End tenure for tenure

So while I was away, there was a fair amount of blogging about whether John Yoo should be fired. I think Timothy Burke has undoubtedly the best post relating to the topic, even though it actually isn't about Yoo. It's about the question of why tenure is special.

I have absolutely no qualifications to weigh in on the legal merits of Yoo's arguments, so I won't; but I'm not sure I understand why he shouldn't be fired for them. The benefits of systems in which people can't be fired except in extremis--civil service, closed shops, academia--are real, but the lack of accountability that this creates seems like it might be worse than the problem it cures.

To be sure, no one who is thus protected from firing agrees with me. Even the conservative and libertarian professors I know mostly seem to defend tenure. On the other hand, I know no thinks that this is a good arrangement when they are the customer of a person or corporation with perfect job security. Who longs for the days of the old AT&T monopoly? Or gets a glad feeling in his heart when he contemplates the fact that Comcast--and only Comcast--has the right to sell him cable service?

In the case of the professoriate, tenure seems to me to create a series of disasters. I find it striking to listen to left-wing academics describe their vision of the American labor market--striking because it is not a very good description of the operation of the private sector job market, but it is a very accurate portrayal of the harsh and unduly binary outcomes of the tenure-track job search.

I hear economists on the left endorse a monopsony model of minimum wage employment that sounds frankly ludicrous to me, and should to anyone who has worked in fast food or retail--how could employers in industries that fragmented, with turnover rates well over 100%, possibly collude? On the other hand, it's a pretty plausible model for academic environments where a squillion graduate students are all chasing three jobs.

But beyond the effect on academic ideas about economics, the whole system is designed to attract and retain the risk averse and compliant. It may also be to blame for the near-perfect arrogance of many academics, who outrank even doctors and investment bankers on this score. Those who survive the tenure process tend to put a high value on its gatekeeper function--not only for keeping bad academics out of tenure, but also for keeping bad ideas away from the rest of us. The logic of tenure implies that they tell us what to do, not the other way around, dammit--and this is not exactly an unusual belief to find among academics.

Then there are the assorted characters that every academic complains about: the guys who won't do a damn thing for the department except show up and teach their two; the ones who stopped publishing anything other than op-eds the day their tenure (or full professorship, or chair) came through; the ones who get away with bullying the junior faculty because after all, they'll be on your tenure committee; the various forms of workplace social affective disorders that develop upon the realization that no one can do a damn thing to you; the guy who leaves the real teaching up to the TA because all he cares about is getting publications or, post-tenure, time on the golf course; the capricious crankery that goes into various kinds of decisions; the dead-enders who get invested in pointless or wrongheaded projects that never come to completion; the junior faculty who are afraid to disagree with powerful superiors they know are wrong; the senior faculty who hang on long after they are capable of doing good research or good teaching, because there's no way to ease them out.

All of these things occur in private companies too, of course. But they aren't inherent. In businesses these things aren't fixed; on faculty, they can't be. The damage is much mitigated by the fact that faculty have to have a certain degree of self-control to get where they are. But then, it is undoubtedly much exacerbated by the fact that one of the job's main attractions is freedom from accountability.

And then there are the cases like John Yoo's. Why should his university have to continue to associate with the author of ideas they find odious? Why should he not pay the price for his ideas? It seems to me that if there is one thing worth paying for, it is one's beliefs.

Ah, you will say, but then people will be afraid to express strong beliefs. True. Do we want academics who lack the courage of their convictions?

I suppose we must. We've certainly built a near-perfect system for finding them.