Redeeming the Wayward University [through Engagement by Outsiders]
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[NY Sun title: "Redeeming the Wayward University System"]
Should outsiders try to influence the hiring or tenuring of university faculty?
The question arises because, with the radicalization of the American universities, moderate voices have jumped into academic personnel issues. For example, note some controversies just in Middle East studies in 2006:
In addition, Joel Beinin's relocation to the American University in Cairo from his tenured position in history at Stanford (an unusual career move) may be related to the wide criticism of his work.
These developments raise two questions. Firstly, do outsiders have a legitimate role influencing academic personnel decisions? The American Association of University Professors general secretary, Roger Bowen, says absolutely not: "Non-academics and external advocacy groups should not be permitted to intrude in hiring and tenure cases in the academy."
I beg to differ. Educational institutions may appoint whomever they wish, but they cannot expect immunity from public criticism. Precisely because academe offers unique job security, public evaluation of untenured academics has a potentially vital role. The more pre-tenure scrutiny, the better. Organizations like Campus Watch focus precisely on those areas that tenure committees typically miss.
As for tenured faculty, robust public criticism can keep them in line by embarrassing them and hurting their credibility. Juan Cole characterizes senior professors as "sort of like baseball players" whom other teams look at "from time to time, as recruitment prospects." In response, Martin Kramer of the Shalem Center notes that "We don't put baseball players on pedestals, and a whole section of the newspaper relentlessly criticizes their performance. Academics want to have it both ways: lifetime job security, sports-like celebrity, lots of vacation time, and no accountability."
In their insistence on squelching dissent, ironically, Middle East studies academics replicate Middle East dictators, who demand that their regimes be exempt from judgment. But while dictators can lose their jobs, tenured academics effectively cannot, making their errors uniquely consequence-free.
Second, how effective are outside efforts to influence the process? Frank H. Wu, law school dean at Wayne State, predicts that lobbying professors against Wadie Said's appointment could well backfire. Some faculty members, he says, "might be so turned off by the e-mail coming in that they may be persuaded to take a position that they might not have otherwise."
Other than exposing the immaturity of professors who would take such a step, this statement completely misses the point. The ivory tower exists at the sufferance of those who subsidize it. Just as Supreme Court justices read the election returns, so professors ultimately cannot ignore the parents, alumni, legislators, and government bureaucrats who pay their salaries. And as those stakeholders increasingly become aware of the professors' failings, they can begin to demand improvements.
(The distinction between private and public universities hardly matters here, as the two overlap considerably. If the University of Michigan derives a mere 8% of its annual budget from state sources, private universities rely heavily on government funding for students, projects, research, overhead, and even fraternities.)
The way ahead is clear: concerned outsiders should track university developments, including personnel decisions, so as to begin the process of redeeming the university, that grand and noble institution temporarily gone astray.
Nov. 30, 2006 update: The author of the letter concerning the Wayne State Middle East Law Students Association, Kassem Dakhlallah, has written me to correct a point I made above:
Feb. 13, 2007 update: Wadie Said has been offered and has accepted a position at the University of South Carolina's law school. Whether or not he was offered a position at Wayne State University is not known.-
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