They started coming for the professors years ago now.

1 03 2011

There’s an article in yesterday’s IHE that makes the reasonable observation that academic freedom is a responsibility as well as a right:

Academic freedom is, as Neil Hamilton has explained, a social contract — and will be lost if academics don’t fulfill their end of it. “If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship,” the Declaration warned, “the task will be performed by others … who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action is sure to breed suspicions and recurrent controversies deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities.”

Certainly, academic freedom is not a justification for saying anything you want and tenure is not a magic ticket that lets you be an asshole for the next thirty years. How many professors think it is? The authors of this piece seem to think it’s a lot:

Forty percent of professors say their work has been plagiarized. But they have little recourse. Administrators, disciplinary societies and publishers are all retreating from the responsibility to address issues such as plagiarism. The same goes for conflict of interest. Stanford University, for example, forbids medical school faculty members from accepting drug company perks and payment for talks. But the policy is unenforced. The same is true for the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado at Denver, and others. Then there are the academic economists who fail to disclose their corporate ties. Their institutions aren’t stopping them — and the American Economic Association is so far behind the curve that it doesn’t even have an ethics code. The list goes on and on. No one is minding the store.

This is not the profile of a profession that deserves the public trust.

The inability to combat malfeasance is not evidence of malfeasance. And come on! Medical school professors and even economists are living in a different world than most of us. Most humanities professors don’t have any perks, let alone expensive ones. This is like saying that all actors should wear tracker bracelets on their ankles because of Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan.

More importantly, the existence of a Code of Ethics from the American Economic Association wouldn’t change anything because just like the examples of the University of Colorado – Denver listed above, the people who want to make the professoriate look bad would claim it wasn’t being enforced. That’s because the main purpose of such critiques is not to save academic freedom but to make the professoriate look bad.

“Hate them!,” our new Tea Party Overlords say. “They live on our tax dollars and get summers off!” Of course, this sentiment has been out there for a long time, but seems somehow more important in the Scott Walker era than it ever did before. Ed at Gin and Tacos (whose political writing is so good that it makes me want to give up ever writing about conventional politics again due to my comparative inadequacy) covered the reasoning for this well a few days ago:

First they convinced the blue collars to scapegoat the Welfare Queens. Then the suburbanites scapegoated the blue collars and their cushy union factory jobs (hence NAFTA). Then the suburbanites started to cannibalize themselves: first the greedy retirees with their sweet benefits were redefined as Leeches, and now it’s the teachers and public sector workforce. While Americans in general have failed to notice how this game of “Find a new scapegoat every 3 years until there’s no one left with benefits or a salary over $10/hr ” has progressed methodically for several decades, the cops appear to have no illusions about what is happening. They are waking up to reality: “They’re going to come for us next.”

If tenured professors don’t understand that they’re already coming for them, then they aren’t paying attention. Following ethics codes should be a given in this environment. So should organizing ourselves into unions or other organizations in order to get our voices heard, or else we will all be in the same position as Wisconsin’s government employees in the end.

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3 responses

3 03 2011
Race to the bottom : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[...] Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk today.  He takes on the un-killable myth of what academic freedom and tenure do for academia: [...]

4 03 2011
We drive ourselves (and I don’t mean to work each day). « More or Less Bunk

[...] we work hard and the fact that anyone feels the need to prove this to the outside world tells us a lot more about the outside world than it does about [...]

5 07 2012
Are college professors working class? « More or Less Bunk

[...] What separates tenured and tenure-track professors from other working people is, of course, tenure itself. Even though anyone with tenure will be the first one to tell you that the idea that they can’t be fired is a joke, tenure is a lot more job protection than most workers get. That’s precisely why tenure has been under attack for years. [...]

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