Monday, November 23, 2009

A Response to Michael Berube

A few alert readers called my attention to this post by Michael Berube, in which he attacks my response to the AAUP. He even goes so far as to "nominate DD’s post for the coveted Richard Cohen Award for Advanced Wrongheadedness." Clearly, a response is in order.

Berube's post is a couple of weeks old, since I stopped reading his stuff a few years ago. I mentally consigned him to the same category as Stanley Fish, David Horowitz, and Marc Bousquet -- basically, predictable caricatures of their former selves who jumped the shark some time ago. When Berube did the Punch-and-Judy act with Horowitz, I stopped paying attention. I dimly remember him 'retiring' from blogging, which seemed about right. Apparently, though, he's back, and his ego has only inflated.


Berube, who is tenured, attempts to eviscerate my proposal for a contract-based system as a successor to tenure. I say 'attempts' because he never actually engages with it, or with the reasons behind it. His method seems to be to drip contempt from on high and hope that enough sophistry and attitude will make up for the lack of an actual argument. This, from someone whose job it is to teach textual interpretation.

He accused me of five "wrongisms." (He's an English professor? Really?) As near as I can tell, they're as follows:

1. He argues that "[T]he reason the AAUP is advising faculty to revise their handbooks anyway is that in the wake of a series of extraordinarily perverse court decisions, this is the best we can do. We have to look to written safeguards in internal institutional procedures because the legal climate is so very hostile. We are not looking for better legal ground. We are looking for matters of professional principle." Astute readers will know, of course, that the hostile legal environment was precisely my point. That's why I noted that "I'd guess that the AAUP would respond that this new initiative is a 'second-best' position, but the fact that it needs one proves the point." Berube neglects to address that. And if you think law is a shaky foundation for protection, I invite you to consider "matters of professional principle." Good luck with that. To make sense of Berube's view, you'd have to accept that laws are easily changed and faculty handbooks aren't. Alrighty then.

2. He notes that contracts are not always upheld. As opposed to what? "Matters of professional principle"? I'd take the protections of law over the protections of 'matters of professional principle' any day of the week, thank you very much.

3. He heaps scorn on my point that tenure has become the province of the elite, but doesn't actually refute it. That's because it's true. He notes that the proportion of faculty with tenure has dropped from a high of about 70 percent to a current level of about 25 percent, without drawing the obvious conclusion. How much more does the system have to fail before he'll admit it? Apparently I'm jumping the gun by noticing the decline after a mere forty years. Wouldn't want to rush into anything. Since Berube's powers of textual analysis apparently don't extend to data, I'll close-caption this one for him. THE SYSTEM IS DYING. You're welcome.

4. This one is so staggering that I won't even attempt to paraphrase. Berube writes: "Dean Dad assumes throughout the post that the AAUP position is that only the tenured faculty have academic freedom. This is badly mistaken. We argue that every single person teaching and researching in a university should have academic freedom.." Did you catch that? He moves from "have" to "should have" as if they were the same. The difference between them -- the difference between "is" and "ought," for those philosophically inclined -- is so foundational to Western thought that to conflate the two is typically considered either psychosis or sophistry. My discussion was based on the observation that whenever someone proposes an alternative to tenure, the first line of attack is always academic freedom. From that, I assumed that the AAUP connected the two. If it doesn't, then why is that always the first line of attack? If tenure isn't necessary for academic freedom, then why is tenure necessary at all? If academic freedom is crucial, yet not connected to tenure, then what, exactly, protects it? I propose law -- contract law, specifically -- and economics, described below. Berube proposes what, exactly?

5. The 'defuse the cheap shots' line. This is where Berube goes for the gusto. It's worth quoting. "I keep trying to imagine Roger Kimball saying, “I used to get all squicky about queer theory, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, bring on the fabulous challenges to heteronormativity.” Or Daniel Pipes saying, “I used to target anyone who didn’t toe the Likud line, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, let a hundred critiques of Israel bloom.” Or my old friend David Horowitz saying, “I used to have a list of dangerous professors, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, Bill Ayers is just all right with me, whoa yeah.” That's cute. But if you think that the real threat to academic freedom is David Horowitz, then you need to get out more.

The real threat to academic freedom isn't some wingnut in a think tank. It's economics. As I mentioned in the next day's post, it's easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision. If you want to make full-time status more available, the first thing to do is to lower the cost of a bad decision. Since tenure is forever but a contract is finite, a contract system reduces the downside risk of a bad hiring decision. Lower the cost of hiring, and there will be more. The reason that only a quarter of the professors across the country are tenured isn't that David Horowitz threw a hissy fit in the 90's. He's not that important. The trend started decades before Horowitz ever 'named' anybody. Of course, if you've made your professional name by duking it out with Horowitz, then there's a very good reason to overstate his importance. Oh, no, The Big Bad Horowitz is coming! Somebody save us!

Puh-leeze. Even Berube seems to sense the implausibility of this position. In the one glancing recognition of economics in the entire piece, he concedes that "Well, sure, tenure is always going to be a target of public ire and resentment, particularly when unemployment is rising, entire company towns are shutting down, and the banksters of Goldman Sachs, together with 25 percent of college professors, are making out like bandits." Okay, that's a start, let's go with that. (For the record, "public ire and resentment" captures pretty well the "cheap shots" to which I referred. I guess it only counts when he says it.) Let's add several decades worth -- again, predating anything Horowitz said about faculty -- of tuition increases beyond inflation, of increasing student loan burdens, and of idiotic political choices. Add 'hiring freezes,' cuts by attrition, and the pincer movement of more graduate programs (to generate TA's) and fewer job openings for faculty. Now we're starting to grasp reality. Even in the deep blue states of the Northeast, where gays marry legally and nobody gives a rat's ass what David Horowitz thinks, higher ed is taking it on the chin. It's not about culture wars. Those are just political cover, when they're even that much. It's about economics.

I'll grant that legal protections are imperfect. But compared to "matters of professional principle" and personal hauteur, they look pretty good. If Berube has an actual idea, I'm happy to hear it. But snark attacks do not ideas make, and to imagine that the status quo ante can be reanimated simply through appeals to principle is ludicrous. The only academic freedom the current system guarantees is freedom from full-time employment. If you're already tenured, I guess that doesn't seem too bad. For everyone else, not so much.

Berube concludes with his interpretation of the Garcetti decision. "So remember, folks: if you’re going to speak out about something at your college or university in the course of your professional duties, first make sure that you have no idea what you’re talking about." By that standard, he should be just fine.