Why does the right hate tenure?

by John M. Crisp

Whenever our discussions turn to higher education, my tea party friend’s first point of complaint is the tenure system.

Of course. Tenure is low-hanging fruit for critics of colleges and universities. A cushy, high-paying job that comes with a guarantee that you can never be fired? Where in the world of private enterprise can you find such a plush racket?

But most criticism of tenure relies on misinformation. I taught freshman composition for three decades at a large community college in south Texas. I had tenure. I did not have a guaranteed “job for life.”

My college’s policy manual cites 18 reasons for which I could have been terminated, ranging from “incompetence” and “dereliction of duty” to driving a college vehicle while “legally intoxicated” and “reduction in force.” In other words, a tenured professor at my college could be terminated for the same general reasons as those applied to employees in private enterprise.

Then what’s tenure for? Here’s an example: I often asked my students to read “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great Colombian Nobel laureate.

“Chronicle” is a masterpiece that embodies a lot of what I wanted my students to know about good writing. And it’s a great story that many of them appreciated.

But it’s a story for grown-ups that includes a few grown-up words. A student complained. A dean gave me a call. The gist of our short conversation was that a righteous wave was sweeping America and that it was “coming after you, John Crisp.”

What happened? Nothing.

First, my college was far more enlightened about academic freedom and good literature than a single puritanical dean.

Second, tenure. Tenure is the context in which intellectual freedom thrives in our country. Without it, I might have been looking for another line of work. And my students may never have enjoyed the great gift of fine novels such as “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.”

This anecdote may provide some insight into what tenure really is. But I suspect that attacks on tenure have little to do with protecting students from encountering a few dirty words. Elements of the political right are on offense rather than defense, and tenure is one of the obstacles that stand in their way.

For several decades, right-wing deep pockets have been generous to colleges and universities, but they often expect — and receive — something in return.

In 1990 Charles and David Koch, the free market, libertarian, anti-regulation, billionaire brothers, spent a half-million dollars to establish the Koch Chair in International Economics at George Mason University. In return they demanded a seat at the table when the position was filled. Is there any question about what kind of professor the Koch brothers had in mind?

The Center for Public Integrity has extensively documented the donations of Koch-controlled foundations to higher education, reporting at least $12.7 million in 2012, spread among 163 colleges and universities.

The Koch brothers (David died in 2019) were people who expect a return on their investments.

What does tenure have to do with this?

On Sept. 13, Max McCoy, a tenured professor at Emporia State University, published an article that began: “I may be fired for writing this.”

McCoy criticizes the Kansas Board of Regents and the Emporia State administration for the sudden termination of more than 30 tenured professors with only a 30-day notice. McCoy believes that the mass firing reflects a desire by a Republican-dominated legislature to eliminate tenure.

Emporia State is in Kansas, the home of the Kochs. The president of ESU is Ken Hush, who is near-unique among American university presidents for not holding an advanced degree. He did, however, run a bulk commodities coal company for the Kochs.

McCoy believes that the elimination of tenure has more to do with promoting ideas that the Kochs like than it does with making sure students don’t read certain books. The goal, he believes, is to reshape the world according to the views of the Kochs.

Tenure stands in the way.

And McCoy? On Sept. 15, he was fired.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.