March 22, 2023
Tenure—lifetime employment for college professors—is under attack from all sides.
The American custom of granting thirtysomething professors the right to a job for life was traditionally said by its defenders to go back to the 1900 dispute between robber baroness Jane Stanford and Edward Alsworth Ross, her new Stanford University’s superstar sociologist.
Mrs. Stanford first tried to have Professor Ross fired for supporting Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s Free Silver movement in the 1896 election. She finally succeeded in 1900 after Ross, who sided with American labor against capital (he told his students, “A railroad deal is a railroad steal”), spoke out against Stanford’s Union Pacific Railroad importing Chinese coolies to avoid paying higher wages to American workers.
A half dozen or so Stanford professors resigned in protest over Ross’ firing. One went on to found with philosopher John Dewey the American Association of University Professors, which from 1915 onward called for tenure to protect professors’ liberty. Finally, in 1940, following the Nazi-Soviet conquest of Poland and the firing of all Polish professors, the AAUP and its employers’ counterpart organization, the Association of American Colleges, agreed upon the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has more or less endured ever since.
Ross, who served as chairman of the ACLU in the 1940s, was long seen as a hero by academics and civil libertarians. But lately, due to his Progressive anti-immigration and pro-eugenics views, he is being recast as the bad guy in the conflict, while Ms. Stanford’s violation of his academic freedom is seen as public-spirited censorship. For example, author Adam Morris writes in the leftist Guernica literary magazine in a 2021 article entitled “Stanford’s White Supremacists”:
The controversy became a landmark academic freedom case that partially motivated the formation of the American Association of University Professors by Arthur O. Lovejoy, one of the seven professors to resign. Ross’s highly publicized departure from Stanford brought him the fame he ultimately sought, and a pulpit from which to promulgate some of Populism’s most repellently racist and nativist ideas—ideas that moderates like Mrs. Stanford considered too poisonous for public expression.
Not surprisingly, tenure is increasingly unpopular.
For budgetary reasons, university administrations have long been cutting back on new offers of tenure. For instance, New York University’s administration has done well for itself by realizing that New York City is full of smart people who’d be willing to teach for a year or two at NYU without a permanent position.
Younger generations are unenthusiastic about the institution of tenure because lifetime employment is increasingly enjoyed by the old. This is not just because fewer young academics are being offered it, but because a 1994 federal law made it illegal for universities to set mandatory retirement ages. So the tenured are much older on average than they used to be.
From the right, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has signed a bill imposing a post-tenure review that would allow public colleges’ boards of trustees to fire “deadweight.”
But it seems to me that the bigger problem with woke academia lies with staffers, who have proliferated hugely in proportion to the number of tenured professors. Robert Conquest’s first law is, “Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.” Unlike staffers, tenured professors do understand at least their own field well and generally try to maintain traditional high standards.
And from the left, there has been an increasing trend toward colleges attempting to fire tenured professors who offend with their research or opinions today’s privileged classes, such as blacks.
Granted, most tenured professors know to keep their mouths shut. As Jimmy Gandhi observes:
Academia gives professors tenure so they have the latitude to be eccentric and original. But professors seek out tenure for social prestige and job security. In other words, tenure attracts the opposite of the people it’s supposed to attract.
Still, we are blessed with a few professors who see the privilege granted them by tenure as also imposing a duty to tell the truth.
Of course, they are exactly whom college administrators want to fire.
Academia’s most troublesome hot potato for more than a half century has been the failure of affirmative action to close the average intelligence gap between blacks and other races (with Asians, in particular, pulling away from African-Americans into the academic stratosphere).
Back in his 1978 Bakke decision legalizing racial quotas (as long as you call them “goals” rather than “quotas”), Justice Lewis Powell fantasized that affirmative action would encourage a “robust exchange of ideas” on campus.
Of course, Powell turned out 180 degrees wrong. When less intelligent people are granted admission to intellectual institutions due to their race, they tend to become extremely touchy, constantly on the lookout for anybody mentioning anything that might conceivably refer to their intellectual shortcomings. This leads to ever-increasing demands upon the authorities to silence anyone who might discuss truthfully any topic related to the mere existence of affirmative action.
Hence, just in the past week we’ve seen new developments in three efforts by university administrations to fire tenured professors for lèse-majesté about blacks.
The most famous is the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s long struggle session to strip tenure from the brilliant and brave law professor and neurologist Amy Wax for uttering insufficiently subservient facts about Upper-Case Americans and other privileged peoples. The New York Times headlined last week:
UPenn Accuses a Law Professor of Racist Statements. Should She Be Fired?
Amy Wax, a law professor, has said publicly that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites”…
That, on average, “Blacks” have lower cognitive ability than “whites” is the single most exhaustively documented finding of American social science.
After all, that’s why Penn uses affirmative action to benefit black applicants.
But affirmative action, in turn, is also why most of Penn’s black law students tend to struggle to stand out academically, as Wax has pointed out.
Of course, the overwhelming truthfulness, importance, and relevance of her statements just makes it more intolerable to 2020s people that Professor Wax has a contractual right to tell the truth.
Here’s the grievance Wax has filed against the dean of the Penn law school for trying to fire her for exercising her First Amendment rights.
In 1970, the AAUP updated its 1940 statement:
Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster….
If Amy Wax isn’t allowed within the Overton Window of permitted discourse, then Ibram X. Kendi’s worldview wins by walkover. Without Wax and Charles Murray being allowed to represent realism in public debate, then the old centrists become the new far right who must too be silenced.
Also, last week, Charles Negy, a tenured professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, filed suit against UCF for firing him for expressing skepticism on his personal Twitter account about the Black Lives Mania that swept the country during the first week of the Fiery but Mostly Peaceful Protests. His thought crimes included retweeting my tweet linking to my June 3, 2020, column “The Bonfire of the Insanities”:
Instead, The Establishment views blacks as our Sacred Cows, above criticism, but beneath agency.
Some of his other tweets in early June 2020 that elicited widespread demands for his canning included:
Black privilege is real: Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege. But as a group, they’re missing out on much needed feedback
Sincere question: If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming “systematic racism” exists?
I’m reminded of Kipling’s poem If—, which begins:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Negy was a rare academic who kept his head…and got financially ruined for it. Negy had to sell his house when his income was suddenly cut off.
The 1970 AAUP update says:
The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.
So, Negy eventually got his job back when the arbitrator pointed out that university administration had no cause for firing this tenured professor. They had just been trawling for some old technical infraction to rationalize terminating the heretic. As Soviet secret police chief Beria liked to boast to his boss Stalin: “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”
Finally, in the least known of the three cases, fired Cleveland State business psychology professor Bryan J. Pesta filed suit against his ex-employer. In terms of academic freedom, Pesta’s case might be the most important of the three because he was terminated not for expressing an opinion but for publishing a major breakthrough paper in the human sciences: 2019’s “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability.”
The Pesta case has gotten remarkably little publicity, perhaps in part because the paper he was fired over contains an important advance in the long-running debate over The Bell Curve. And we can’t publicize that, now can we?
Pesta’s study was of one of the most important proposed methodologies for falsifying the much-denounced hereditarian hypothesis that genes play a role in the sizable difference in average IQ between African-Americans and white Americans.
Among self-identified blacks in the U.S., there exist considerable differences in the amount of white ancestry. For example, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the most respected African-American Studies academic, was surprised to find out on his Finding Your Roots PBS show that he is half white. In contrast, Gates’ program reported that Whoopi Goldberg’s DNA is only 8 percent white.
The theory that genetic differences contribute to the race gap in IQ predicts that blacks like Gates with 50 percent white DNA should average higher IQs than blacks like Goldberg who are 8 percent white. If that prediction is not true, then the genetic theory of the Bell Curve gap, probably the most feared and loathed scientific theory in the world, would be disproven, or at least badly discredited. The scientist who could thereby slay this Bell Curve beast would be a hero in academia.
If the IQs of self-identifying African-Americans don’t vary by fraction of white admixture in their DNA, then that would suggest that it isn’t genetics that is responsible for the IQ gap but instead social constructionism: the act of ascribing African-American identity to them.
Not surprisingly, scientists have tried to carry out this key test quite a few times going back to 1934. For example, writing in The New York Times in 2009, Jim Holt confidently asserted in a review of U. of Michigan psychologist Richard E. Nisbett’s book Intelligence and How to Get It, which attempts to debunk The Bell Curve:
Among his more direct evidence, Nisbett cites impressive studies in population genetics. African-Americans have on average about 20 percent European genes, largely as a legacy of slavery. But the proportion of European genes ranges widely among individuals, from near zero to more than 80 percent. If the racial gap is mostly genetic, then blacks with more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s on average. In fact, they don’t.
To be honest, until the past few years, the technology simply wasn’t ready to answer this question decisively by assembling DNA scans in the thousands.
But at least two amazing databases have recently become available, the Philadelphia Neurodevelopment Cohort and the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. Both provide around 10,000 genome scans plus in-depth cognitive testing, family socioeconomic status, and much else.
Pesta’s paper was on the PNC, and a second paper in 2021 by one of his coauthors then followed up on the nationally representative ABCD database. (I explained the latter paper in my column “A Matter of Tone.”)
Both studies failed to uphold The New York Times’ assertion about there being no correlation between racial admixture and IQ. In fact, both studies’ findings are consistent with a fairly strongly genetic version of The Bell Curve’s nature and nurture thesis.
That doesn’t mean that the hope of falsifying The Bell Curve via studying racial admixtures is wholly dead: One theory could be that the reason for Pesta et al.’s replicated results is not due to genetic nature but due to colorist nurture. Perhaps our white supremacist society is systemically less racist toward those African-Americans who are slightly more white?
But there is little evidence that white Americans pay much attention to precise shades of skin tone or differences in facial features in how they treat blacks. America’s traditional one-drop rule means that whites tend to use a binary on-off switch in categorizing non-Hispanic individuals as black or not: yes or no.
For example, consider the notorious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court “separate but equal” ruling that permitted Jim Crow. The Louisiana trolley company that objected to having its profits cut by having to maintain separate sections on its streetcars for each race found as its plaintiff Homer Plessy, a mixed-race Creole of color. But even in Louisiana, Plessy’s ambiguous looks and mixed ancestry were ignored by the courts, who assumed the one-drop rule.
In the U.S., as opposed to Latin America, colorism is much more practiced by blacks than by whites.
And it’s not clear what that would have to do with IQ development, since it’s mostly a matter of which girls are thought prettier—e.g., the fairly white Beyoncé has “good hair.” It’s not obvious why being thought better-looking in high school would lead to higher brainpower rather than to a busier social life.
In summary, while three tenured professors being fired for not toeing the BLM line may not sound like a large number, as Steven Pinker observed in 2020:
Most important: The sheer number of cancellations (though not small) misses the point: it’s the regime of intimidation that silences many more and warps our knowledge.