The End of Tenure

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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50 Responses

  1. Freddie says:

    Opposition to academic freedom by s0 called libertarians, because they perceive the people who will be empowered to say controversial things by that freedom to be leftists, tells you all you need to know about contemporary American libertarianism– just like libertarian Megan McArdle’s notorious advocacy for taking 2x4s to the heads of antiwar protesters during the run up to the Iraq invasion. Anti-leftism comes first, always. Always.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to Freddie says:

      Always is a rather strong word, Freddie. One needs only provide one example to disprove it. It may also be worth noting that the specific professor McArdle was talking about in this case was John Yoo.

      For what it’s worth, though, I actually agree that academic freedom, at least in the setting of the public university, is worth preserving – free speech is a damned precious thing. In the private university setting, I’ve got no real opinion one way or the other.

      Whether tenure is the best way of protecting academic freedom, I’m not sure, since it provides protections that extend beyond academic freedom and to competence issues. But it’s the system we’ve got, and I don’t have a better alternative.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure I do either. I tend to think that, maybe, giving more due cause protections for adjuncts, so they can’t just get let go at a moment’s notice would help. But changes in academic systems don’t exactly have the best track record for improving things.

        In general, though, I worry more about the sort of adjunct horror stories I read on Inside Higher Ed dot com than raging tenured profs. A personal favorite was the adjunct hired to teach “Human Sexuality” and then fired because a handful of religious-minded students felt the course was too graphic.

        Although, actually, I was threatened with termination as a TA because- and I’m not making this up- some student complained that I “cared too much” about the course. So, I’m perhaps less open-minded than I could be about the calls for ever-greater “accountability” in academia. Mostly because I know what that usually amounts to.Report

        • Madrocketscientist in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Keep tenure, but put into place a more responsive tool for getting rid of profs who have either “checked out”* or who have decided that a students grade is dependent on how well said student agrees with the profs politics (or any other arbitrary determiner)**.

          *My wife had a prof who would miss classes, had no clear coursework or grading guidelines, would leave his insulin needles laying about his office and classroom, and generally had stopped caring about his teaching, or research duties. It took the University 5 years to force him to retire, and he’d been going off the rails a lot longer than that.

          **I had one prof who would remove points from position papers if you took a position that the prof didn’t like, even if you argued it well. I didn’t care enough about the class to try and buck her prejudices, but a few classmates made it a habit of getting others to grade their work. Such behavior should earn you more than a verbal warning from your Chair, especially when it happens year after year.
          I had another prof who would bring his dog to class and let the dog run all over desks and students. Now I love dogs, but we all started to complain when we began to feel that our grades would rise or fall with how well we would treat the dog.Report

  2. Will says:

    Great post, Rufus. At the risk of sounding incredibly banal, I want professors who are immune to political or administrative pressure but aren’t insulated from performance-related concerns. I’m just not sure how to get there in practice.Report

  3. Dan H. says:

    I think it’s important to remember that tenure is merely a tool for securing academic freedom and not academic freedom itself. The question is, with the current labor situation in academia, if tenure is still the best method for doing so. Does it inadvertently create a permanent academic underclass with noticeably less economic and academic freedom than the minority it protects?Report

  4. adolphus says:

    Nice post.

    The one ingredient you miss is the effect of constant adjuncting is on the adjunct’s ability to do research. Now, research and teaching aren’t the same thing and many schools over value research at the expense of quality teaching. But even if a teacher is not producing original research, he/she needs to keep up on the developments in the field and being an adjunct prevents that in myriad ways from preventing the adjunct from having the time to read journals and books, keeping them from access to libraries and online databases that come from being a full time employee, keeping adjuncts from research funds and travel money to attend conferences, etc.

    High school teachers tend to have more time and support to keep up on a field than adjuncts.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to adolphus says:

      That’s a good point and it definitely connects to the “indentured servant” argument others have made since so many universities make tenure dependent on having lots of research and publications. If you’re not on that “track” right out of grad school, it’s exceedingly hard to ever get on it.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    I don’t tend to have a problem with tenure for Grad Schools… I can totally understand the need for “academic freedom” and think that the excesses of tenure in Grad School probably are outweighed by the potential excesses of administrators in Grad School.

    I’m not sure how I feel about tenure for undergrads profs. I’ve got no dog in the fight, really.

    When it comes to high schools (or heaven forbid, junior high or elementary school (!)), I’m very much of the opinion that making it so difficult to fire a bad teacher has done far more systemic damage (and, yes, damage to THE CHILDREN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) than any theoretical loss of “academic freedom” might have.Report

    • Nob Akimoto in reply to Jaybird says:

      I don’t think there’s quite that clear cut distinction between graduate and undergraduate professors that you seem to think there is. (Except in cases of exclusively graduate programs such as professional masters schools like policy schools or law schools)

      But there is a good point there that teaching positions that don’t require substantial publication/research side-bars like high school probably don’t need tenure.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        You touched on some of the distinctions I’m making… but, like, do community colleges require tenure? There are a number of colleges that don’t have a Master’s program and more that don’t offer Doctorates. (Again, I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight… the discussion is merely academic for me.)

        Hell, let’s look at Regis or University of Phoenix. Does tenure enhance those schools?

        (Of course, private schools can do whatever they want, schools that directly receive public funding are in a different category, yadda yadda yadda.)

        I don’t see “Academic Freedom” as a fundamental part of the vast majority of the stuff that people go to Regis or University of Pheonix for. If, for example, they started saying “we don’t have tenure, instead we pay our professors better than anybody else and this makes sure that you’re getting the best Network Architecture degree available without the ‘Underwater Basketweaving’ requirements of those hippie dippy 5-6 years of smoking pot schools!”, I am pretty sure that I’d see that as a selling point for corporations… if you were hiring a guy to shore up your networking team, would you take the kid out of U of (wherever) with a network degree or the kid out of Regis with one?

        I know which *I* would pick.

        Does the answer to that question indicate something about the future of education, at all?Report

        • Trizzlor in reply to Jaybird says:

          I think part of the problem is that academia really can’t compete in terms of salary. Someone who comes out of grad school in the sciences can expect ( from the Ivys) a post doc at 50k versus an industry job at double that. Given that a tenure track lifestyle is a massive dedication, Tenure and academic freedom is one of the few carrots the university still has.Report

  6. If tenure is designed to protect academic freedom, then it is a failure. Humanities and Social Sciences are completely dominated by left wing ideologues. “Diversity” is not wanted if it is intellectual diversity. The pre-tenure period is a time to root out moderates and conservatives. What good is academic freedom if it only applies to one narrow belief system?Report

    • Dan H. in reply to Stephen Erickson says:

      “The pre-tenure period is a time to root out moderates and conservatives. What good is academic freedom if it only applies to one narrow belief system?”

      Is there any evidence at all to back up this claim?Report

  7. trumwill says:

    I think that tenure in the form of protecting professors from unpopular ideas is a great thing. However, I don’t think that’s applicable across the board to all subjects and from what I saw in college tenure was used to protect professors on other bases.

    I’d also add that opposition to tenure (or advocating more limits therein) does not inherently mean that cost-cutting is the motivation. Whatever limits I would place on tenure, part of the package I would like to see is subtenure profs getting better pay and environs. One of the problems I do see witb tenure is that it creates a much brighter line between the haves and have-nots wherein one class is to be treated with nigh-complete deferrence and the other as something more akin to indentured servants. Creating such a high bar of job security for the haves disincentivizes making any more haves than absolutely needed. But you’re the academic and I am not, so I share my thoughts with humility.Report

  8. M.Z. says:

    To address the money side of the argument, I’m not sure I’m aware of a field where the employees feel they are paid adequately. Teachers of various stripes state they are underpaid, and all of the sudden we are supposed to start quaking. High-level teaching wasn’t intended to be career track. The norm historically was for doctors to go in and out of private industry. A terminal degree was never intended to qualify you for nothing other than being a teacher. This is why the standard of teacher pay was and still largely is approximately 70% of anticipated private sector earnings. And while a bad teacher can do a lot of damage, it hasn’t consequently followed that a great teacher provides significantly more benefit than an average teacher. For whatever reason, people seem to think marginality in every area follows a standard deviation curve. It doesn’t.

    As to tenure, I’m not convinced that it makes all that much difference either way. Even in cases where you can’t fire someone, there are ways to induce them to leave. Additionally, people who do jobs badly tend not to enjoy them and often leave on their own. Secondly, I would imagine the universities’ costs would increase with tenure gone, because they would be chasing the latest and greatest fad. This would cause churn and reduce institutional knowledge. Tenure tends to dampen that desire.Report

  9. Kyle says:

    Good post Rufus, there’s a lot here that’s interesting and convincing. To me, I think there’s something to be said for longevity in an academic community. That people who’ve been around for decades contribute something inestimable to the community. As with any choice, particularly any length of commitment there are opportunity costs to that decision.

    I think to a fair degree tenure is a recognition of years of commitment to an institution, a community, and honors that by committing the institution and community to someone who’s valued their membership/citizenship.

    Perhaps tenure at the collegiate should just be made less automatic, more open to discretion. To be honest, I really don’t care that tenure protects teachers with a bias. If your grades are affected by bias, and I think this happens, then it’s more appropriate to address that through ombudsmen or the like. Instead, if you’re a college student and you’re upset because your professor has a liberal and/or conservative bent, I think you have a bizarrely mistaken impression of what college is. It’s not an institutionalized encyclopedia but a community focused on academic inquiry.

    Personally, my favorite and most productive classes were seminars with professors who held obvious and very different political beliefs than my own.Report

  10. Admittedly this is way from the outside looking in, but it seems to me the best thing would be to neither grant nor deny tenure but to consider it automatic after so long on the job. If there is just cause for not wanting someone to have that job security that comes with tenure, then just fire them outright. So long as just cause can be presented, along clearly predefined lines, that should take care of the problem.Report

  11. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    One thing I noticed was that tenured professors were often feuding, while adjuncts busy working and trying to get along well. Is it worth all that extra money, just so you can have more discord?
    Regarding the liberal bias and the lack of intellectual diversity: it’s interesting that the greatest concentration of liberals is, supposedly, among college profs. But the labor structure in academia is the furthest thing from liberalism. It’s more like feudalism.Report

    • Kyle in reply to Johnny St. Cyr says:

      Hah, whenever I hear horror stories about the working environment of Hollywood, I’m tempted to make comparisons to the dark ages.

      Not that it’s easier to be a single mother in Mississippi than West Hollywood, but still I just think it’s ironic and not at all amusing that some of the proponents of workers rights use labor systems straight up from pre-progressive heyday.Report

    • Yeah, and that’s probably why the adjuncts don’t disagree openly with the profs- you’re not supposed to look those of a higher caste directly in the eyes!Report

  12. James Hanley says:

    teaching positions that don’t require substantial publication/research side-bars like high school probably don’t need tenure.

    This is an excellent post by Rufus. I disagree with the comment I’ve quoted, however. For full disclosure, I’m a tenured faculty member at a private undergrad college. Tenure is, I am persuaded, beneficial (on net–I’m not denying the downsides). The fact is that I am a better teacher now than I was when I started a decade ago. I don’t have to worry about pleasing students with grades they haven’t earned, I have more experience with what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, and I simply know more because I have continued to learn. The students who get to take my courses now are getting a better deal than the students who took my courses 8 years ago.

    But I cost the college more, and my body–if not my skills–are eminently replaceable. A college president concerned with the long term strength of the college, and with the education its students receive, would value me. (I flatter myself perhaps too much–let’s just say they would value someone who is as I say I am.) But the average service time of a college president these days is about 7 years, and their focus is on the short-term, rather than the long-term. If budgets can be balanced now by eliminating a costly faculty member, that’s in the president’s best interests, even though it’s not in the students’ interest or in the college’s overall interests. To be known as a college full of part-timers and adjuncts is to drive away the better students. It’s to permanently diminish the quality of the institution. But the real effects of that won’t be felt until well after the president is gone. Also, a short-term president with an ego problem can do long term damage by firing quality people who dare to dissent. (I’ve seen this happen–it’s more than a hypothetical.)

    If the interests of college presidents could be made to line up with the long-term interests of the institution, tenure would be less important. But in the current world of academia, presidents tend to be around for too short a time to worry about long-range concerns, and too many are egotists without real classroom experience, in it primarily for their own glory.

    So forget about the interests of the faculty, even, and consider the interests of the students, and the long-range institutional interests. I think tenure is crucial to those.Report

    • Rufus in reply to James Hanley says:

      “The fact is that I am a better teacher now than I was when I started a decade ago. I don’t have to worry about pleasing students with grades they haven’t earned, I have more experience with what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, and I simply know more because I have continued to learn.”

      This is why I tend to suspect that most admins care very little about the level of teaching. I remember a recent NY Times op-ed about how, in the world after tenure, it will be great because busy professionals can teach a course in their spare time, and I thought- really? We’re telling ourselves now that teaching will work well as a hobby?

      I actually don’t have to worry about flattering myself on this one- I’m not a great teacher, yet. I absolutely love doing it, but I have a lot to learn. However, after Mall University’s “extensive” four-day training program, I was teaching recitation sections. After four years of that, I’m certainly better, but I’m not going to flatter myself into thinking that grads and post-docs give the same level of instruction as a seasoned professor that the university has supported in developing their teaching abilities over a number of years. And that depends on getting a position at a university that cares deeply about the level of undergraduate teaching, which many do not. Nevertheless, next Spring, I’m offering a course at Mall University on Napoleon (as a hobby while I work on my dissertation)- God help us all!

      As for “pleasing students with grades they haven’t earned”, you’ve touched on the major difference I’ve seen when working with tenured professors as opposed to adjuncts- to be blunt, the tenured profs don’t have to inflate the grades. The adjuncts, and even the tenure-track people get those emails at the beginning of the semester. “Our experts have shown that the average grade distribution for a group of students in this age group will be %20 As, 30% Bs… etc. So this is what we expect the grades will look like for a well-functioning class in this subject. Just keep it in mind!” In other words, we’re not saying outright to inflate your grades, we’re just telling you what we expect your grades will look like before you actually grade anyone. What do you do when you’re an adjunct, whose future employment depends on making the university happy and, especially, making the students happy, and you have a gen ed class that decides not to do the work because they think the subject is sort of stupid?

      Well, in my experience, what you do is take the grades the TAs gave them and make 81 and over an A, 65 and over a B… et cetera. Amazingly enough, in the course evaluations, 17 year olds don’t tend to complain that they thought it was easy to get an A. Nevertheless, I think they start to feel like they’re wasting time when they realize that, even if they barely try they can make a B. But, when the university’s definition of “success” is that the students are happy and they get out in four years… it becomes clear why grade inflation is the unspoken norm at a university like mine.

      So, I think aspect of improving the quality of teaching is investing more time and energy in young instructors to develop their skills; and the other part would be to restructure employment in the humanities to place a much greater emphasis on teaching and remove the perverse incentives that force young teachers to work nearly full-time on trying to secure publications, and, conversely, to see a dedication to teaching as much they possibly can as a sort of “career suicide” instead of worthwhile experience.Report

  13. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    It’s interesting that these kinds of discussions often don’t include (or at least downplay) the ethical side of how adjuncts are getting treated. Why not say “vast improvement is needed in the level of compensation paid to adjuncts, because it is the right thing to do.” How can students have a right to high quality education if hard working teachers don’t have a right to a decent life?Report

    • Rufus in reply to Johnny St. Cyr says:

      This is a good point. I’ve been focusing on what the use of sessional instructors says about how much the university values the level of teaching. But it does say something about how they value the education of their instructors. I don’t know if I’d say that a PhD gives one a “right” to a decent life…

      But, certainly, part of the story that universities tell their students is, “an academic education vastly improves the quality of your life because, after all, society values educated people”. So, the way universities treat the highly educated “at will hires” who work for them does tend to send the message, “oh, well, except these educated people!”Report

  14. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    But now that I’ve said that I must add that Rufus’s post is a vast improvement over the usual discussions.
    Thank you for this piece.Report

  15. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    James Hanley:
    If a college can make a commitment to a teacher for his entire career, could a college require a commitment from a president for that length of time?Report

  16. James Hanley says:

    If a college can make a commitment to a teacher for his entire career, could a college require a commitment from a president for that length of time?

    I don’t think that would be a good idea. One of the reasons college presidents’ tend to serve for such short periods of time is that things begin to stagnate. The ideas they came in with have either been put in place or been shot down, and for many it seems to require a change of position– a new set of challenges–to give them their spark of creativity back, and keep them from being mere caretakers. That’s not true of all, of course, but of many. So we have a difficult situation where you probably don’t want to keep them around too long, but encouraging them to move along too soon creates its own bad incentives.Report

  17. James Hanley says:

    MadRocketScientist wrote:

    I had one prof who would remove points from position papers if you took a position that the prof didn’t like, even if you argued it well

    This is one of those troublesome gray areas. I’ve known profs like this. I knew of a soc prof at one of my former schools who was very left wing. When there were anti-Nike protests at the school, she gave extra credit for attending them (didn’t have to actually participate, as far as I understand, but at least observe). Later there was a pro-Nike protest, and one student asked me (although I wasn’t in the class) if I thought he could get credit for attending it. I said he should ask her, and if she didn’t say yes, he should file a complaint. He wasn’t a complete wallflower, but he backed out on even asking her because he was afraid she’d go off on him. Just the fact that you have created such a reputation that a student thinks you will abuse students with the “wrong” political attitudes is a problem, even if she would have given credit for that (and I don’t know that she wouldn’t have).

    On the other hand, as a political science prof, I occasionally hear that a student thinks I’m biased because I’ve harshly critiqued a paper they wrote, when I was actually critiquing the quality of their analysis, rather than their stance on the issue. For example, telling them bluntly that we can’t use the Bible to interpret the Constitution in the American legal system, which may be taken as an attack on conservativism. Or the student who thought I was just being a left-winger when I pointed out that demonstrating John Kerry’s flip-floppiness by conjoining two quotes separated by more than 30 years was inappropriate.

    So when I hear a student complaining of bias (and this is not directed at MadRocketScientist, he just stimulated the thought) I take it with a grain of salt because many have not yet learned the distinction between advocacy and analysis. And of course that’s a part of our job as college profs, to teach them that, so that’s not meant to condemn them (although our jobs would be easier if they came in already knowing all these things!). But I only take it with a grain of salt, rather than simply reject it, because there’s no doubt some of those profs exist. In my own case, I sometimes have to stop students from talking about them in my class, because if I say anything at all it could be taken as me criticizing a colleague in front of students, which would be unprofessional. But students do talk, and in my inner monologue I often agree.

    For my own part, as much as I’d like to preach libertarianism in the classroom, I’m pleased when students argue about whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican.Report

    • MadRocketScientist in reply to James Hanley says:

      I occasionally hear that a student thinks I’m biased because I’ve harshly critiqued a paper they wrote, when I was actually critiquing the quality of their analysis, rather than their stance on the issue.

      That is a problem, especially with the entitlement mentality a lot of students have (I used to run the student computer labs for a University, and what students thought their tuition allowed them to get away with was unreal), which is why most schools have some way to have a paper/project/exam re-graded by someone else if there is a question of bias grading (at least, I think most do).

      With regard to students using bad sources, the best courses I ever took as an undergrad were Logic & Critical Thinking, and Philosophy of Science, as both extensively covered what is and is not an authoritative source (something my wife, the Libraian, jumps on people all the time for). Such classes need to be required, just like Comp I.Report

      • That’s the other issue- after four years of getting easy As in high school, a lot of students believe- as they’ve told me- that A is the default grade, and so anything less either means they really did something really wrong, or you don’t like them. I’ve heard countless times that “TAs hate students”, when honestly, I don’t have any feelings one way or the other about them.

        So, I agree that having outside readers within the department go over the challenged grade is appropriate, and also that it’s extremely unprofessional to grade down for matters of political opinion.

        I do wonder, though, if it’s the best idea to keep telling bright young conservatives who are coming to college to expect that the system will be secretly geared against them. I’ve certainly seen quite a few freshmen that come in expecting me to have a problem with their conservative politics, when I’m not actually a liberal. Moreover, as I tell the classes, I don’t care what their opinions are, really- I just want them to learn how to make strong arguments for those opinions. That’s what I look for in grading.

        I guess the other thing I worry about (as a chronic worrier), is that, given how “we all know” that academics are liberals who hate conservatives, at some point, wouldn’t it just be easier for profs to start hedging their bets by giving higher grades to students who express conservative opinions and avoid the inevitable complaints?Report

        • MadRocketScientist in reply to Rufus says:

          That is a valid concern. I think fighting the attitude that Universities are Liberal strongholds is the task of University Admins, who should make an effort to cultivate the open, tolerant environment. I mean, yes, coming down on profs (left or right) who grade by politics is good, but that is a minor thing in reality. Universities could start by enacting policies that make groups like FIRE unnecessary. The more open the campus is to the exchange of ideas, the less students will feel that the campus has a political agenda beyond education.

          My Alma Mater is certainly a hotbed of political activity, but it rarely comes under the view of FIRE, and that is a point of pride for me. There are a lot of times views I found very offensive were aired in the open on campus, but such views were always met with opposing views, not lawsuits, rules, or regulations prohibiting them.Report

    • MadRocketScientist in reply to James Hanley says:

      Still, if you have a prof that makes a habit of getting their grades reviewed and found wanting, their tenure should be threatened or revoked.Report

  18. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    It’s possible that grade inflation by adjuncts could be curtailed by initiating a “due process” for firing. This could mean for example that a department chair or dean would have to create a written memo as to why he/she believes that this teacher should not be re-hired. The document could be reviewed by a team and the adjunct should have a chance to respond, and the response evaluated. The accreditation board should look at these reports, and the chair/dean should know that the accreditation people have access to them.
    In other words, there are ways of implementing measures of academic freedom, other than tenure. However,in order for this to happen, administrations would first have to decide they don’t want grade inflation.Report

  19. Schwartz says:

    ***Stephen Erickson { 03.12.10 at 10:12 am } If tenure is designed to protect academic freedom, then it is a failure. Humanities and Social Sciences are completely dominated by left wing ideologues. “Diversity” is not wanted if it is intellectual diversity. The pre-tenure period is a time to root out moderates and conservatives. What good is academic freedom if it only applies to one narrow belief system?***

    Right, but it would be arguably worse without tenure. Nonetheless, Linda Gottfredson explains how even with tenure academic freedom can be threatened:

    “What is academic freedom, what guarantees it, and what would you do if your university violated yours?

    Few of us academics entertain these questions or ponder possible answers. This leaves us individually
    and collectively vulnerable to encroachments on our right to free and open inquiry. I use a case study
    from 1989–1994 to illustrate how violations of academic freedom develop, the typical pretexts used to
    justify them, and what is required to halt and reverse them. My aim is to help scholars recognize when
    academic freedom is at risk and how better to safeguard it in daily academic life. To this end, I describe
    the general social mechanisms that operate both inside and outside academe to selectively burden and
    suppress unpopular research. The case study provides concrete examples to illustrate six specific lessons.

    Like free speech in general, academic freedom (1) has maintenance costs, (2) is not self-enforcing, (3) is
    invoked today to stifle unwelcome speech, (4) is often violated by academic institutions, (5) is not often
    defended by academics themselves, and (6) yet, requires no heroic efforts for collective enjoyment if
    scholars consistently contribute small acts of support to prevent incursions.”

    Gottfredson, L. S. (in press). Lessons in academic freedom as lived experience. Personality and Individual Differences.

    • James Hanley in reply to Schwartz says:

      Good points here. I would also add that the left-wing slant is not only–and probably not primarily–caused by violations of the academic freedom of non-liberals, but by selection bias. Most of the people who are attracted to these disciplines are liberal, so from the beginning we have a biased pool. Conservatives may (emphasis on may, I have no solid data) be more likely to drop out of grad school , not due to inability but to frustration with the prevailing liberal culture. Active discrimination isn’t necessary to make someone feel fed up with the tone of debate. Conservatives may also be more willing to consider shifting to business careers, being less anti-corporate as a general rule.

      For the most part, the conservatives and libertarians I’ve known who’ve gone into academia have not faced overt discrimination. Of course that doesn’t mean they haven’t felt like they need to watch their step and keep their mouths shut. I did have one incident where a colleague publicly mocked my libertarian views, but I got the Dean to force him to make a formal apology, and everyone already knew he was an ass anyway.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think to some extent that if conservatives are being hounded out of academia due to a prevailing liberal culture, the this is a problem that should be addressed. Maybe I’m less easily offended than most, but I can’t imagine someone dropping out of grad school just because of the liberal sentiment braught up at coffee hour.

        I will say that in the sciences, most academics I know are liberal largely because Democrats routinely pledge support for federal funding to the NSF, NIH, etc. Moreover, it’s not like the Republican party has made a lot of efforts to court academics; rather, it’s done just the opposite. Frankly I find it a bit insulting that the GOP routinely profits from class warfare against “the intellectual elite” and then complains about their lack of support.

        The example I like to use is that of the financial sector, where conservative ideology prevails because Republican policies favor that economic class and Republican talking points are generally friendlier. Still, as a liberal, this doesn’t preclude me at all from taking a job in that field.

        And yes, I do think most people still identify their ideology based on their preferred party.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to trizzlor says:


          It’s more than just coffee hour. Imagine being in an environment where almost everyone has a fundamentally different world-view than you. Every conversation becomes a drain. Even talking about sports may not be safe, because someone in the group is sure to explain–pedantically–how evil they are. It’s like an atheist going to a fundamentalist church not just on Sundays but having bible study with them every day of the week. It’s draining.

          But it’s worst in grad school, where all the students are still desperately true believers and very passionate about all issues. If the conservative/libertarian can make it through that, it gets easier, because most former grad students chill out quite a bit after a few years as a prof–their naked enthusiasm doesn’t fly so well among older colleagues (who observe the passions of grad students with a jaded, but mostly benevolently amused, eye). For example, I know someone who her first year out of grad school in an assistant prof position, prefaced almost every comment with, “As a feminist, I…” even when the following claim was something eminently supportable by non-feminists. By her second year, that verbal tic had completely disappeared.Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to James Hanley says:

            I must have been very lucky in grad school then. I’ve been told history is more conservative than the other humanities, but I can’t think of anyone among our grad students who I’d describe as rigidly left-wing or right-wing. We do like to argue though. It might also be a generational thing- I think a lot of us, at least of the grad students I know, look at our more passionate elders and their culture wars with a jaundiced eye. Goodbye to all of that.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

              Dude! I *KNEW* her!

              Do not pull the “as a feminist, I’m running to Starbucks, does anybody want anything?” because she will *NOT* find that funny.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

              Actually, maybe what I’m saying there is that, in our department, we have a good number of grad students who observe the passions of their elder professors with a jaded, but mostly benevolently amused, eye. What it means, I don’t know.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Rufus F. says:

                “Do not pull the “as a feminist, I’m running to Starbucks, does anybody want anything?” because she will *NOT* find that funny.”

                Ha! No, she definitely would not.

                For the record, I’m in political science, so I probably knew a larger than average number of grad students who entered their field because they cared about particular political/social/moral issues. I doubt you’d find as much of that in, say, Chemistry.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to James Hanley says:

                I think with history we might get more people who are at least somewhat conservative because being a historian sort of means being a cultural conservative in the literal sense. The other thing is that historiography is political, but in a very detached way, and after a while, I think you just learn to look askance at political struggles. I know that, after a decade of schooling, I would personally make a really bad Republican or Democrat. Part of that is studying very similar struggles from the 1700s and figuring out where the positions fell apart.Report

  20. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    Would conservatives want to change the complexion of social sciences graduate programs merely by populating the area, or by seeking to persuade liberals they they (conservatives) have the better ideas?
    Or, if you drop out of graduate school out of frustration with the liberal climate, there must be some college where people like you are gathering.Report

    • To be honest, I’ve been in my department for about six years and I’ve only seen one grad student drop out, and that was after a week because she had kids and didn’t think she had the time for it. Most departments really want to get in grad students and get them through with degrees- it looks good for them and we’re cash cows. So, I’d be really skeptical that there are these waves of conservatives who got forced out of grad school.

      It seems to me that self-selection probably plays a big part in all of this. I don’t know, but I’d imagine that the English lit department sees a lower number of young republicans applying for grad school than, say, Business management. Our department is not particularly selective, but I’d say only about 10% of our grad students are particularly conservative, and so far, they’ve all survived just fine. My views on culture, faith, and education are certainly at odds with the “progressive” party line and it’s been no problem for me. What really matters, as with most jobs, is personality. For instance, there’s one professor in our department who nobody wants to work with, and I’m sure she’d tell you it’s because she’s a feminist; it’s really because she’s an asshole.

      Nevertheless, it’s a problem. Too many people with similar views creates a consensus effect that is intellectually stultifying. I think the answer will be to encourage more conservatives to go into the humanities in particular and stop giving them these overblown horror stories about professors screaming “Say you love Mao!” at quivering conservative students until they cry. Nobody does that, except for me, and only after I’ve had a few glasses of Jack Daniel’s.Report

  21. James Hanley says:


    There are a few such colleges. Most, however, are religious, which isn’t necessarily satisfactory to someone just because they’re a conservative or libertarian. I think those “drop outs” are more likely to join the private sector. I have a grad school friend who quit and got into the logistics industry, and one who did finish but went into private industry research rather than go into academia. A sufficient number of “stickers” would indeed change the complexion, but there’s not necessarily much personal reward for that, compared to going a different career path.Report

  22. Johnny St. Cyr says:

    Regarding: “This is a good point. I’ve been focusing on what the use of sessional instructors says about how much the university values the level of teaching. But it does say something about how they value the education of their instructors. I don’t know if I’d say that a PhD gives one a “right” to a decent life…”
    Yes thank you. Actually I expressed myself somewhat poorly; I don’t believe in “God -given rights.” But I believe in the “square deal” so that while it is acceptable under capitalism to exploit a buyer’s market (i.e., employing teachers whom you intend to brand as “adjuncts” at low wages) I find fault with people who are doing this, whether they see themselves as liberals, conservatives, or anything else.

    Regarding: ‘But, certainly, part of the story that universities tell their students is, “an academic education vastly improves the quality of your life because, after all, society values educated people”. So, the way universities treat the highly educated “at will hires” who work for them does tend to send the message, “oh, well, except these educated people!”’
    Also true. I would add, since adjuncts probably outnumber full time faculty, colleges may now say to the public “society, excepting colleges, values well educated people.”Report