Friday, May 29, 2009

The Hypocrisy of Tenure

Dan Clawson has an article in Science about academic tenure and the future of the university. Clawson notes that:

The fundamental rationale for the tenure system has been to promote the long-term development of new ideas and to challenge students' thinking. Proponents argued more than 60 years ago that tenure is needed to provide faculty the freedom to pursue long-term risky research agendas and to challenge conventional wisdom. Those arguments are still being made today and are still valid.

While tenure may occasionally support such lofty goals as protecting intellectual freedom and the right to challenge conventional wisdom, in fact it routinely serves as one of several powerful mechanisms used to enforce conformity. The undergraduate, graduate, post graduate and untenured academic experiences all serve as purefying filters that narrow, rather than broaden, intellectual curiosity. The tenure process, the granting of research funds, publication peer review and social pressure all serve as further enforcers of right thought.

At the point of tenure application, candidates are usually fully conforming. The right answers and right thought have long since been abundantly clear and candidates who think otherwise would have been filtered out at earlier stages. The selection process is protracted and thorough. Far from promoting diversity and intellectualism, the tenure system often works against such virtues.

But too often academia has nothing but high praise for itself and denial of its own political correctness. This became painfully obvious in Iowa State University's shameful denial of tenure to astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez--an affair that exposed a profound thread of anti intellectualism that now runs through academia.