia that are based on the small segment composed of leading research universities. (Self-serving rhetoric about liberal education and academic freedom gets quickly re-evaluated under the weight of a 4-4 teaching load, I’d guess.) I’m all for removing warts, but I think it’s important to be able to reliably distinguish warts from freckles first.

    I could probably even find common ground in some areas with Matt (and Adam as well, if I understood what he meant), which would be more productive than just telling him that he’s wrong in three different ways (four, actually; sorry, I was tired and forgot about one). Note to self: build on common beliefs.

  50. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2005 at 11:25 pm

    Matt, that wouldn’t have been my first choice for common ground. But since the newborn is calling, I’ll leave it to someone else, or to tomorrow, to disagree on practical or theoretical grounds.

  51. Jeremiah J. on February 10, 2005 at 11:30 pm

    Matt: Perhaps my example was bad. I wasn’t trying to claim any exceptional impartiality or perceptiveness on my part, nor to claim that these qualities are universal in academia. I admit many professors are probably easy to read. My point was to try to illustrate my claim that professors don’t advertise their allegiances as much as your average person might be expected to and certainly not as much as we might imagine from reading “Campus Watch”. This, I think, is because some of them try to avoid this consciously, but also because they have many other things to talk about.

    Some professors whom I respect very much have no problem announcing their allegiances, party affilations, feelings about current elected officials, etc. Their sense is that their views about President Bush, Bill Clinton, affirmative action, the war in Iraq, the proper interpretation of the constituion, or social security privatization are not qualitatively different from their views on the less exciting, less ‘hot-button’ political issues they study in their scholarship (indeed they may actually study these things as part of their scholarship, at least in a political science department). But in my experience students filter what these professors say very heavily–they may remember something for the test but not believe it, and chalk it up to a professor’s liberal bias (I know this because I’ve read the evaluations). This is why I try very hard not to teach this way. But again the point is not that my way is better but that the other way is also unlikely to constitute indoctrinization because students notice the bias and filter it out (even if they often throw out the good with the bad). Research has shown that this process of filtering occurs in media consumption, and my sense is that the same thing happens in academia. The university is just one source of political socialization (one which, I think, is frankly no less legitimate than the public school, family, and church) among many, and one which reaches people only after they’ve reached adulthood. There are very few people who go to college as conservatives or apathetic and leave as raging radicals.

    Of course there is the different issue which you have raised about bias against conservative academics and conservative scholarship, which I think is real but as I’ve argued above is hard to check from the outside.

  52. Jim F. on February 11, 2005 at 1:12 am

    Nate: Productivity is not the end all and be all of existence, but I don’t think that this is the line whereon to place one’s defense of tenure. I have personally had experience with tenured dolts who were unproductive.

    My point about lawyers and bank VPs was the same that you make in the last sentence: the process by which people become partners in law firms or bank VPs don’t guarantee that you won’t get dolts in those positions. Neither does tenure guarantee that you don’t get dolts as professors. I am quite sure there is no system that can prevent dolts from holding positions we wish they didn’t have, so pointing to the dolts in a profession tells you very little about whether the process by which people get to the positions they hold in the profession is flawed. That is my objection to much of this discussion. It assumes that by pointing out that some tenured professors are idiots, the tenure system has been refuted.

    I don’t know what it means to say that lawyers are more productive than professors. I don’t know how you would compare the two, given the vast differences between what it means for a lawyer to be productive and a professor to be so. That would be difficult to decide for a professor of law, and even more difficult to decide for others. Former practitioners who are now professors tell us that the pressures to produce are less in law schools than in the firms they worked for. OK, but so what? The pressure in a law firm is of a different kind–the pressure to keep the money coming in, among other things–so to say that the pressure in law school is less is perhaps only to say that it is not as nerve-wracking a kind of pressure. In other words, I don’t think you can easily compare productivity or pressure or other such things between two such very different kinds of work. The comnparison’s buy you next to nothing.

    It probably will not suprise you, but in spite of your disagreement, I continue to think that productivity is the place to defend tenure: tenure/continuing status gives a professor some breathing room–a reduction in pressure, if you will–in which he or she can then produce what he or she thinks is most worth producing rather than what the system demands as evidence of ability. That may not mean a large number of publications, or it may. Perhaps it means one stellar book, or a couple of very important articles. Perhaps it means a larger number of small contributions to a field. Productivity in this case is supposed to be measured more by quality and importance to the field than by quantity. (Of course law schools and business schools tend to equate the two. Two bad for them.)

    Tenure also gives a teacher some protection in teaching, though I think this is of secondary importance. Without wanting to defend the excesses of some professors in any way, I think it is important to recognize that they are a minority, that their students are not undiscerning buckets into which propaganda can be dumped, and that freedom to teach their subjects in the way that seems best to them is essential to good teaching. If they are ideologues, few students will not notice. But if they have to be concerned that a member of the legislature, with a demagogic agenda for re-election, will restrict them from teaching what they think best, then they cannot do so.

    Finally, there are numerous proposals for tenure reform afloat, and almost all of them involve some kind of regular review. I don’t know the numbers, but I doubt that many professors have serious objections to such reviews. The ones I’ve encountered, either at BYU or at professional meetings, seem mostly to be those who are always upset about something and, so, those who are most easily ignored by the rest of us.

    With regard to academic freedom rather than tenure: A 20th c. Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper, said that academic freedom is not the freedom to teach whatever one pleases, but the freedom to be useless, the freedom not to be a tool of the state or of some other entity (Was Heißt Philosophieren? 28). I like that definition.

  53. Nate Oman on February 11, 2005 at 7:59 am

    Jim: The difficulty of comparing the productivity of lawyers and professors is a fair point. Other than comparing sheer number of hours worked, it is going to be difficult. (I would be shocked if the professors win on this measure; although I have known some workaholic professors. That particular pathology, however, seems to be endemic among lawyers.) I agree with you that tenure is valuable in that it frees up scholars to do research that they would be unable to do given pre-tenure pressures. Indeed, I think that this is one of the primary reasons that more apoclyptic conservatives like Adam or Matt ought to support tenure. Generally speaking, the most interesting work done by conservative scholars has been done after they got tenure. I suppose that one might compare the comparative value of weeding out dolts and encouraging post-promotion productivity between law partnerships and universities by trying to figure out if their were a higher percentage of dolts among the senior levels of academia or private law practice. Both systems are fairly brutal (or at least they are in our time; I have my doubts about a generation or two ago, when I sense that things were less competitive) about weeding out underperformers. Getting a job at the AALS strikes me as more difficult than getting a job on K Street, so it isn’t as though I am claiming that academia does not create pressures to perform. I suppose that I am mainly making judgements based on bad experiences. My bad experiences with tenured professors have generally revolved around sinecured dolts who don’t seem to have done anything but grade student papers and dust off old lecture notes for the last couple of decades. My bad experiences with law partners have all revolved around hyper-productive and fiendishly motivated bosses.

  54. Matt Evans on February 11, 2005 at 8:48 am

    Jim, partners in a law firm typically receive performance-based pay. The profits-per-partner averaged around $600,000 at my law firm, but the range went from under $200k to over $2.5 million. I don’t know how professor salaries work, and don’t know if there are performance-based bonuses or not. But my guess is that the professor’s value to the university is not as closely to their pay and benefits, as are law firms and partners. Parr Waddoups, a Salt Lake law firm, used a more egalitarian pay structure and got the results you’d expect: they have a very hard time keeping rainmakers.

    That’s good news to hear about periodic review. Hopefully universities will base pay increases on it, like the new structure adopted by HHS and DoD, where salary will no longer be based on longevity but on performance reviews.

    As for Josef Pieper’s comment, I don’t see how it can be separated from tenure. Because aspiring professors don’t have the freedom to be useless, they don’t have academic freedom. Only tenured professors then, have academic freedom, and that’s been my complaint about academic freedom all along. Because those who have “academic freedom” want to give it only to one person in ten-thousand, it offends my egalitarian and democratic sensibilities. I can’t think of any other “freedom” that we grant to small factions and deny to everyone else.

  55. Matt Evans on February 11, 2005 at 9:00 am

    Nate, do you really think it’s hard for universities to figure out which professors are of the most value? Don’t you believe that you and I, even with our limited information, could do a pretty good job of figuring out the value of professors at HLS?

  56. Matt Evans on February 11, 2005 at 10:19 am

    Another important point that has been overlooked in the debate about Ward Churchill; this was touched upon by DKL in comment 35, but I want to expand upon it.

    Proponents of academic freedom have been arguing as though they’re applying a universal standard called “academic freedom,” when the reality is that academic freedom varies over time and place. BYU and Utah give their professors different latitudes. In the past couple of years, Harvard Law School has required one professor to videotape his courses, and imposed a substitute teacher in a class with some students who’d been offended by another professor. Other schools would have handled those cases differently. The point is that every university has to decide how much latitude to give professors, and that decision itself is part of the marketplace of ideas. BYU, Wisconsin and Harvard have all come to different conclusions about the proper balance of academic freedom and the university’s role to shape its environment. The reason I support Colorado firing Churchill is because I think they are free to balance the interests differently than Wisconsin does. If Wisconsin thinks Churchill is a stellar professor, they should hire him. They should not insist that Colorado toe the same line they have regarding academic freedom. The whole premise of the marketplace of ideas is that we should let ideas compete freely, and Colorado’s conclusion of the proper latitude is itself an idea. Those arguing against Colorado are arguing that there is only one proper way to govern a university and, not coincidentally, it is their way. Free inquiry is beneficial at the student, faculty, and institutional levels.

  57. annegb on February 11, 2005 at 11:22 am


    To you New Yorkers, I am coming to New York! With my beautiful daughter. In April. I am staying with my friend in Long Island and I am planning on attending sacrament meeting at the temple church. We will be the chubby grey-haired confused looking mom and the tall lovely green eyed graceful Jessica Simpson, but sweet type girl, who smell like smoke.

    We are going to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway. And tour. And stare. AAAHHH! I’m scared.

    I think you guys should take me to lunch. What do you say?

  58. Gordon Smith on February 11, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    I am just catching up to the discussion after some time away from the internet. Very nice comments. I am writing to respond to Matt’s proposal in #48. Having recently completed a stint as chair of the hiring committee, I have some thoughts on this.

    Let me begin by saying that at the University of Wisconsin Law School, the hiring committee is the most important committee in terms of influence on the direction of the school. The tradition here is to depend on the hiring committee to make the hiring decisions. The recommendations of the committee are almost always adopted by the faculty as a whole. I didn’t realize all of this until I was done being chair.

    Anyway, the important point for purposes of this discussion is that the composition of the hiring committee was very important to the future of the school. In our case, two students have votes. Combined with eight faculty, that is a substantial student voice, and I think they probably made the difference in some instances about who we interviewed initially, and who we called back for further interviews. I have mixed feelings about student participation. Their votes were cast primarily based on candidate personality, the assumption being that nice candidates would be nice professors. I am not sure whether the correlation is particularly strong.

    The students had almost nothing to say about scholarship. When combined with professors on the committee who didn’t care much about scholarship — or were more interested in community service or teaching — there was a substantial division on the committee between those who were heavily valuing scholarship and those who were valuing other things.

    Now, we can have a robust debate about the importance or lack thereof of scholarship, but I think that it is very likely that adding “one representative selected by each of the alumni, the trustees, the legislature, and the governor” would further shift the focus away from scholarship and towards other aspects of a candidate’s profile. In my view, this would be a horrible development. Simply stated, most students and outsiders undervalue scholarship for its own sake and underestimate its influence on a professor’s teaching and service. Indeed, I think many unproductive (in the scholarship realm) professors do not appreciate its importance.

    I recently had an email exchange with Hugh Hewitt on this very point. He says that he doesn’t publish law review articles because they are not worth the time and effort. In his view, blogging is much more important. My response was that blogging and scholarship are simply different, and that he should not claim that one is a substitute for the other.

  59. Wilfried on February 11, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    I’ve been following this thread with much interest, and have constantly been comparing with the overall European situation of academic freedom, tenure, hiring committees… Much is similar, though of course we also have a wide variety of situations at European universities. The European Bologna-agreement, among other things, is trying to harmonize the universities across Europe in terms of degrees and programs, using (without admitting it openly) the typical U.S. university as model. We move to B.A., M.A etc. degrees. As to academic freedom, I believe it is “higher” than in the US, and hardly ever questioned. Tenure is a holy principle, making professors virtually untouchable. Even at Catholic universities, the freedom of professors to speak out on controversial issues is well-known. I remember the case of a controversial Catholic professor at Louvain, who simply converted to Anglicanism when faced with a “case of intolerable statements for a Catholic”, and became even more untouchable… (also because in Belgium professors are paid by the State, not by the university as such). On the other hand, we have seen a gradual taking over of university direction by administrators, who tend to stall nominations, gear vacancies to (untenured) part-time personnel etc. It starts to undermine the principle of tenure and therefore of academic freedom.

  60. Adam Greenwood on February 11, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    A minority of my teachers had indeterminate ideological positions. It either was a result of a distortion in their teaching–they avoided taking a position on anything–or because they were bitter cynics who criticized anything and everyone. Maybe its the schools I went to, though, but a majority of the professors who had ideologies were fair and unintrusive.

  61. Jim F. on February 12, 2005 at 1:31 am

    Matt, professors also are payed based on performance. The procedure for doing so and the mix of relevant considerations differ from place to place, but BYU isn’t out in left or right field on this one: each year the chair reviews each faculty members performance in three areas, teaching, scholarship, and citizenship (i.e., committee work, etc.) and then determines the raise that he or she should get based on that evaluation, supposedly with each counting equally. However, if one counts more than the others, it is usually scholarship because it is, by far, the easiest to decide. Well, it isn’t, perhaps, as easy to decide as citizenship, but it is almost universally deemed to be more important than citizenship; it is the most important of the three.

    And, of course, professors don’t make the kinds of salaries that partners make, not even those of the partners at the bottom of the rung. There are a few professors who have become stars and can use that and large universities’ desires to have stars to negotiate exhorbitant salaries with special benefits and packages, but there aren’t enough of them to make a significant difference in the either the mean or the mode of professorial salaries.

    With Gordon, I think that most students and, unfortunately, many administrators undervalue the importance of scholarship and the role that it plays in making good teachers. Without it, a seemingly good teacher is little more than a good actor delivering a set of lines he learned long ago.

  62. Matt Evans on February 12, 2005 at 1:32 am


    If, to simplify your argument for sake of clarity, faculty are more likely to place a high value on scholarship, whereas students, alumni, trustees, and the legislature and governor place a higher value on teaching, is there any reason the faculty should set the course for the university, against the wishes of everyone else? To whom, in other words, does the University of Wisconsin belong?

  63. Jonathan Green on February 12, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Matt, I don’t think you’re reading Gordon correctly. It’s not that faculty don’t value teaching as highly as research, but rather that others tend not to understand the importance of research for good teaching.

    Also, note that the missions of many colleges–to my understanding set by trustees and legislatures, not the faculty–do not include research as a primary objective. If the U of Wisconsin values research and measures productivity by evaluating publications, it is because research has been made an institutional objective by the politicians and political appointees who determine its mission. Individual professors might value research for other reasons, including personal predisposition and the recognition that ongoing research is required for effective teaching.

    I agree that students have a valid interest in hiring. Even if they aren’t well qualified to evaluate job candidates’ research, I think it’s a good idea to let students have some input. Search committees I’ve seen often include one grad student, and candidates are asked to do teaching demonstrations in front of real students, with the students’ reactions informing the hiring decision. That being said, I don’t think most students are terrific judges of effective teaching–look me up on; no one has given me any hot peppers yet. How unfair is that?

    My last point is to question your statement that departmental faculty don’t have any greater stake in hiring than anyone else. I don’t think this is true. If an academic department hires a complete bozo–and it does happen–the faculty are placing their professional lives at risk in very real ways. Enrollments can decline, funding can evaporate, their institutional initiatives can hit a dead end. What consequences would a governor face? None. The legislature? Also none. Alumni? I’m not coming up with anything significant on this one. The trustees? Maybe they’ll look a little foolish, at worst, which is why trustees hire deans to approve the composition of departmental hiring committees. The students? At worst, they’ll have to take an unpleasant and unproductive course or two. The faculty, on the other hand, are not only better situated to evaluate teaching and research, but they have a lot more riding on the outcome.

  64. Jim F. on February 12, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    Jonathan Green: I just went to for the first time. We are in the same club, no chili peppers! I doubt, however, that anyone is going to think of me in terms of “hot,” with the exception, I hope, of my wife.


Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.