Transcript, “Does Tenure Really Encourage Free Speech? Megan McArdle Tackles Issues in Higher Ed”

– and everyone at the university all talking to each other because each of those people is to a different set of conventional wisdom is going to say that can’t be right I’m going to go figure out why it isn’t.

[Music playing]


I’m Megan McArdle.  I’m a blogger and columnist for Bloomberg View and a longtime fan of FIRE.  The idea of tenure basically is that you give someone this permanent job so that they will have the freedom to speak and promote dangerous ideas and it is an appealing idea.  The problem is that the way it is now implemented your department knows that they’re giving you a job where you can say anything.  So what do they do now the whole process of getting a PhD and then getting a tenure track job, and then getting tenure, well, you barely get tenure before you’re 35 or 40.  You’ve spent 10 years basically on audition.  So, you can never say anything risky during that time.  The problem is that young people are the most likely to say something disruptive and interesting.  They’ve spent 15 years basically auditioning for this job and not saying anything that will make their tenure committee angry.

So in theory once they get tenure they could get to the point where they say aha now the feathers are gone I’m gonna say what I’ve been really thinking.  But that itself is kind of a sad thing is hide what you believe for 15 to 20 years and then we’ll let you speak.  But also it doesn’t really happen.  I mean you talk to professors and they say I’m hard put to come up with someone who suddenly got more daring once they got tenure especially because after that you want to go from associate professor to full professor, and there are all of these roadblocks.  So an institution that was meant to encourage free speech I think it has actually ended up suppressing it because it is now so hard to get a tenure track job that people are extremely cautious and extremely worried about overturning apple carts.

You know, I talk to a lot of kids now who are coming out of school with fantastic levels of debt having paid for tuition that increasingly seems to just being funneled to these bigger and bigger administrative apparatuses.  You look at a school in the 50s and they had some deans and they had some secretaries, but they didn’t have these 97 offices of student life people and so forth, and you know, why are they paying for it?  Well, one of the reasons that they’re paying for it is this kind of chilling atmosphere of anything can get you sued, anything is cause for disciplinary hearing.  Of course you need 97 people who are going to run your program where you can say look if you get sued because someone says that there was a racially hostile atmosphere at your college, naturally you’re going to want to be able to prove that you have put all the students and faculty through diversity programs because that is what you’re going to say in the lawsuit when you get named.

Once you hire the administrators of course they want more people in their department because they’re doing incredibly important work, so they spend a lot of time lobbying to have more administrators.  This happens at every organization.  But at colleges what you see is that most corporations, and even in the government, it is restrained by the amount of money you can collect.  A college degree is so valuable now, and with this giant premium kids are willing to borrow any amount of money in order to get that credential, and the government helps them by being willing to loan them any amount of money to get that credential.  So what you’ve got is this cluster of problems that has resulted in huge administrations and huge tuition bills to pay for them.

[Music playing]


A friend of mine asked me a while back, what do you do when a bad fact enters the data stream?  If someone has reported that X said Y to someone on January 20th, 2008, usually people don’t go back and just re-report that.  They take that out of The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and they say it happened and they cite the Wall Street Journal.  Well, if the first guy got it wrong maybe inadvertently, how do you correct that?  We don’t have a great way to correct all of that.  But what we do have is actually ideological journalism.  What we have is people who get this visceral that can’t be right, and they go and they are going to find out why it is not right.  That passion is disruptive and uncomfortable in a lot of ways, but it is actually what helps uncover a lot of bad facts, and that is why you need intellectual diversity.

That is why you need conservatives and anarchists and Marxists and everyone at the university all talking to each other because each of those people is to a different set of convention wisdom is going to say that cannot be right and I’m going to figure out why it isn’t.

[Music playing]

It bleeds in the culture all over.  It certainly bleeds in the media where people come out feeling like the fact that they feel angry or offended means that it should never have been said.  Of course I get the people who write into me and say how dare you say this.  Do you understand how hurtful this was to me?  And some of them are really funny.  Do you understand how hurtful it was to me to say that the minimum wage should not be raised?  It is like well I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings, but I cannot really plan around that.  You seem to have very delicate feelings – next week why croissants are bad.  But you see kids coming out increasingly feeling as if they’re supposed to be in this sheltered little world where no one ever says anything offensive.  They should learn to make decisions, but they should also learn to kind of get in the scrum because the fact is the world is full of a lot of people who are going to make you angry all the time.

I get angry a minimum of four times a day just walking around the city and riding the subway.  So it seems like you should get the training early to kind of endure that rather than attempt to have a confrontation over it.

[Music playing]

It is great to me that there is an organization that is out there and it is fighting for minority rights on campus and understanding that protecting those rights really means that all of us are better off in the long-run in part because we are getting more ideas out, and we are getting more speech.  Of course, I’m a journalist and also I like to talk, so I always think more speech is better.  But also because it matters that you do not have these kind of undemocratic mechanisms by which voices on campus can suppress other voices, because colleges are training to be not just an adult but a citizen – a citizen of a democracy in which these are the core values for our society.  The best way to be in training for that is to practice them, and making sure that these values are still practiced in campus is tremendously important.  I’ve been following FIRE for a long time ever since their founding, and every year I continue to be impressed by the work they are doing.

[End of Audio]


Duration:  8 Minutes