Academia's Broken, so Why Defend Academic Freedom?
Here we go again. Debates about academic freedom and political bias at colleges are as hot and outrageous as ever. Consider five recent farragoes.
First in Oregon, there is the case of a professor, Nancy Shurtz, being disciplined harshly for wearing blackface at a party, to which students were invited.
Second, in Ohio, assistant professor Joy Karega was dismissed after a long controversy about her inflammatory statements about white males and influential Jewish people on social media.
Third, in New York City, associate professor Matthew Lasner was mobbed after he and his homosexual partner heckled Ivanka Trump on an airplane. Bloggers figured out who his employer was, Hunter College, and lobbied the president there to fire him.
Fourth, in Pennsylvania, George Ciccariello-Maher tweeted, "all I want for Christmas is White Genocide." He is an associate professor at Drexel University. Public complaints have prompted the administration to arrange a meeting with him (usually the prelude to a formal reprimand).
Fifth, in the nation's capital, C. Christine Fair, a professor in peace studies at Georgetown, is coming under fire and finds herself in a complex investigation because she hurled profanity and vileness at a Muslim woman who voted for Trump on Twitter and Facebook.
As these five controversies converged in a perfect storm of "academic freedom" controversies, part of me still felt loyal to academia. I had written a long letter (which I still stand by) in defense of Anthony Esolen at Providence College, so I was feeling a little nostalgic for the old view of college as a place to learn about ideas and be exposed to many perspectives. I signed a petition defending one of these professors' academic freedom.
The response to my comment on the petition was more of what has always made me abhor the left. Try to build bridges to them, and they punish you for it. The history of my disastrous attempt to engage Prof. Potter on the Chronicle of Higher Education is symptomatic of the left's longstanding history of taking kind gestures from conservatives as a sign that such conservatives are weak. Rather than say, "Wow, what a great chance to speak across party lines," lefties usually perceive an invitation to shame you publicly, using anything you say against you.
On the recent petition's discussion threads, the gist was, "how dare you as a conservative defend a liberal's academic freedom – as if you have some common cause here? You don't deserve freedom. You are a bigot!"
One year ago, I would have called myself a staunch believer in academic freedom – a free speech purist. I was a tenured professor in California and appreciated the help extended to me by FIRE and other advocacy groups.
Now things look very different to me. A recent podcast helped me sort through things. It was with Brittany Klein, my friend who lost work as an adjunct. Academic freedom, I have come to believe, is not a virtue in its own right. The false view of it as an absolute good is an outgrowth of the United States' corrupted tenure system. Tenure gives no protection to adjunct faculty who teach most classes, then handpicks a small number of people to tenure, who are usually chosen because they hold views favorable to their reviewers.
Higher education is not a swamp to be drained. It is a diabolical machine, and it is time to pull the plug. Rather than fight over individual cases of tenure-track professors facing blowback over things they say, we should move decisively after Trump's inauguration to starve academia. If Trump is looking to save a trillion dollars to pay for infrastructure, he should find this money by radically transforming America and shutting down higher education as we know it.
Liberal arts training is accomplishing nothing. Colleges have become a political racket whereby Democrats fork endless cash to tuition extortionists, and lousy scholars impart insane ideas to debt-strapped students who are made dysfunctional citizens in the process.
Let's stop arguing over whether this or that offensive professor deserves to keep his or her job. Cut off the money to colleges, let higher education grapple with massive layoffs, force the public to see the value of associate's degrees, and end the cycle of inflationary tuition and ruinous debt. Arguments about academic freedom function as a luxurious distraction from intractable problems.
How did I have such a radical change of heart?
My journey through academia, going back to the 1990s, was crazy. I supported socially conservative views. When people on my campus retaliated, I took my situation to the press, which made more enemies on campus and escalated a cycle of my attacks and the university's counterattacks.
For two decades, I had set tenure as the keystone around which I expected my whole life to be built. As a result, I accepted, unchallenged, the academy's standard beliefs that tenure is necessary to protect free speech for professors, and that free speech is a good thing.
I hate to use the term "epiphany," but I had one that took me by surprise in the spring of 2016. Everything I had written, I stood by – but I realized that it was not sensible for me to cling to tenure. It did not even make sense for me to remain at that job.
I was guilty of the age-old sin of pride, placing faith in a human tradition rather than in God. For eight years I'd expressed myself and been a force for good in a handful of students' lives. But unfortunately, I was letting fear of change keep me in a bitter life situation. On this existential matter, Jesus did not remain silent. He told his disciples, "Aren't two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without His consent[.] ... So do not be afraid therefore; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29-31).
Staying in a bad job is not only self-harming, but also disrespectful to God, who promises His believers that their needs will be met with faith. The decadent liberal institution – the university tenure system – was unfortunately paying my salary. This doomed situation was not only poisoning me, but also hampering the people I loved most.
My two young children and my stay-at-home wife were being housed, fed, and supported by money coming ultimately from California State University, an institution I'd described as degenerate in hundreds of columns.
Is one accomplishing anything by railing endlessly against the very source of one's livelihood? There are many secular leftists who romanticize this intellectual contradiction as heroic, like Columbia students in 1968 taking over campus buildings to protest the inequity of a system that was bound to give them unequal privileges. But the longest chapter of my book Jephthah's Daughters Is about the insanity of elite academics feigning solidarity with Occupy Wall Street in 2011. My own scholarship begged me to rectify the clash between my ideals and my workplace.
As a conservative Baptist, I see that the Book of Proverbs is hard to dismiss. Solomon states, "Ill-gotten gains do not profit anyone" (Proverbs 10:2), "Wealth obtained by fraud will dwindle" (Proverbs 13:11), "There is profit in all hard work but endless talk leads only to poverty" (Proverbs 14:23), and "The one who profits dishonestly troubles his household" (Proverbs 15:27).
I could not run to the right-wing press begging for support forever. It was time to leave, even if it meant I was letting mean people drive me out. So I left. I moved my family from California to a red state and started a new life. I do not have tenure, and I live with the understanding that I will have to be diplomatic or jeopardize my livelihood. The end result is that I chose a job I believe in, and I trust in God's promise. I have to behave myself and look both ways before crossing the street. I am a better Christian for it.
Lasner, Ciccariello-Maher, Fair, Shurtz, and Karega deserve our prayers. While I do not see my views as comparable to theirs in offensiveness, they are in situations not entirely dissimilar to where I was. They hold strong views that conflict irreconcilably with the nature of a system based on university tenure. In all likelihood, the greatest thing for them might be to let go and enjoy the freedom and stress everyone else in America endures. The vast majority of humanity does not have tenure. And that is a good thing.