Tenure, Freedom of Expression, and the Disturbing Disposability of People

The Curmudgeon thinks tenure for teachers isn’t a very good idea; actually, he thinks it’s more an outdated idea. He used this space to go into that issue in detail more than two years ago and doesn’t want to reiterate that entire argument today so he’ll just hit the highlights: people who are good at their jobs have nothing to worry about but tenure was once very important back in the days when public school teaching jobs in many places were essentially political patronage positions, with one crew of teachers replacing another every time someone from a different political party or faction won a local election. Today, tenure for public school teachers seem unnecessary because teachers have their unions to protect them and often, local civil service regulations as well.

Recently, though, we saw an example of another aspect tenure – an aspect that isn’t nearly as outdated.

Last week, Penn State University president Eric Barron participated in one of those “die-in” protests sweeping the country in the wake of the questionable treatment by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. A lot of people like Barron are participating in such protests, but what distinguishes Barron from many of those others is that Penn State is a public university, funded in part by the state of Pennsylvania.

And as anyone could have predicted, some of the people responsible for deciding how much money the state gives Penn State were not happy.

Pennsylvania state representative Jerry Knowles declared that

As a former member of the law enforcement community, I believe Penn State President Eric Barron’s recent actions at a protest on campus were disrespectful, and as a result, I believe he should either issue a public apology to law enforcement officials, or step down as president of the university.

Yes, Knowles is a “former member of the law enforcement community” ­– a police officer in the 1970s in the town of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania – population 7003, 94.4 percent of them white and 0.5 percent African-American (thirty-nine whole people).

Which makes him a real expert on maintaining the public safety in a diverse community.

Speaking of the hands-up gesture Barron used in the protest, Knowles added that

I know what it means, and it’s a slap in the face to law enforcement, regardless of race, regardless of creed, regardless of color.

Knowles concluded by noting that

Barron was photographed among student protesters in the ‘hands up’ position, and as a former police officer, I know I am not alone in taking offense to such a gesture. I think it is unbelievable that the president of the university would show such disrespect to police officers…

But this isn’t about the protest; it’s about the reaction to the protest, because you know – you just know – that Knowles and some of his colleagues are going to make a thing of this next year when Barron goes before the state legislature to discuss Penn State’s annual appropriation from the state government. He’s going to rant and he’s going to rave and somewhere along the line he’s going to demand an apology or some other pound of flesh lest he unleash his wrath over the actions of one person at the expense of the university’s 35,000 students and 44,000 employees (the latter, incredibly, is not a typo).

But even though Eric Barron isn’t a teacher, this is a good example of a different aspect of the concept of tenure.

Knowles may or may not be serious about wanting Barron’s resignation, but this kind of thing is a sad part of our history: attempting to punish or fire teachers – we’re mostly (but not entirely) talking about college professors now – for their political beliefs, for their political actions, and in some cases even for the subjects they teach. In the 1950s, for example, teachers all over the country were required to take loyalty oaths that essentially asserted that they weren’t communists. It was required of history professors and political science professors but it also was required of chemistry professors and geology professors and math professors because heaven forbid some radical might try to teach a communist version of calculus.

Our society has paid a price – a fearsome price, in fact – for punishing some people who study and teach subjects that are unpopular in some circles. During the McCarthy era, experts and analysts who worked for the U.S. State Department and whose areas of specialization were Asian cultures and Asian history and politics were routinely labeled communists or “communist sympathizers” and drummed out of the government. As a result, when the U.S. started to get involved in Vietnam, all of the people who knew Vietnam – knew the people, knew the culture, knew the history, and, most important, knew that the Vietnamese would never, ever stop fighting until there were none of them left to fight – had been publicly discredited. The result was that as we considered getting deeper into that quagmire, there was no one left in government who knew much of anything about Vietnam, knew enough to say “Hey, this can’t work, we shouldn’t be doing this,” so we went ahead and did it, with tragic consequences.

So that’s the other facet of tenure for teachers in higher education: in theory, it protects them from people who think that people who study what they study or have the beliefs they express should be exiled from higher education. In The Curmudgeon’s mind this is nowhere near reason enough for tenure to exist, but even in recent years we’ve seen both liberal professors persecuted by the political right and conservatives teachers made miserable by liberals who are appalled – appalled! – that someone is teaching a perspective they don’t share.

Imagine that: trying to share perspectives that some students haven’t previously been exposed to in an environment that’s supposed to be about learning new things.

We need to be less sensitive about people who disagree with us and people who commit one wrong act or exercise poor judgment one time. A person with what we think is a bad idea is a person with a bad idea, not necessarily a bad person; a person who does something we don’t like is not necessarily unfit for whatever role he or she is currently playing.

Should Penn State’s president really resign because a backwater state legislator is angry over his display of his convictions? Did the TV Land cable network really need to take The Cosby Show off the air because it’s looking more and more like Bill Cosby is some kind of rapist or sexual predator? Did the Food Network really need to take Paula Deen off the air because her language reflects the times and culture in which she was raised, as opposed to waiting to see if people stopped watching her? Did a New York City council analyst really need to be fired because he cited (unrefuted) statistics that contradicted those offered by the city’s near-legendary police commissioner? Should the commissioner of the National Football League really resign because he handled a serious and sensitive issue in 2014 the same way he did in 2013, when he received relatively little public criticism, but failed to recognize the major, almost overnight shift in how much of the public now wants such matters handled? Must an elected official really resign if it is revealed that he (or she) had, or is having, an extra-marital affair?

The Curmudgeon thinks not, at least in many of these cases – although these are all situations about which reasonable people may disagree. He thinks the public official with the gripe about Penn State’s president should have gotten on the phone, called Penn State’s president, and suggested that they sit down and talk about his concerns rather than go public with his demand and mount a public soapbox.

People disagree or disapprove – this happens every day. Why does it seem that every disagreement or disapproval these days now seems to be accompanied by a demand that the object of the disagreement or disapproval disappear from the face of the earth – or at least from the life or lives of the offended?

Why have we suddenly come to see people as so…so…easily disposable?

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