Two bills by Midwestern legislators to abolish professorial tenure likely won’t go far, because bills to abolish tenure never do go far in the face of highly polished professorial rhetoric about Looming Threats to Free Thought. Which may be an odd thought to entertain in the face of reality. No university of which anyone has lately heard wants to clamp down on liberal professors.
Pretty much all large-bore threats to philosophical balance in 21st century academia proceed from the left – e.g., discouraging invitations to conservative speakers from the outside, favoring the “free speech” of liberal students over that of conservative students, weighting the curriculum against the supposed mental tyranny of Dead White Males. And so on.
A Missouri bill to eliminate tenure for new hires at public colleges and universities and an Iowa bill stripping tenure even from those who’ve got it now would theoretically remedy such academic shortcomings. But to become law they would have to surmount the tide of academic hysteria. You know – like the comment of a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors: “This looks like the perfect storm of government and legislative attacks on higher education.” Of course! Don’t conservatives thirst all the time to abolish good old State U. and sow the site with salt?!
Equally to the point, academia’s problem from a free speech perspective isn’t procedural safeguards like tenure, erected to stop in their tracks those right-wing presidents and regents who haven’t existed in reality for decades. Academia’s problem in this regard is the dominance of the “progressive” culture at most modern universities. The normal, everyday academic leader can’t imagine not affirming the necessity of denouncing and casting off “racism,” “sexism,” “economic exploitation,” “American exceptionalism” – on and on; a veritable catalog of outdated and deeply embarrassing (to the English and political science faculties) modes of belief.
You don’t get rid of such a culture by firing the occasional faculty bearer of these standards. Think tremulous regents can be enlisted to execute such a task? Guess again. You need cultural remodeling first: which could mean inserting into academia more and more “conservatives” who – ironically – might require the protections of tenure to succeed at their reform mission.
It’s all very complicated: one more reminder that cultural problems rarely succumb to legislation. Intellectual evangelism works better, when you can get intellectuals to sit down and try it as opposed to whipping up a protest mob on Instagram.