college professors and tenure -- 10/27/14

Today's selection -- from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. The first high profile case of a professor being fired for his academic views involved Edward Ross of Stanford in 1900. He argued against Asian immigration on "eugenicist" grounds, a position anathema to the Stanford family since they had made their fortune in part by building railroads with cheap Asian labor. One result of the firing of Ross was a the formation, fifteen years later, of a union for professors called the American Association of University Professors. And with that union came tenure -- whereby a professor could not be fired by his university employers. Tenure remains a controversial practice. It has meant an unprecedented degree of academic freedom for professors in the U.S., but has sometimes been the mechanism by which mediocrity and incompetence become entrenched:

"[Edward] Ross was not blindsided by the firing, and he was careful to engineer maximum publicity for his cause. Seven Stanford professors resigned in protest (their places were quickly filled by Harvard Ph.D.s), and the American Economic Association, the group founded by Ross's old dissertation director, Richard Ely, took up the matter. It was the first professorial investigation of an abuse of academic freedom in the United States. [Stanford president David] Jordan stiff-armed the inquiry, and no remedial action came out of it, but the abridgment of academic freedom had finally been recognized as a systemic problem in higher education. Ross went on first to Nebraska, then to Wisconsin and celebrity; fifteen years later, the American Association of University Professors came into being.

Edward A. Ross

"The desire to protect academic freedom was not, as it happened, the chief motivation for the formation of the AAUP. Its principal organizers were [University of Chicago philosophy chair] John Dewey and the Hopkins philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy. ... Lovejoy had been one of the seven professors who had resigned from Stanford in the wake of Ross's dismissal; he had taught at Columbia for a year before going to Hopkins, and he respected Dewey. Along with a number of other prominent academics, including J. McKeen Cattell, the psychologist who had helped bring Dewey and Franz Boas to Columbia, they met in Baltimore in 1913 and began planning their organization.

"What Dewey envisioned -- as he put it in a letter to Boas soliciting his participation --was 'an association representing the interests of American university teachers, comparable to the American Bar or Medical Associations.' He did not imagine a trade union. ... As Dewey saw it, the role of the AAUP was to make the case for scholarship to the American public. One of the chief questions he and the other founders debated had to do with the criteria for admission: it was felt that the membership should be restricted to prominent scholars, since they would represent the profession at its finest; and, for the first few years, it was.

"In 1915 the AAUP came into formal existence and Dewey was made its first president. In his address at the first meeting, he dismissed the notion that the organization would be required to devote much of its time to investigating violations of academic freedom. At the end of the year, he was obliged to report that he had been too optimistic. Thirty-one academic freedom cases came before the AAUP in its first two years, and they didn't stop coming. It seemed that the right of university teachers to express their views was not as secure as Dewey had imagined. In the end, most membership restrictions were lifted and the AAUP became just what Dewey hoped it would not have to become: a union for professors and the national academic freedom watchdog."


Louis Menand


The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2001 by Louis Menand


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