[lit-ideas] Re: Pausing Philosophically for Coffee off the B9086, with Tammie Norries

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 16 Aug 2011 19:22:14 +0100 (BST)

--- On Tue, 16/8/11, Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx> wrote:

"I believe that the most important reason for granting tenure in US colleges 
and universities is to prevent people from being dismissed from their academic 
positions because of their political opinions, as in the case of Russell, who, 
in 1916, was dismissed from Trinity College, Cambridge, and fined 110 pounds, 
for his anti-war protests."

I agree that this is one of the most important reasons, and 'political' may be 
taken expansively to include their social and moral views. 

I would go further: when at university an eminent professor was convicted of 
one of those offences that often require a public toilet for their commission, 
and, rightly imo, he carried on as normal. Others might differ at where along 
the scale of criminal behaviour an academic might merit dismissal, especially 
where the behaviour was not in the course of their professional role. DUI? 
Assault? Theft? Robbery? Viewing unlawful images? There was an academic whose 
appearance in sexual harassment questionnaires could have given rise to a short 
paper expounding the frequency interpretation of probability, but as this went 
no further than drunken overtures why consider it an argument against tenure? 

I do not know what conditions are attached to 'tenure' either here or over 
there, but, as even judicial tenure can be removed (as indeed can be presidents 
and kings) guess there must be some. Yet I do not think that tenure is 
necessary to protect against dismissal on unfair or unreasonable grounds; and 
would generally favour this as adequate in the case of academics, as it is with 
most employees. Judges are a special case because they ought to be a 
constitutional bulwark and they are vulnerable to political pressures otherwise.

The problem in a case like Russell's is that, such was the climate of opinion, 
that any legal case he might have had in law would possibly fail as the courts 
might stretch themselves to justify his dismissal: a term of 'mutual trust and 
confidence' is implied in English law into all contracts of employment, for 
example, and this can be used to treat "uncongenial" behaviour as sufficient to 
end the contract. Heather was unto something when she spoke of 'gerrymandering' 
when concepts are being applied:- tenure, then, might be necessary because 
legal protection would fail.

But there are many potentially hard cases here. What about academics who spout 
views that are uncongenial but without any criminal acts? What about an 
academic who does not deny the Holocaust but defends it? Or defends child 
pornography? Or defends those who engaged in criminal activity in the recent 
'riots' in London? Might their views and opinions not seem so incompatible with 
the ethos of the institution that employs them that their position there is 

There are 'better the devil you know' considerations in favour of maintaining 
tenure. As seems to be the way of these things, if tenure were to give way to a 
system of performance reviews, the values of the institution might be skewed. 
If academic position depends on publication, then an academic may seek to 
produce material that is likely to get published - its merits being very much 
secondary. Imagine Popper had decided not to write "The Poverty of Historicism" 
(which was rejected by Mind, though nothing it published instead compares in 
importance) but something he considered would be more congenial to Mind's 
editorial board? And it has been noted that under that kind of system someone 
like Wittgenstein, with only one work published in his life-time, would not 
likely prosper (I suspect, however, they wouldn't dare dismiss him). Academics 
who do not publish because they have not produced anything as yet, in their 
view, worth publishing may be right and
 worth preserving, as against a paper chase of dwindling value. 

So I am very open to the view that the kind of performance assessment that is 
usually brought in to 'improve' and 'make accountable' rarely does anything to 
reduce the less competent or even incompetent (who are usually sufficiently 
adept at meeting the targets, ticking the boxes) but may have a detrimental 
effect on the practice of the competent and the best [this seems to be case 
with teaching in secondary schools here]. Nevertheless, these are 'if ain't 
broke' considerations: as a matter of principle, and assuming that performance 
reviews were successfully managed, it is hard to defend academic tenure when 
other employees are not given it though the stakes may be as great in terms of 
preserving the integrity of their position.


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