Tierneying Against the Wind(mills)

The discussions about the professors in American universities are getting a little bit silly—at least on the part of the Don Quixotes on the right who see dragons where there are only everyday academic windmills. In the New York Times (subscription required) of March 4, John Tierney’s feverish imagination leads him to describe the ouster of Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard as a “coup d’etat.”

Summers resigned—and without a gun to his head. Furthermore, Harvard, like all of our educational institutions, is made up of a number of constituencies, all with power—all of whom retain their power at Harvard, even with Summers gone. No more are faculty able to stage a coup than they are able to produce brigades of lock-step Marxists (as David Horowitz imagines).

Tierney assumes a need for reform in American universities, but doesn’t say why. All Tierney can point to as problems are excessive power on the part of the faculty and a dearth of survey courses. That’s understandable: Tierney has no more real nuts-and-bolts experience with academic communities over the last quarter century than Horowitz. Which is to say, none.

What are the problems? Why do universities need reform? Are our universities turning out morons? No more so now than they ever have. In fact, more Americans attend college than ever before—reflecting the wide-spread belief that a college education has value to the adult life of an American.

So what is Tierney’s point? For some reason, he tries to create an analogy between newspapers and colleges, equating reporters with college professors:

After a while, as we hired more reporters like ourselves, we’d be surprised when outsiders complained.

Huh? What are you talking about?

If newspapers were run like this, by committees of tenured journalists unconcerned with circulation and ad revenue, we wouldn’t spend much time trying to improve the weather map or the news summaries or movie listings. We’d all be too busy writing 27-part series to be submitted for peer review by the Pulitzer board.

Oh, I see: weather maps are more important than research and scholarship. Is he nuts, or just completely ignorant of the difference between education and business or journalism? I’m not sure.

There are plenty of problems with American universities, and I (for one) am not shy about pointing them out. I’d like to see tenure reformed, for example, making it a real protection of academic freedom for everyone and not a brake on change and experimentation. In his article, Tierney sort of agrees, taking the perplexing stand that tenure is the root of the “problems” with American universities (giving the faculty too much power, somehow) while claiming it is not. At one point, he suggests that administrators be given the hiring/firing powers of business executives (completely ignoring the fact that the two cannot be modeled towards analogous ends). But then, at the end of his article, he quotes Fred Siegel, a professor at Cooper Union and fellow traveler with David Horowitz:

“Abolishing tenure could just turn the decision making over to deans who come out of today’s orthodox academic world…. “That would mean that the few remaining non-leftists would get pushed out.”

So, because the “bosses” in academia wouldn’t make the right (wing) choices that Siegel, Tierney, and Horowitz want, they shouldn’t be given that power. So tenure might as well stay. Not a very creative view of possible solutions, now is it?

As a low-level Assistant Professor not even on a tenure-track line, survey courses are my bread and butter. I have a job because survey courses are both needed and wanted.  So I was surprised to read, “Humanities survey courses are out of favor now” in Tierney’s column. Again, not only is Tierney just plain wrong, but he once more shows how out of touch he is with American academia.

At the end of his piece, Tierney asks:

So is there any way to change academia? [Siegel says,] “The Achilles heel of academics is their status anxiety,” Siegel said. “The only way to attack them is with mockery.”

Perhaps that gives me my first real understanding of Horowitz’s new book on dangerous professors: He’s trying to mock them. If so, the attempt is a failure. The one being mocked is Horowitz—often by the very professors he wrote about. And Tierney, who seems to know as little about what goes on in American universities as Horowitz, seems to want to join him.

Yes, perhaps Tierney, too, is trying to mock. If so, the only one satirized is himself.

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