Scott Walker is well known for his bulldog-like attacks on constituencies not devoted to Republicans. So he has attacked public and private unions. And his most recent budget would slash “$250 million from the University of Wisconsin, one of the country’s great public institutions of higher education, and [would ensure] that most K-12 school districts will get less funding than they did last year.” See Washington Post. Most important for my purposes Mr. Walker sought to remove tenure protection for professors at the University of Wisconsin. As the Post reports, this move would seriously harm the school’s ability to attract and retain talented faculty.
Of course, this has attracted criticism, but coming to his rescue in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal (where else) come John O. McGinnis and Max Schanzenbach (see Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required)) to defend the proposal as a wonderful cost savings device (those Republicans they just can’t get enough savings unless they are running up deficits fighting wars). They argue that dispensing with the older professors and hiring the younger will save costs and increase productivity. I resist the notion that saving costs is desirable when the ability to attract talented faculty is compromised. Moreover, the focus on “productivity” strikes me as narrow minded. That focus encourages faculty to publish a high quantity of articles many of them repetitious in character. Cicero, however, was on the right track when he remarked that we should weigh evidence, not count it. If the claim is that the work of younger faculty is of higher quality than more experienced faculty, I would expect an evidentiary showing. Instead, McGinnis and Schanzenbach rely on casual uninformed ageism to support their assertion. No evidence is brought to bear. Of course, memory declines as faculty get older, but a study of the faculty at Berkeley shows that older faculty preserve their higher order abilities to plan, organize, and problem solve. See Berkeley study.
McGinnis and Schanzenbach claim that firing the older professors will permit the universities to reallocate resources to needed areas like computer science. Once again, they offer no evidence to support the view that universities have been unable to hire computer scientists. This argument appears to be a make weight.
After wasting almost three columns of words, McGinnis and Schanzenbach come to the real issue. University tenure was provided to guarantee academic freedom. It has been a fixture of university education for more than a century. But McGinnis and Schanzenbach praise Walker for making the recent discovery that the need to protect academic freedom through tenure is without merit. Really? They claim that strong Supreme Court precedents protect professors from political discrimination. Actually, the status of constitutional protection for academic freedom has been cast in doubt by the Supreme Court at least since the case of Garcetti v. Cebellos (2006), and the cases prior to Garcetti were not nearly as strong as McGinnis and Schanzenbach suggest. Moreover, whatever protections the Constitution might provide apply only to state universities. But McGinnis and Schanzenbach contend that “Even with tenure systems in place, faculties at private universities can engage in viewpoint discrimination at the hiring and promotion stages with impunity. Given the monolithic political composition of many fields and departments, viewpoint discrimination is already a substantial danger.”
The latter contention implicitly concedes that the tenure system by guaranteeing academic freedom protects professors from termination at private schools. The claim that private universities engage with impunity by discriminating at the hiring stage or at the promotion stage (it is not clear that academic freedom is inapplicable at the promotion stage) is undefended. But it is part of a prevailing conservative deeply seated belief system. The overriding belief is that the academy discriminates against conservatives. I do not doubt the existence of such discrimination in some quarters, but the concern is overinclusive and undeinclusive. It is overinclusive because it borders on paranoia to suppose that discrimination against conservatives pervades the multitude of disciplines on campus. It is underinclusive in that it accents one form of political discrimination to the exclusion of others, and it emphasizes political discrimination to the exclusion of other forms of discrimination.
Equally important, the concern with discrimination against conservatives apparently blinds McGinnis and Schanzenbach to the reality that the protections of tenure are not exclusively or even primarily political. Tenure affords established scholars the freedom to challenge disciplinary customs, habits, and traditions. It gives them the freedom to transgress disciplinary boundaries and engage in interdisciplinary work. It gives them the time to pursue long term projects without worrying that a committee or department chair is using a whip to demand “productivity.”
In fairness, McGinnis and Schanzenbach do not want to dispense with protections for professors altogether. They propose long term contracts. But their proposal is fuzzy: “We are not sure what the optimal contract length is, and the correct period may well vary according to field.” They also suggest that “Contracts should spell out dismissal standards for academic and sexual misconduct, and they can also require minimum teaching and productivity standards. Contracts could require periodic review wherein performance would be investigated and such standards enforced.” Before signing on, I would like to know what those productivity standards might be and I would also like to know what protections faculty members might have before these performance reviews imperil the very academic freedom McGinnis and Schanzenbach maintain would not be compromised. In short, I am unwilling to accept the authors’ unsupported assurance that the need to protect tenure through academic freedom is without merit.
Come to think of it, if Walker thinks with McGinnis and Schanzenbach that academics are for the most part worn out by presumably age 65, I am left to wonder what he thinks about aging judges on the Supreme Court (McGinnis, for one, favors judicial term limits). Specifically, what does Walker think of Justices Scalia (79), Kennedy (79), Thomas (67), and Alito (65)? I am guessing that many of their long term contracts would already have expired (long ago in the case of Scalia and Kennedy). I would also guess the ‘performance reviews’ of Justices Ginsburg (83) and Breyer (78) would not go so well in his hands or the hands of other conservatives, but I doubt those reviews would be free of point-of-view-discrimination. And what is one to make of the fact that Justices are being appointed in their on-the-way-to-wearing-out 50’s rather than their more productive and energetic 30’s?
McGinnis and Schanzenbach maintain that Scott Walker is doing the educational establishment a favor by fighting for the elimination of tenure. I wonder if they think he was doing unions a favor when he attacked them. It seems to me that when a candidate for President attacks a vital part of university education; it would be better to admit he has declared war instead of suggesting that we do not know Santa Claus when we see him.