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Martin Center Column Explores Academic Freedom, Tenure

Michael Munger writes for the Martin Center about the complicated nature of academic freedom and tenure on college campuses.

One of the core beliefs of the modern academy is the necessity of “faculty governance.” This view would hold that outside “political” interference is (1) morally offensive, and (2) prudentially mistaken.

The claim is that the best universities are those governed entirely by the faculty; more importantly, these elite units are best precisely because they are so governed. There is an irony here: the same faculty who advocate the strictest, most coercive political control of the private lives of citizens are indignant defenders of the right of faculty to enjoy the “academic freedom” to spend taxpayer money without oversight.

The difference between the generic problem of control of non-profit management, and the particular problem of managing institutions of higher learning (IHLs), lies in the problem of managing expertise and initiative. Modern academics focus on research; we call the most prestigious IHLs “research universities.” To judge research in a narrow field, one must be an expert in that field. But trustees are for the most part people who managed organizations, or made things, rather than study academic publications. The result is the kind of information asymmetry that led William Niskanen to conclude that Congressional oversight of federal bureaucracies was a “stylized farce.” …

… The oversight of standard technocracies by Congress may not be a useful analogy. No one defends unelected federal bureaucrats as having “bureaucratic freedom;” their job is to follow the rules and enforce the law. IHLs are different, so much so that “academic freedom” and “faculty governance” are stand-alone norms. You can’t tell a bureaucrat, “Go discover something,” but that scope for creativity is the foundation of the global American excellence in IHLs. We must be doing something right, given that university education is one of the key “exports” of the U.S. economy, with tens of thousands of foreign students competing for the privilege of paying $250,000 or more for a degree.

But the notion of academic freedom as a founding principle of American IHLs is either a myth or (at best) an exaggeration.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...