Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays. To read this newsletter as soon as it sends, sign up to receive it in your email inbox.
From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The Texas tenure massacre?
Tenure in Texas is weakened but alive. The final version of SB 18 avoids the deathblow proposed by an earlier draft, which would have eliminated the tenure track for all public-college faculty members who begin their jobs in 2024 or after. Instead, as the AAUP
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Tenure in Texas is weakened but alive. The final version of SB 18 avoids the deathblow proposed by an earlier draft, which would have eliminated the tenure track for all public-college faculty members who begin their jobs in 2024 or after. Instead, as the AAUP puts it, it “codifies a weak faculty tenure system that lacks due process provisions commonly afforded tenured faculty nationally.” It’s tenure-lite. Some things aren’t bigger in Texas.
The bill isn’t quite the catastrophe that might have been expected. Its most onerous provision is the requirement that tenured faculty members undergo a “performance evaluation process” every six years; “a faculty member may be subject to revocation of tenure if, during the comprehensive performance evaluation, incompetency, neglect of duty, or other good cause is determined to be present.” Unless weaponized by bad political and administrative actors (always, of course, a possibility), this sounds less like the end of tenure than like the introduction of reams of annoying and ultimately pointless red tape — an inconvenience, not an existential threat.
There’s at least one exception, as far as I can tell. SB 18 includes “unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution” as a reason to revoke tenure. Every word except “that” and “the” is vague, abusable, and at odds with the basic mission of tenure, which must protect faculty members’ right to offend the public and therefore potentially to sully the reputation of their institutions. (“Conduct” presumably includes “speech” — or at least, nothing in the bill says otherwise.)
At first glance, this threatening provision might not seem all that novel. The AAUP’s 1940 statement on academic freedom offered the following: “As scholars and educational officers,” faculty members “should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” But those sentences would become controversial — who decides what counts as “appropriate restraint,” for instance? — and the AAUP attempted to resolve the ambiguity in a 1970 addendum explaining that they should be interpreted
in keeping with the 1964 “Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances,” ... which states inter alia: “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.”
To the extent that they can, Texas faculty should pressure their institutions into defining with as much specificity as possible what “unprofessional conduct” and “adversely affects the university” mean. And for now, breathe a sigh of qualified relief. SB 18 isn’t so much the evisceration of tenure as it is a statement of general disrespect. It says, “We don’t like you very much, and we’re watching you.”
No gossip for you!
When I was growing up, it was common in my largely Haredi Jewish neighborhood outside of Baltimore to see bumper stickers proclaiming in both Hebrew and English the slogan SAY NO TO LASHON HARA. (A medium-specific variation: PUT THE BRAKES ON LASHON HARA.) As I did not know then but have learned since, “lashon hara” refers to injurious gossip, felt by Orthodox Jews to be a particularly evil temptation. (The Biblical source is Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people,” in the King James version.) I thought of those bumper stickers recently when I learned, via FIRE, that Westfield State University, in Massachusetts, had prohibited both “jokes” and “idle gossip” on all university email accounts.
As FIRE points out, the ban, which applies to students and faculty alike, is probably unconstitutional (Westfield is public), and it is certainly silly. But in its trivial way, it might be read as a symptom of the mania for rule-making among some of the people running universities now. Having exhausted new ways of forbidding potentially harmful speech — the policy also proscribes “derogatory and/or inflammatory statements” — Westfield’s administrators, like the Puritan ministers who shaped their state, have committed themselves to purging their flock of the wrong kinds of worldliness. As the 17th-century English puritan divine Richard Baxter preached in his writings against “Back-biting, Slandering, and Evil Speaking": “It is at the least, but idle talk, and a misspending of your time.” Westfield State’s student body surely appreciates their university’s concern.
- “If expansive and sophisticated states like Sokoto, or others of the age, like Asante or Kongo, had not been laid low by empire-building Europeans, would present-day Africa be composed of bigger states that resulted from gradual absorption of neighboring societies by indigenous empires, much as happened in Europe in the early modern period?” In the New York Review of Books, Howard French writes about the history of Nigeria by way of two new books, Max Siollun’s What Britain Did to Nigeria and Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi’s Formation.
- “Thin rules brook no quarter, they offer no sense of a variable world. Many bureaucratic rules, especially bureaucratic rules in their Kafkaesque exaggeration, also fit this description.” That’s Lorraine Daston talking with Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz about her recent book Rules: A Short History of What We Live By in Public Books.
- “You don’t have to be Nietzsche to see in Parfit’s adult life a particularly stark version of an ascetic ideal that has its historical roots in the religious framework his family inhabited, but which has mutated into a variety of avowedly secular cultural forms, in science, art and philosophy.” In the London Review of Books, Stephen Mulhall reviews David Edmonds’s biography of Derek Parfit.
- “Roger Kimball, Allan Bloom, Willian Bennett, Hilton Kramer — those figures really did straddle the journalistic and academic domain in a way that made them very familiar figures to us. They actually were reading our work. The culture war that’s taking place now seems to me something really very different.” That’s John Guillory talking with Nicholas Dames in a conversation moderated by Alan Thomas.
- Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener, which completes the loose trilogy he began with First Reformed (2017) and continued with The Card Counter (2021), got its American release last week. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times liked it: “There’s much to admire about the movie’s tense dreaminess, its pulpy undertow and severe elegance, as well as the astonishing, awkward sincerity with which Schrader hurtles headlong at questions of love, hate, race and redemption in an unforgiving world.” Armond White, in the National Review, was less impressed: “Schrader’s sexual-racial fantasy is both naïve and shameless.” (White’s review contains spoilers.)
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.