Why do conservatives oppose tenure? It may seem obvious – tenure is something unions demand to protect their useless members who would otherwise be weeded out by the forces of the free market.
However, while I would agree with some of the criticism against tenure in schools, I would argue that tenure in academia is absolutely vital to the US economy – and vital to the conservative movement.
Let’s start with the economy. To understand this, let’s break things down: What’s academia good for?
A very simple answer is “educating students”, and that answer is correct. However, academia is also responsible for producing knowledge, and in the end, innovation.
You may think that that’s what the private sector is supposed to be doing – after all, you’re using private sector innovations on a daily basis. However, nearly every major private sector innovation really starts in academia – including innovations such as the internet. They start off as theoretical concepts in academia, which future entrepreneurs go to college and learn, and then find ways to apply practically in the real world and make money. The computer existed on paper in academia long before it existed in your home and office.
What this means is effectively that today’s academic research is tomorrow’s iPhone, tomorrow’s flatscreen TV, tomorrow’s cancer treatment and so on.
So, more academic research today equals more growth tomorrow, just like more seeds planted today equals more flowers tomorrow.
But not all academic research is equal.
This brings us to a phenomenon that has been going on in recent decades: Adjunctivisation.
If you’re not familiar with it, don’t worry – it doesn’t get one tenth of the media attention it deserves. Academia still has a reputation as a place where you get a job for life. One of the few places in fact that still offers that, in an era where traditionally safe manufacturing jobs are being shipped overseas.
That image however is highly outdated. In fact, 2/3 university lecturers today are adjuncts, not tenured professors. Adjuncts are employed on a per-semester basis, and are traditionally paid per module that they teach (more teaching hours = more money). Unlike their tenured colleagues, adjuncts have no job security whatsoever and can be fired for any reason at all, they are low-paid (thousands of them rely on food stamps – and these are people with PhDs we’re talking about), and they are not unionized.
Adjuncts have no obligation to do research – they’re strictly hired as teachers. However, since no-one wants to be an adjunct forever, doing research is a must. The only way to secure a tenure-track position is, after all, by publishing.
This brings us to the problem with adjunct research: It sucks. Since adjuncts can be fired for any reason, their research tends to be non-controversial and timid, not challenging any mainstream beliefs. Groundbreaking stuff is for people with job security who can’t be fired just because the Dean disagrees with the conclusions of their latest paper.
There is another reason why adjunct research rarely reaches the quality of that of tenured professors, which is that they simply don’t have enough time to research after teaching (often at several different colleges simultaneously) enough hours to pay the rent.
So what happens when an ever-higher proportion of researchers lack job security? It means the average research output becomes less controversial, less challenging, and just overall worse.
And this is really bad for growth. Remember that private companies take groundbreaking concepts developed in academia (such as the theory of relativity) and turn them into useful products (such as nuclear energy). With fewer groundbreaking theories produced in academia, we get fewer innovations in the private sector – and that means less growth.
Innovation is what determines the long-run growth rate. In the short term, growth can fluctuate due to a number of factors, but in the long term, a country grows at the level at which it can improve its productivity. This is macroeconomics 101.
Not every country needs to innovate to grow – developing countries can grow just by adopting and copying already-existing technologies that developed countries have come up with (a country like Somalia could grow a lot just by adopting modern agricultural tools like tractors). However, countries like the US that are at the “technological frontier” (basically, that already have access to the most advanced technologies humans have developed) have to come up with new stuff if they want to grow further. For a country like Somalia, having 2/3 lecturers be adjuncts may make a lot of sense since Somalia doesn’t really need any research and can save a lot of money for now by just copying the stuff others have already come up with that they don’t have. Essentially, the US is a first world country with a higher education system suitable for a third world failed state.
The adjunctivisation of academia also removes one of the most important competitive advantages that the US has relative to countries like China: Free, academic debate. China may have cheap labour, near-zero regulation and low taxes, but it lacks freedom of speech. That means academic researchers in China have to watch what they say or risk ending up in big trouble. Needless to say, this stifles research and virtually ensures that China will never be an innovative powerhouse. Groundbreaking research requires free thought, it really is as simple as that.
However, with adjunctivisation, the US has become a country where 2/3 academicians do not have any academic freedom in reality. While they do not risk imprisonment or execution like in China, the threat of unemployment is more than enough to keep the vast majority in line.
And of course, that’s half the reason why universities prefer adjuncts over tenured professors in the first place – they want to be able to control their staff just like any other employer. The other reason is that adjuncts are cheap. More adjuncts means more money left over for the university administrators (who are the only ones who are really making big money in the education business).
But while I can understand why universities like adjuncts, the fact remains: Adjunctivisation is destroying the very purpose of academia as a place for free speech and research, and it’s destroying the very engine of our economy – innovation.
Now, what about conservatives? Apart from the fact that we kind of like economic growth & innovation, what reason do we have to support tenure?
It’s very simple: Academia leans to the left. When academic freedom shrinks, that means conservatives get silenced. Remember what I said about adjuncts being unable to criticize mainstream beliefs for fear of being fired? Mainstream beliefs in academy are (for the most part) left-winged. It’s not leftists who suffer when academic freedom is infringed, just like it’s not the majority who suffer when freedom of speech is infringed – it’s the conservative minority.
The fewer tenure-track positions are available, the fewer conservatives there will be in academia. If a faculty only has one tenure-track position available, you can be all-but-certain that it will go to someone who is “mainstream” and who won’t drag the university into what they view as unnecessary controversies (like conservative research tends to do). Of course, having more open positions does not mean that political bias won’t exist, but it improves the odds for those outside the mainstream dramatically.
By taking this fight, conservatives can also improve its position with postgraduates. I don’t know when the last time was that the GOP won a majority of the postgraduate vote, but I suspect it hasn’t happened since 1984. Conservatism started off as an intellectual movement, and it is only as an intellectual movement that it can possibly succeed – Reagan was a product not of the dumb, soundbyte-conservatism of the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, but of the intellectual conservatism of the Heritage Foundation and the other movements that were part of the intellectual conservative revival in the 1950’s and 60’s. And to be an intellectual movement, we need intellectuals.
That is why conservatives should love tenure, and that is why we should support any effort to protect the academic freedom and improve the working conditions of adjuncts. It is time to change track. The future of the economy and our movement depends on it. Thank you for reading.