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language in a communications class in order to make a point
about offensive speech, or criticizing twelve-step programs as
All this was news to me. Ever since, I’ve been trying to
guesstimate the seriousness of the problem by conducting my
own, decidedly unscientific experiment. Whenever I lecture
on a college campus, I find a way to raise the issue. From
the audience there invariably come nods and murmurs of
recognition, and after the talk a couple of those murmurers
tell me their stories. The specifics vary but the themes are
the same: the warnings from department chairs or kindly
colleagues to be gentle interlocutors and charitable graders;
above all not to wander into the dark forests of sex and
politics, where the possibility of committing thought crimes is
Whenever those tales are recounted, I recall the heresies
I have uttered over the years—remarks that, if taken out of
context, violate almost every cherished belief of both Right
and Left. Those comments have all been in the service of
getting students to think hard about complex questions of
ethics and social justice: That’s my vocation. Never once did
I imagine the job might actually be at risk—but then again, I
enjoy the luxury of tenure.
My unscientific experiment has another component.
During these campus visits I tell the adjuncts’ stories to
tenured professors. They are “shocked, shocked,” as Captain
Renault famously says in “Casablanca.” And then, invariably,
they quickly change the subject.
Even professors who consider themselves champions
of academic freedom—and that’s almost all of us—seem
to forget that while our freedom to speak our minds is
important, it’s equally essential that the freeway flyer who
occupies a desk in the shared office down the hall be able to
teach a challenging course. Ultimately we’re all in the same
boat, since the successful muzzling of any instructor, whatever
his or her status, invites the institutional managers to adopt a
cast of mind about contentious speech that
potentially knows no limits.
Academic freedom is hardly the no-
hopers’ only problem. They are paid a pittance
and receive no health benefits. They struggle
along without job security, and so must keep
hunting for new jobs as ceaselessly as birds
hunt for food.
Peonage isn’t the only way to treat these
instructors. A number of universities—MIT
and Duke among them—have recently
established professors of practice, non-
tenured multi-year contracts for talented
teachers or practitioners who don’t want the
publish-or-perish life. Such arrangements give
life to the rhetoric of an academic community.
As NYU President John Sexton told his trustees, “new forms
of faculty ought to exist because they bring value to the
academic enterprise.” Such institutional respect and academic
freedom go hand in hand: Professors of practice, with as much
job security as almost anyone in the private sector, will likely
feel freer to speak their minds. But such benign university
behavior is still a rarity; and because it is relatively expensive,
the idea encounters
resistance from the bean-
Tenured professors
are in a good position
to speak out—to press
university administrators
to treat non-tenure-track
faculty decently and to
defend their classroom
bravery. But these matters
rarely receive attention
from the professoriate,
which by its behavior prefers the ignorance-is-bliss approach
to the underside of academic life.
The chair of an economics department at a research
university I visited recently put the point bluntly: “Anyone
who isn’t on the tenure track just isn’t part of the real faculty.”
That’s not exactly what the ideal of higher education as an
intellectual commonweal calls to mind. On the contrary, it’s
reminiscent of the deal that senior pilots at United Airlines
struck with their bosses. Continue treating us like kings, those
veteran aviators said to the bankrupt company, and we won’t
obligate you to give new pilots the same perks.
The United pilots actually come off looking better than
the academic old guard. They did insist on decent treatment
for the newcomers, and that’s more than can be said of the
David L. Kirp is a professor at the Goldman School of Public
Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
How should
professors’ right to
speak their minds
be distinguished
from professorial
proselytizing and
sheer quackery?
College teaching
remains a buyers’
market, with
Ph.D.s looking for