I’ve written about higher education long enough to observe that people in the academy care a lot about the issue of tenure. I don’t, by and large, mostly because, like most people, I don’t have it and never will. Education Sector could fire me tomorrow, but I could also walk out and work elsewhere. So we both have an interest in maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship. Tenure, by contrast, seems to consist of a process whereby universities ruthlessly exploit large numbers of unsuspecting graduate students by tricking them into entering a Thunderdome-style tournament where you exchange 10 years of indentured servitude for a lottery ticket chance for permanent job security. Those who win then get to turn the tables on the university by working as hard and teaching as well as they like, with the university responding with various passive-aggressive measures involving stagnant pay, high teaching loads, and social structures based on an artificial scarcity of parking. The whole thing seems deliberately designed to created unending cycles of mutual resentment.
AAUP President Cary Nelson’s fantastic pro-tenure assertion that “the deadwood retired or died years ago” is belied by Lawrence Martin’s finding that “fully 20 percent of the faculty associated in Ph.D. training programs [nationwide] have not authored or co-authored a single publication in one of the 16,000 journals indexed in [the most recent] three year period,” as well as the personal testimony of literally every college professor I’ve ever spoken to in my entire life. The best tenured faculty are likely being underpaid because they’re implicitly exchanging a salary discount for extra job security they don’t need. It would be better if the brass ring of tenure were literally a brass ring (it doesn’t matter what status signifiers actually are as long as everyone agrees what they mean) rather than procedural immunity from any meaningful evaluation. Most people claiming that tenure protects their radical ideas from censure by malevolent outside forces appear to be flattering themselves with the conceit that anybody knows what their ideas are in the first place.
But then there’s Ken Cuccinelli.
Elected as Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia in November 2009, Cuccinelli wasted little time before demanding that the University of Virginia turn over a trove of documents and private correspondence related to former UVA (and current Penn State) professor Michael E. Mann’s research on climate change. UVA rightly refused and a Virginia judge dismissed the request. Undaunted, Cuccinelli re-submitted his subpoenas this week, this time on the pretext that, in the course of applying for a state-funded grant to support research on the African savannah–research that had nothing to do with climate change–Mann included his C.V., which referenced research on climate change. The Post reacted with an editorial titled “Ken Cuccinelli seems determined to embarrass Virginia.”
It’s hard to overstate the level of outright thuggery involved here. Ken Cuccinelli doesn’t believe in man-made climate change, not because he has any specific knowledge about the subject, but because climate change denialism is a plank in the ideological extremist platform circa 2010 and Cuccinelli is a politician with ambitions. If this were 1967, Cuccinelli would be railing against miscegenation. If this were 1956, Cuccinelli would be explaining why Virginians should support massive resistance to desegregation. Since it’s 2010, Cuccinelli wants to deny life-saving health care to poor people, force women to give birth against their will, and let the planet Earth boil to death in a stew of human waste. And that’s his right, it’s a free country. He can run for Congress and vote against cap-and-trade if he wins.
Instead, Cuccinelli is blatantly abusing the power of his office to wage a campaign of legal intimidation against not only the University of Virginia but free inquiry and higher education generally. I fully expect that UVA will never, under any circumstances, buckle under to this kind of attack. In that sense Cuccinelli is the most useful idiot imaginable for the cause of tenure, proof positive that controversial scholarship really does need protection from the forces of economic and political power. By no means am I suggesting that the current tenure system shouldn’t be substantially reformed. Refusing to fire employees for bad reasons doesn’t necessarily imply an inability to fire them for any reasons. But I have to admit that Cuccinelli’s shocking actions have heightened my appreciation for the principles of academic freedom that tenure protects.