Trump Should Push for Abolition of Tenure

Trump has a huge opening on higher education.  He can build on some of the strong ideas his surrogates have put forth (see this piece in Inside Higher Ed) by taking on an obvious target: tenure.

Conservative purists have already attacked Donald J. Trump for not being a true Republican and for really supporting big government.  He has nothing to gain by neglecting the constitutional powers available to the president, and there is a strong regulatory basis for federal action to phase out university tenure.  One could do this fairly easily by legislating that colleges must not have dual tracks of tenured and non-tenured faculty if they want federal support.

If You're on the Public Dime, You Are Held to a Public Standard

Taxation and the misuse of citizens' compulsory donations to the state were central issues – perhaps the main issue – in the American Revolution.  First on the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence is that King George III "refused to assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."  You cannot take citizens' money from them and then spend it on endeavors that benefit nobody, one individual, or only a selected group of people.  The public good can be abstract – for instance, promoting refinement in art or language – but it cannot be restrictive or exclusionary.

At this point, there is no meaningful distinction between public and private non-profit universities, since both are financially propped up by the federal government via 501(c)(3) tax exemptions, federally backed student loans, and government grants, without which even the mighty Harvard and Stanford would buckle.  All these arrangements fall under the purview of Congress under Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.  First, there's this:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States ...

And more generally on the topic of advancing knowledge and intellectual flourishing, this:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries ...

In Article I, Section 9, federal funds cannot create a government-backed aristocracy, the very thing that the Founding Fathers were seeking to overthrow.  Remember this consideration:

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Trillions of dollars cannot be thrown at little cliques of power-mongering social climbers to create a passive-aggressive ruling class.  It is the constitutional duty of the federal government to prevent such waste and abuse.

The Constitution Protects Citizens from Elitists

Tenure serves no function and turns institutions into clumsy and ineffectual hotbeds of nepotism.  About half of college professors are contingent faculty and not on any tenure track; these people teach a majority of classes.  Research from Northwestern shows that students learn more from non-tenure track faculty than from people on the track.

Where there is tenure, there is a costly brain drain and a host of double standards.  One set of rules exists for the lucky intellectuals who have a shot at a sinecure.  Another set addresses the masses of locally hired "adjuncts," who are treated like goat dung.  Think of the financial and logistical implications.  When a tenure track position opens, universities recruit nationally through a costly process that ends up dragging "probationary" scholars (the hot new ABD at Big Shot U) from cities where they have studied and established themselves to locales where their only social connections are tied to a school that's carefully watching them to see if they pass ideological muster.

Tenure is the pinnacle of inequality.  While universities are often derided as hotbeds of identity politics, they do an awful job at promoting racial equality.  Blacks and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S. population but only 7% of tenured full professors, according to research by Jon Shields.  As someone who doesn't like affirmative action, I do not want to see quotas, but on the other hand, I also know that the underrepresentation is not purely incidental; it is the result of widespread and vicious racism even from academics who pretend, in public, to be the polar opposite of prejudiced.

Tenure-based higher education also cannot claim to have been responsible for countering class inequality.  Much research shows that the strictly tiered nature of colleges widens the gap between rich and poor.  The system allows power and prestige to be hoarded at specific campuses like Harvard's or Yale's.

Meanwhile, students who leave for college are told they have to go somewhere prestigious if they want the best outcome.  They borrow lavishly to cover their living expenses as they spend years in a city removed from their family and in need of housing, food, utilities, and amenities that they cannot pay for because they are busy studying.  Their classes are taught either by stressed out scholars clawing for tenure or overworked adjuncts who have no incentive to teach them anything, or pompous bigwigs who have gotten tenure and have no incentive to behave remotely like civil human beings.  They will blow all their money on spring break anyway.  Besides the student paying rent to live on a campus somewhere pricey when they could just as easily have lived rent-free in Mom's attic back in Springfield, the student's family also has to fork over the tuition necessary for these self-proclaimed Cordova campuses to be the "internationally recognized" centers of learning with the world's best and brightest, which they earmark a fortune for marketers to convince prospective parents they are.  A high tuition tag is endemic and unavoidable with this model.

It is an impecunious and clumsy task to shuffle so many people from place to place so that places like Dartmouth can be oases of wealth and prestige in far-flung haunts surrounded by snickering townies.  There is no reason for it when the vast majority of these students could have just gotten an associate's degree from their local community colleges and walked away with a practical trade, and then, should they feel moved, transfer with their associate's degrees to a liberal arts college for another two years.

We have now learned from a string of polarizing presidents who attended Yale or Harvard that elite schools do not produce people who are particularly effective or knowledgeable at anything.  We know by now that going to Harvard does not make a president any better than the average person at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.  And as for the maudlin claims that education should nourish the soul, there is little evidence that people who take Shakespeare from Harold Bloom as opposed to a thirty-two-year-old literature scholar who lives down the street makes anyone a kinder, gentler, more loving, more understanding, or more productive human being.

So let's stop.  Stop giving public money to universities that engage in tenure.

Tenure Degrades Our Character

Recall Nietzsche's mockery in Genealogy of Morals: "What right have people to make such a fuss about their little failings, like these pious little men do?"  These lines muse about the perennial lesson humans learn: coteries of like-minded snobs turn into truly oppressive forces that threaten freedom.  A century prior to Nietzsche's diagnosis, in the French Revolution, the "Third Estate" of the masses revolted against the First and Second Estates, the nobility and the priesthood, who were seen as jointly and mutually corrupted.

In the days of James Madison and John Jay, the percentage of Americans with advanced degrees, other than those trained for the clergy in seminaries, was so minuscule that it would not have even registered as a major concern.  Unlike the 27.5% of the adult population with a bachelor's degree in 2010, there were so few chummy whippersnappers in the eighteenth century that they weren't even really "a thing," as my students like to say.

In Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), Thomas Jefferson was boldly proposing a revolutionary idea: county school districts in which "every person in it [is] entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it."  Jefferson was convinced that voting citizens in a democracy needed to know "reading, writing, and arithmetic" enough to fill a whopping three years on the government dime.

As for people sent for further schooling, Jefferson states that every year, twenty students in each district should be "raked from the rubbish" based on their outstanding promise and sent for more schooling.  Of those, he saw fit to recommend that ten annually should be sent for three years of schooling at a college like William and Mary.

Later, Thomas Jefferson would go on to found the University of Virginia, today home to 21,238 students, only one of 5,300 institutions of higher learning.  There's a whole lot more "rubbish" to rake, and the raking is shockingly costly and unequal.  Also, one has trouble seeing how anybody has been raked from anything when Jefferson's cherished public college has gained its most recent notoriety for a rape hoax in Rolling Stone and a nightmarish vortex of lawsuits.

The Mother of All Higher Ed Problems Is Tenure

Irrespective of the usual talking points (see AAUP's typical claim that tenure protects academic freedom and fosters better research), there is copious and insurmountable evidence of tenure's economic wastefulness, proneness to political corruption, hostility to academic freedom, and capacity to nurture weak and even absurd research like "the Pilates Pelvis: Racial Implications" and "Hobosexual – resisting capitalism by having not-for-profit sex with homeless people."

In Jephthah's Daughters: Innocent Casualties in the War for Family Equality, my co-writers and I identified the twelve deadliest weapons used by the neo-liberal left against the traditional religious family: fraud, lies, scorn, shamelessness, faithlessness, hypocrisy, pedantry, deflections, demagoguery, McCarthyism, inhumanities, and "the siren song."  The chapters on "pedantry" and "inhumanities" lay out in extensive detail how the tenure system created an elite that thrives on propagating the very economic crisis it claimed to be defending the poor against, and then deflected all attention away from class and race to the esoteric and comparatively harmless issue of sexual orientation.

Universities have gone haywire on so many levels that it is difficult for anyone, Democrat or Republican, to pull together all the crises in one relatable message.  Everyone seems to know that college costs too much, student loan debts are at crisis levels, graduates are not given the life improvements they were promised, and the elitism in the system has passed a threshold of justifiability.

The parties diverge in other areas.  The Democrats are keenly aware that average families like mine (father of two with lots of tuition worries here!) find higher education the scariest part of planning their future; Republicans too often dismiss this with Laura Ingraham's anecdotes about how you have to pick a lot of blueberries to get ahead in life.  The Republicans are keenly aware that political bias and exclusion of non-liberal ideas are undermining scholarship, nurturing a generation of "crybullies," and trampling religious liberty and the First Amendment.  Confronted with evidence of liberal bias, Democrats stick their fingers in their ears and accuse a Christian somewhere of homophobia.

Donald Trump's appeal to working-class voters and the ignominious exit by Bernie Sanders leave Trump with the unique chance to bring together these worries in one relatable and effective message.  Without doing anything about forcing down the actual price tags on tuition, Sanders just promised to make all of college free, which is crazy.  Here Donald can get ahead of the pack by speaking the unspeakable.  To solve all these problems, you have to eliminate tenure, which makes universities more expensive, less efficient, and more biased.

With the possible exception of folks like Scott Walker, Republican leaders have shied away from critiquing tenure because they are often beholden to the college cliques just as much as liberals are, and they do not want to irritate the mentors who launched them.  Having been denounced by conservative professors as the anti-Christ, Donald Trump is free to alienate eggheads on all sides of the political spectrum.

So why not?  I'm begging you, Donald – come out against tenure.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at English Manif, Soundcloud, or Twitter.