Subscribe for 17¢ / day

There's a conservative case for tenure at state universities. And it's one that conservatives in the Iowa Legislature should consider amid continued attacks on faculty protections.

The likes of state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, love to champion narratives about no-show professors ditching class without recourse. They foam about the alleged "liberal bias" of four-year schools. They rail against academics whom, they say, are without "real world" experience, code for a desire to turn universities into little but mills churning out worker bees.

Zaun's push to remove tenure probably died this past week in a subcommittee of the Senate Education Committee. Yet lawmakers continue to debate the matter. And it would be unwise for those on the right championing the argument to ignore the potentially self-defeating results of their ill conceived crusade.

The overarching justification for tenure, intellectual independence, remains a valuable safe-guard against the very group-think Zaun hopes to diminish in his crusade to kill tenure in Iowa.

Take, for instance, evolutionary psychology. 

Feminists have long considered primatology -- the study of primates and, often, humans -- an intellectual enemy of their movement. The issue isn't one of political bent among practitioners. Instead, it's about what feminists see as research that used to justify inequitable treatment of women. 

For instance, many primatologists frequently lecture, hypothesize and research the evolutionary causes for physical and cognitive differences between the sexes, known as sexual dimorphism. That data, especially from research involving the great apes, is, often, considered a lens through which to view human evolution. It's only been about five million years -- a blink of a geological eye -- since the progenitors of human-kind and the chimpanzee split apart.

It's that reliance on the inescapable realities of genetic determinism, which flies in the face of the humanist ethos of many leftist groups, that so annoys the most hard-line feminists. 

Just recently, for example, a group of researchers published a paper about what men from a wide range of cultures find attractive in a potential mate. It confirmed previous research that male mate selection isn't a cultural construct. Instead, it's one crafted eons ago by genetic programming. Predictably, the Internet howled about how the work -- wholly viable in a vacuum -- should not be conducted because of the politics of the moment. 

But academic study such as this will continue, as it should, regardless of the national debate about harassment and historic oppression. Such research isn't about politics nor policy. At its core, it's about understanding humanity, an intellectual tradition that predates Socrates.

And it will continue because of tenure. No amount of railing or politically motivated protests will end it. It will remain largely insulated from the ebb and flow of politics, which would seek to silence it.

The above example is but one of the debates that rage inside of the halls of American universities in departments ranging from economics to philosophy. A supply side economist could be silenced should protections from the protests of her more liberal peers and students suddenly disappear. 

History tends to remember the great thinkers, seminal individuals who, for a moment, challenged the acceptable ethos of the time. And history has shown a need for protections from political moments that would stifle debate.

Tenure isn't about protections for anecdotal no-show professors. It's not about some alleged liberal bias on campus, a brash oversimplification of reality. 

Tenure is a defense of intellectual independence and the significantly complex arguments happening on campuses across the country. And, as with the evolutionary work cited above, exposing researchers and intellectuals to society's political whims could only further the supposed echo chamber, which the anti-tenure crowd claim to abhor. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com

1
1
0
0
0

Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times