The Problem With College Tenure

The Problem With College Tenure

By Carl M. Cannon - August 10, 2014

Middle-aged Steven G. Salaita of Blacksburg, Va., recently suffered every working stiff’s nightmare. He quit his job for a better one, but before starting at the new place, his employer checked out his social media persona—and withdrew the offer.

Now he has no job at all. His friends think he got hosed.

This tale of woe has a couple of twists, however. The first is that Steven Salaita was a tenure-track college professor, and they almost never get canned. So what did he do? That’s where his presence on social media comes in. These didn’t turn out to be compromising photos of Steven at a party looking smashed or Steven on a camping trip smoking a blunt.

No, this was Salaita, formerly a professor in the English department at Virginia Tech, slamming Jews, U.S. soldiers, and “rednecks” on Twitter—and relating his plans to introduce future classrooms of 19-year-olds to his obsessive hatred of Israel.

Seeing this, University of Illinois officials reconsidered letting Salaita teach two classes in the school’s American Indian studies program. One might sympathize with him—hey, he was just blowing off steam and the war in Gaza is upsetting—until looking at his Twitter feed. There, Salaita reveals himself to be a foul-mouthed fanatic whose antipathy for Israel is so thorough that he calls for the country’s destruction, fantasizes about the mass murder of Jewish settlers, blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism, and says that anybody who disagrees with him “is an awful human being.”

Singling out his most offensive tweet is not easy. On July 7, he re-tweeted someone calling for the murder of a prominent American journalist; on July 19, he said it wouldn’t be surprising if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on television wearing “a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children.” In June, when three Israeli teenagers kidnapped by Hamas were missing and presumed dead—the crime that sparked the latest Mideast war—Salaita expressed hopes that all Jewish settlers on the West Bank “would go missing.” That’s 350,000 people he wishes would disappear.

Should he be imparting this stuff to impressionable teenagers at a public-funded university? If put to a plebiscite, the answer would likely be no. But professors think the public should have no say. “We stand by Professor Salaita and defend his right to engage in extramural utterances,” the American Association of University Professors said Thursday. “The University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.”

So there you have it. Keeping a college teaching job in this country is a constitutional right. Never mind whether it’s in the interests of the students or the university. Under this theory, tenured professorships are lifetime gigs with more job security than federal judgeships. But many people holding them don’t act like impartial judges—they act like unhinged advocates.

Last week, a Latin American studies professor at Kent State posted an essay calling for “jihad” and “revolution,” while characterizing Israel as “the spiritual heir to Nazism.” The professor, a UCLA-trained Muslim convert named Julio Pino, said that any college professor who didn’t join him in shunning all Israeli academics is “directly responsible for the murder of over 1,400 Palestinian children, women, and elderly citizens.”

Officials at Kent State, which is receiving $137.4 million from Ohio taxpayers this year, issued a statement decrying Pino’s comments as “reprehensible and irresponsible.” They shouldn’t have been surprised. In 2011, Pino attended a university-sanctioned speech by an Israeli diplomat and yelled, “Death to Israel!” from the audience. Administrators said that was reprehensible, too, but did nothing about it.

Republicans are also frequent targets of “liberal” college professors, often right in class.  In 2013, Michigan State University William S. Penn called Mitt Romney “a greedy bastard,” denigrated Ann Romney for no discernable reason, and attacked the Republican Party as “old … dying white people … who raped the country.” When video surfaced of this rant, Penn was put on paid leave for a semester—at a salary of $145,800—and was back in the classroom by January.

Others don’t even get reprimanded. A University of Iowa Republican student group sent out an email invitation to “Conservative Coming Out Week.” Among the activities it touted was a screening of a movie about George W. Bush, a “Red vs. Blue” kickball game, and a blood drive.

Incensed to hear of such an event on the Iowa City campus, gender studies professor Ellen Lewin fired off a three-word reply: “F___ You, Republicans.” Called out for her intemperance, this devotee of diversity conceded that her language was “inappropriate”—while expounding further on her antipathy for conservatives.

Last April, Eastern Connecticut State University adjunct professor Brent Terry was supposed to be teaching creative writing when he began ranting about the 2014 midterm elections. If Republicans win, he said, “colleges will start closing up.” Why? Because “racist, misogynist, money-grubbing” conservatives “don’t think money should go to giving you people dangerous ideas about how the world should be run.”

This tirade was caught on tape by an offended student, and when he saw it, Terry had the decency to be appalled—and promptly apologized. Or maybe the most salient fact is that he’s untenured.

University of Central Florida professor Charles Negy does have tenure, and therefore feels emboldened to boast about trying to undermine his students’ faith traditions. A professor of psychology, Negy doesn’t believe in God, and openly ridicules the faith of those who do—including his own mother and father. (He says he was “brainwashed” into the Southern Baptist church by his “uneducated Texan parents.”) One day, a few Christian undergrads summoned the courage to challenge him.

“Our God is an awesome God,” they said—and similar stuff—which engendered an open letter response from Negy repeatedly calling them “bigots.” You can’t make this stuff up. Negy also revealed in a subsequent interview that despite his doctoral degree, he’s not all that educated.

“I absolutely provoked the situation,” he conceded. “It is my style of teaching. A French philosopher once said—I believe he was French—once said, ‘The purpose of a university is to comfort those who are afflicted and to afflict those who are comfortable.’”

Well, no. It wasn’t a Frenchman, and it wasn’t about universities. The quote makes little sense when applied to pampered professors in their comfortable sinecures. The line is H.L. Mencken’s, and before that it was Finley Peter Dunne’s. They were American newspapermen, operating in the free marketplace of ideas, without tenure or a safety net, and they were talking about the proper role of newspapers.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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