The Enlightenment led to the development of the essential institutions of modern society. Perhaps the most fundamental is constitutional democracy, which is based both on respect for the rule of law and universal suffrage. Government by the people, in turn, is supported by a free press that is truly independent, and which is allowed—indeed expected—to challenge and limit the powers that become concentrated in both government and business. (The very existence of business, of course, is made possible by the government’s establishment of the rule of law.)
The third essential institution of modernity is the university. Rather than relying directly on governments, religious institutions, or for-profit businesses to decide whether and how we will pursue knowledge, modern societies have decided that it is better to create and support places where evidence and logic are prized, where skepticism flourishes, and where challenging authority is supposed to be a way of life.
No society has succeeded in creating all three of these institutions in their ideal form, but if “American exceptionalism” truly has any basis in reality, this country can justly point to its leadership in creating and supporting the key elements of modern life. Certainly, other countries and societies have had great successes as well, and our advances have been built upon earlier advances elsewhere (in particular in Great Britain). Even so, the United States has been justly recognized for creating and maintaining the key institutions of the Enlightenment.
In some ways, this country’s greatest success of all has been its system of colleges and universities. Our combination of public and private universities, supported by federal and state funding, as well as private contributions and tuition, has outpaced the world in creating an atmosphere where knowledge and free inquiry are prized.
For many decades, our greatest worry was ironically that we were being too successful. We worried, for good reason, that we might have been harming other countries by creating a “brain drain,” where the most promising minds elsewhere tried desperately to come to the U.S., because other countries have either failed to support a large enough university system (for example, the U.K., which is still the home of a few great universities) or have never provided enough support to university systems for them to achieve the general level of broad excellence that we take for granted here (for example, Germany and France).
The United States has, in short, long been able to take for granted that our universities lead the world, just as we have been able to point to the historical significance of our (sometimes halting) development of constitutional democracy and (sometimes grudging) support for a free press.
Moving Backward in Time: The Attack on the Enlightenment
Unfortunately, the last few decades have seen a gathering of forces that have pushed with ever-greater intensity against the greatness of our modern society. Just in the last few years alone, we have seen Supreme Court decisions that have unleashed an undemocratic flood of money that increasingly dominates our electoral process. Similarly, the Republican Party seems to come up with new schemes every day to limit voting to a privileged few.
Similarly, the American media—while thankfully not fully controlled by the government, even as it has shown itself all too willing to self-censor and push the government’s lies—has been in decline for years. Observers wring their hands about reports that young people receive their news from comedy shows, which is genuinely a source of concern.
The comic fodder for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” moreover, is the press itself. TV news in particular, but all news sources more generally, has been reduced too often to mere jokes. One news organization is nakedly not a news organization at all, pushing instead a reactionary agenda to undermine modernity. Others are so desperate for readers and viewers that they continue to embarrass themselves, as they are unable to hire and train journalists who develop genuine expertise in the complexities that underlie nearly every story of importance in modern life.
The challenges to the greatness of American universities, however, are in some ways at least as worrisome as the other developments that I have outlined above, and arguably more so. Without a firm commitment to our universities, our long-term prosperity is undermined. But universities are not merely, or even primarily, incubators for ideas that create future profits for private companies. It is not just economic prosperity that is at stake, but social progress more generally.
The last few years, however, have seen increasingly fierce attacks on our universities. Federal and state funding has been cut back severely, leaving universities far too reliant on tuition and appeals to wealthy donors. The result has been an atmosphere in which the various constituencies within universities are being turned against each other, with various groups left to fight over the scraps that remain.
That retrogression has, moreover, hardly been unwelcome on the political right. In the 2012 Presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney argued that young people should simply get used to the new reality that they will have to go deeply into debt to attend college, and that they should not expect the government to forgive their loans. And another Republican candidate called President Obama a “snob” for expressing the idea that we should aspire to see all of our young people attend college.
In short, there are strong forces behind the attacks on our universities and colleges. Even those who supposedly support higher education cannot resist gratuitously attacking it. A toxic brew of anti-intellectualism, political opportunism, and short-sightedness has put American greatness at risk.
Life Inside the Thunderdome: Divide and Conquer in the Universities
One of the most noted comments by a member of the Obama Administration was former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel’s statement five years ago that one should “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Emmanuel was, in fact, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, but no matter.
Early on, the hope coming out of the Great Recession was that we would be able to overcome years of conservative economic dogma and, among other things, start to reinvest in long-neglected national priorities, such as infrastructure and education at all levels. Unfortunately, what we have seen instead is an increasing effort by the opponents of American universities to use the crisis to force changes that will undermine higher education for decades to come, if not permanently.
In some cases, the turn-on-each-other mentality happens organically. For example, there is no reason to believe that the surprisingly persistent groups who specifically attack American law schools are being directed by outside forces. They are, instead, simply misreading the evidence at a time when people are casting about for easy targets to blame for rising student indebtedness, reduced job opportunities, and so on. It is all too easy to blame the professors and deans, rather than looking at the broader situation.
Even so, there are disturbing examples of attempts by university administrators to pursue their long-sought goal to weaken the professoriate by exploiting a divide-and-conquer strategy.
For example, in a post on Dorf on Law two years ago, I criticized an op-ed by a former university administrator who tried to undermine support for tenure by telling tenured professors who are well published that they should not worry about supporting tenure for “lesser” professors who do not publish original research. In essence, he told the people on stage not to feel sorry about the people in the orchestra pit and in the wings, because (he promised) the stars would always be well compensated. Why worry about those little people?
More recently, I was amazed by a report in the student newspaper of my own university, which described a different tack by a university administrator (in this case, the chairperson of our Board of Trustees). He argued to a group of senior, tenured faculty that his investigation had turned up evidence of “bullying” by senior faculty against non-tenured university employees. He added: “We have heard over and over again that research and clinical faculty feel like second-class citizens.”
Note the clever move there. He does not actually say (at least, not in the quoted remarks) that non-tenured faculty feel second-class because of any supposed bullying. And I do have every reason to think that non-tenured faculty often justifiably feel underappreciated and underpaid. That, however, is a decision that the trustees have made, by which they (almost criminally) underpay adjunct professors and others while providing virtually no resources for the non-tenure-track faculty to do their jobs.
If the students can be told (as they have been, over and over again, no matter how false it is) that tuition is high and rising because of tenured professors’ supposedly cushy lives, and the faculty itself can be further divided against itself, no one will have any energy or attention left to look at the administrators who are fomenting discontent.
And it is important, if one wants to turn universities against their historic mission to enhance free inquiry and the advancement of knowledge, to attack and isolate tenured professors in particular. We are, I am more than willing to admit, a mouthy bunch, partly because we self-select into this career, but mostly because one of the key criteria for being a good university professor is to speak up—to politicians, to the media, to courts, to university administrators, and even to each other, among many others.
The whole point of the university, in other words, is to create an environment in which as many people as possible feel free to debate, to question, and to criticize—and especially to criticize our “bosses.” Bosses, naturally enough, hate that.
Moreover, as a relative matter, tenured professors are by design more expensive than other employees of universities. We do not earn as much money as many of us could make in non-academic jobs, by a long shot. Even so, if the comparison is between staffing a college with tenured faculty or adjuncts, the costs are not even close. If all we want is trade schools, then tenure is not the way to go.
But of course, that is not what we should want. Tenure is a necessary element of what makes universities succeed. To put it bluntly, universities and society need people who cannot be fired for being malcontents. Although people elsewhere in the U.S. have generally been consigned to “at-will employment,” which means that they can be fired for any reason—or for no reason at all—one category of university employees has been given a precious resource: job security.
Job security was given to tenured professors for good reasons, among the most important of which is that someone has to be there to make sure that the administrators do not make harmful decisions based on myopic, or politically motivated, thinking.
It should not be surprising, however, to see various administrators resort to divide-and-conquer tactics. Blaming tenured faculty for making other university employees feel unappreciated might be a new tactic, but it is merely a different variety of the standard attack on tenured faculty.
I am not, I should emphasize, saying that complaints about tenured faculty are never valid. I would not be surprised if some of my colleagues have said insensitive things at times to others. I am surely guilty of some instances of that myself. There are, to be sure, some professors who do not exercise the freedoms that tenure provides, and who never become everything that they could have become. Everyone, it seems, has an example of some tenured professor who appears to be disengaged, or in some other way is not living up to the standards that we hope will be the norm for this most important group of people.
Even so, we need to be aware when people with an alternative agenda engage in misdirection, turning the spotlight on convenient (and generally misrepresented) villains to try to justify their efforts to grab more power for themselves.
To paraphrase another famous quote from Winston Churchill, we need to understand that tenure is the worst way to guarantee that universities will live up to their essential role in society, except for every other way that we could try to do so.