Higher Education Watch
Campus Chaos Makes Case Against Tenure

The New York Times has published a remarkable op-ed by NYU humanities professor and vice provost Ulrich Baer making the Orwellian argument that campus administrations and student mobs are justified in forcibly shutting down right-wing speakers because… this allows more viewpoints to be heard! A taste:

The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.

There’s no room here to rehash the case for an open marketplace of ideas and against centralized control of what viewpoints can and can’t be expressed. That case has been made before, and experience tells us it will need to be made in perpetuity if we want to preserve America’s unique free speech tradition.

But Baer’s piece raises another, more narrow issue: Why should academia offer tenure if it is not institutionally committed to protecting a diversity of opinion?

Tenure came into being in the late 19th-century as a way to protect professors from being fired for holding unpopular opinions. And it remains the case that the only principled justification for academic jobs-for-life is to protect the intellectual freedom of the professoriate. But this case for tenure looks a lot weaker if academia as a whole is not willing to defend the idea of free speech.

Logically, a university administration that no longer believes in free speech should proceed to abolish tenure. Professors, like Baer, who do not believe in free speech, have no legitimate argument for tenure—other than they want jobs from which they cannot be fired.

State legislatures could rationally vote to ban tenure at all institutions of higher education who do not commit to free speech principles. Because if a university is not committed to free speech, tenure is simply a civil service protection rather than a statement about how seriously a university takes the importance of the right of its professors to publish and say what they think.

Tenured academics who are arguing against liberal debate on their campuses should think twice. They may be surprised about where those arguments lead.

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