Why should universities guarantee jobs to a bunch of elitists who study esoteric subjects and brainwash students with left-wing politics? This critique of tenure in higher education is as old as tenure itself, and it’s gaining ground. In recent years, governing boards and legislators in several states have attempted to ban tenure or curtail its power — sometimes succeeding, as in Wisconsin. In the American labor market, where employers have unusually wide latitude to hire and fire at will, it’s not hard for politicians to channel popular resentment toward a small class of workers with relatively strong protections.
That class is getting even smaller. The proportion of American faculty members on the tenure track has been falling since the 1970s, and today just a third of college professors have tenure or are on track to receive it. Every year more and more teachers join the ranks of contingent faculty members, surviving contract to contract with little hope that these debates will ever apply to them.
Over the years, tenure’s defenders have offered up noble pleas for the system. It does not grant a teacher a job for life but simply protection from arbitrary firing and retribution; it safeguards academic freedom; it decreases turnover and creates a more stable learning environment for students; it’s more cost-effective than critics suggest, especially when compared with how much universities spend on new administrative positions and lavish student facilities.
All these arguments are basically right. But they will never persuade tenure skeptics outside the university. That’s because the fight over tenure is not really about tenure. It’s a proxy for a larger debate about the meaning of academic freedom and the priorities of higher education. These are intractable battles in the culture wars, but universities are not helpless to confront them — as long as they grapple with the real problems in the tenure system and academic culture.
Image credit: Shoshana Schultz
President Biden tends to hammer on the theme of national unity, often in theological terms. On Memorial Day, he described the ongoing battle for the “soul of America,” a conflict between “our worst instincts — which we’ve seen of late — and our better angels. Between ‘Me first’ and ‘We the people.’” In January, in his Inaugural Address, he quoted St. Augustine: “A people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”
That line appears in “The City of God,” in a chapter that laments the fate of a people who drift from heeding their better angels to obeying their inner demons — like denizens of the Roman Empire, which “declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists, history shows,” St. Augustine wrote.
Over the past six months Mr. Biden has been warning us, in his frank and ecumenical way, that Americans have become a bunch of idol worshipers. He’s right. We have transformed political hatreds into a form of idolatry. A team of researchers analyzed a range of survey data and concluded that “out-party hate” now seems to shape American voting decisions more than race or religion do. “The foundational metaphor for political sectarianism is religion,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science last fall, based on “the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.” Political hatred has become Americans’ animating faith, a chief source of existential meaning.
The analogy between political sectarianism and religious faith goes only so far. I don’t mean to suggest that every crackpot political opinion deserves the status and legal protection of a religious doctrine or that all dogmatic mind-sets are morally equivalent. It should be possible to hold one party responsible for voter suppression and the Capitol riot while recognizing that pseudoreligious ideologies and purity cults have multiplied on both ends of the political spectrum. This is a commentary not just on the polarization of politics but also on the persistence of humans’ metaphysical needs, even in a secular age — and a nudge to reappraise our prophecies of apocalypse or salvation from a humbler perspective.
Image credit: Alberto Miranda
Over the past year, ordinary medical research nearly ground to a halt as researchers focused on coronavirus vaccine trials and treatments. Single-mindedness paid off. Drugmakers developed lifesaving vaccines in record time, and now a third of Americans are at least partially vaccinated.
But ultimately, the pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis that may force health professionals and medical schools to look beyond the traditional tools of modern medicine and think more broadly about how we train doctors to grapple with public health catastrophes.
There were signs of a reckoning at the very start of the pandemic. When Covid-19 hit the Northeast, the Yale School of Medicine moved classes online and pulled many students off clinical rotations. “The dean sent an email that said, go home, take this time to study,” Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, a Yale medical student, told me. “I thought, oh my God, I can’t imagine studying for an exam right now.” Mr. Tiako and a small number of the faculty and students worked together to create new courses that students could take instead, including an intriguing elective called “Covid-19: A History of the Present.”
Image credit: Soomin Jung