By Vincent Carroll at The Denver Post
If the University of Colorado succeeds in firing a tenured philosophy professor for allegedly retaliating against a graduate student for reporting a sexual assault by a fellow student, it will be only the fourth time a professor has been fired in the university’s history, according to the Daily Camera.
In 138 years, mind you.
Now that’s job security.
Notably, none of the four was targeted for what was said inside or outside the classroom. Although the university’s interest in Ward Churchill, the most recent CU professor to be given the boot, was obviously piqued by the furor over his essay denouncing 9/11 victims, Churchill was ultimately fired for multiple instances of plagiarism and fraud. And such is the tradition of academic freedom that it’s doubtful he could have been removed merely for being a vicious zealot, too.
Is such extraordinary protection of tenured faculty helpful in ensuring unfettered discourse in academia? Almost certainly, yes.
Is it also a shield for a minority of incompetent or self-indulgent professors, some of whom substitute raw advocacy for scholarship? Yes, again.
As we’ll see, though, on balance the tenure tradition still deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least as far as free speech goes, even if it’s hard not to resent the protection provided to idealogues like Churchill or, in a current case, Professor Steven G. Salaita.
Salaita is in the news because the University of Illinois had second thoughts about his incendiary tweets and rescinded a job offer after he left a tenured post at Virginia Tech. And now a prestigious group of professors is protesting.
In those tweets, as RealClearPolitics editor Carl Cannon explains, “Salaita reveals himself to be a foul-mouthed fanatic whose antipathy for Israel is so thorough that he calls for the country’s destruction, fantasizes about the mass murder of Jewish settlers [and] blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism … .”
Ever nasty, Salaita also suggested that a pro-Israel reporter’s story “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.”
Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Professor Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, noted how Salaita’s “mix of deadly seriousness, vehemence, and low comedy in this appeal to students is genuinely unsettling. Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read ‘Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being’?”
And yet the only reason Salaita is unemployed is because he resigned one job before fully securing another. Otherwise he could have continued his public campaign of vituperation in utter safety for the rest of his career.
How many such “unhinged fanatics,” to use Cannon’s term, are there in academia? Cannon believes there are many (citing several others), and so criticizes tenure. But even if there’s at least one of these crackpots at every major university, as there seems to be, they would still be a small minority of faculty. Meanwhile, purging them could open the floodgates to suppressing all sorts of other speech that is actually a legitimate part of public discourse but that some activist group or college official finds offensive.
Almost every week the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is dedicated to the idea that a university should be a marketplace of ideas, reports on a fresh example of what it calls the “crusade to eradicate ‘harmful’ speech from campus and ensure that students are never forced to endure the unspeakable horror of confronting an idea with which they disagree.”
Ever consistent, FIRE is concerned about Salaita’s treatment. And maybe FIRE is right: that as bad as the state of tolerance is on college campuses, without protection for the likes of Salaita it would be worse.