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How Tenure Fosters Conformity
Not quite what I know most about, but this argument has been rattling along in my head for some time. Let me know what you think, and join my (growing) chat!
In my last piece about self-censorship around COVID origins, I discussed the balancing act that must be performed by intellectuals in their duties to the truth and the requirement to remain “respectable”.
In that piece, I wondered whether the practice of tenure for professors actually fosters what it promises: a free and open academy, where participants can say what they truly think without fear of reprisal.
I argue that, counter-intuitively, tenure’s overarching effect may be the opposite: paving the way for more conformity.
Let’s start with whether this promise has been fulfilled: is academia a place of fierce, independent, important thought?
This is a tough one to answer technically. We have nothing to compare directly with the academia we have today, no alternative system of higher education. Still, it is clear that American academia has fallen far short of this ideal. Worse, in some fields, far from being open to entertaining controversial thought, academics behave more like priests with an orthodoxy to defend.
In the subjects I know most about, I am very skeptical of academics. While often rigorous in their approach and skilled in their technical analysis, they nonetheless shy away from difficult truths (with some rare exceptions). This leaves large holes in their study and analysis, holes that are filled in by more activist-minded professors, distorting the discussion powerfully in their favor. My feeling is backed up (somewhat) by data: We know for a fact that academia is highly skewed politically, heavily left-of-center. The difference between academic fields is merely in the degree of the skew.
Guardrails against capture
The problem with monocultures isn’t that they are coercive (all cultures have pressures), it is that the coercion goes in one direction only.
Hannah Arendt once said that truth in itself carries an element of coercion–that it is “beyond agreement, dispute, opinion, or consent” and in this sense carries a “despotic” character. “Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies”.
But are lies necessary when “unwelcome facts” present themselves routinely in the lives of some, and not at all in the lives of others?
For a long time, I naively assumed that with no material incentives in one direction or another, people will think more freely. A world in which no one has to worry about where their paycheck will come will be a world in which people are more likely to be courageous, and tell the truth more openly. And of course, it is obvious how financial incentives can distort truth-telling.
This is, of course, the justification for academic tenure.
Now I think the matter isn’t so clear, for many reasons:
First and foremost, it is not the case that free people will necessarily speak truthfully. No matter the romantic notions we like to hold about ourselves, humans do not deeply desire to “speak the truth”. There are more beautiful things to say, things that make us feel good about ourselves and our respective tribes, things that grant us hope and moral strength and personal significance—truth, meanwhile, is insufferably inconvenient, occasionally ugly, and insensitive to our feelings. But lies, by their very nature, can be as beautiful and emotionally satisfying as our imaginations will allow them.
Unfortunately, some degree of fidelity to reality is often required to prosper, and so occasionally we must choose truth. But that degree is dependent on our environments: lies are a luxury which some can afford more than others. Material freedom isn’t just the freedom to tell the truth, it is the freedom to tell lies and get away with it. As I’ve noted before, the lack of economic pressures can clear the way for independent thinking, but they can also remove crucial “skin in the game” that might keep one tethered to reality.
I suspect that on the whole, tenure might simply make more room for social pressures to pull with fewer impediments. If keeping your job is no longer a concern, you will not be “concern-free”. Your mind will be more occupied instead by luxury concerns, like winning and maintaining the esteem of your peers. (And in fact, we do see this playing out at universities. Professors are more protected from the pressures of the outside world due to tenure, yet they are uniquely subservient to the politics within their local university environment.)
But are job guarantees always the problem? Is there an environment in which a lifetime appointment can be a force for good? There is: another unique, highly artificial environment in which members famously receive lifetime appointments (along with the highest prestige).
I mean, of course, the Supreme Court. So what are they doing differently?
For one, the SCOTUS is not charged with the discovery of any objective truth–the Justices are like Talmudic scholars, orienting their labors around fidelity to a kind of “revelation” (this one imparted in 1787). Their distance to the “real world” is a blessing, not a liability.
More importantly, Justices are not choosing their own members. Any majority is temporary and out of their hands–they are forced to simply put up with each other until someone dies. There is no point in actively bullying anyone to quit, they may be replaced by someone worse. Meanwhile, academics actively shape their own environments. They grant students their doctorates, they help hire other faculty, they elect their department chairs. When an idea becomes prominent in academia, the structure of the environment selects for more of the same.
In other words, the Supreme Court is a kind of enforced heterodoxy, while academia has no guardrails to prevent ideological capture.
When you are forced to coexist with the enemy, you develop norms which allow both parties to function with as much freedom and fairness as possible. Ideologically mixed groups will, in other words, tend to emphasize objective process because they do not agree on ends. This environment is fairly conducive to the pursuit of truth.
More uniform groups, on the other hand, will tend to abandon process–rushing instead towards the end they are predisposed to believe is true and willing to use dubious means to get there. This creates a hostile environment for dissenting members, and over time, there will be less of them and more uniformity, which will inevitably lead to an even more hostile environment for dissent. When a majority ideology develops, it is likely only to increase in influence, and when it is sufficiently powerful, it can begin competing with reality itself. This is the most dangerous culmination of a social environment that exists in isolation, one that isn’t sufficiently corrected by other forces.
Is it any surprise that the academic fields that deal most directly with a force that cannot be argued with–the tyrannical objective truth–are also the least distorted by social pressure? There is nothing to do but accept that 2+2=4, no matter how one feels about mathematics, how it has been used or could be used or should be used, or which race/sex/nationality/gender/body type happens to excel in it. These social conditions can affect the discourse around math, but they cannot change the 4 to anything else.
Other fields are not blessed with such a sturdy ground, with little to stop them from submitting to a common religion.
It may be far too late to prevent that outcome for some fields.
In his book The Sacred Project of American Sociology, Christian Smith argues that “contemporary American sociology is, rightfully understood, actually a profoundly sacred project at heart”, one that is “animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments.” That is to say, sociology is not the detached study of human societies it imagines itself to be, it is a spiritual project with an end in mind–a shared vision of what a desirable society looks like and beliefs about what it takes to get there. (It is beyond the scope of this post to go into a discussion of exactly what this project is, but I imagine many of my readers can guess the broad strokes, and I might write about it later at length). Importantly, Smith explains how the sacred project, while all-encompassing, is invisible to sociologists themselves, the ubiquity itself serving to blind them from it.
Is this sacred project limited to sociology, or is it shared with the broader academic culture? Often when I find myself in an academic context, I am struck by the sameness of the underlying philosophical and political commitments, particularly in the social realm. You can find an academic that might advance Miltonian economics, but you would be hard pressed to find any at all that might question the tenets of the newly-minted gender ideology, much less the more established social movements. (Gender is, of course, a great example of the ways in which modern day academia flirts with Lysenkoism. Undeniable biological facts are indeed, increasingly stigmatized as yet another ‘-phobia’.)
It is alarming that in a culture obsessed with celebrating the value “diversity” brings to our educational life, the type of diversity that contributes most heavily to the discovery of truth is also the one entirely neglected by our knowledge-making class. It is also depressing to think of where this intellectual sameness might take us: spiritual projects never exposed to rational disagreement, and therefore, countless hours, energy, and public funds spent on weak ideas….the curiosity and open-minds of some of our brightest dulled by the weight of social pressure.
Luckily, there are ways to get better. If the problem is structural, the solutions might be too. Something to break through the spiral, and revitalize the academy. Perhaps one answer is to get rid of tenure. Perhaps another is to find alternative ways to foster true heterodoxy, creating various, competing incentives to break through the pull of the collective.
But first we must be willing to acknowledge the problem.