No aspect of university administration went untouched by the wave of student protests that swept across America’s colleges last fall. Among the affected realms was tenure, one of those academic institutions that can often seem totally inscrutable to the outsider. Why exactly do professors need irrevocable job security seven or eight years into their career? There are good reasons, of course — academic freedom and immunity from administrative discipline for one’s own research being chief among them.
At most top universities, tenure has little, if anything, to do with teaching ability, remaining predicated almost entirely on the research a professor produces. But at Pomona College that may be about to change.
Pomona recently passed a reform that would threaten tenure as it currently exists and make it dependent not on the measured consideration of academics, but rather the whims of the student body. The reform requires that, in order to be granted tenure, professors should foster “an inclusive classroom where all students are encouraged to participate” and provide “good teaching that is attentive to diversity in the student body.” The change was approved by a vote of the college’s faculty in response to a petition circulated by the student body over the past few months. In a college of roughly 1,600 students, the petition garnered 400 signatures. The resulting revision to tenure standards sounds innocuous — who’s opposed to diversity? — but in fact leads down a thorny road.
What exactly the change means nobody seems to know. Conor Friedersdorf, a writer at The Atlantic, e-mailed three activists who supported the tenure reform, and they all had different opinions on what “diversity and inclusion” entail. One thought the new standards meant a professor should use preferred gender pronouns and emphasize the contributions women have made to male-heavy fields such as computer science. Another thought professors should be required not to let “white, rich, male identified students, in particular, derail class discussions to explain to them ideas that they should have researched” if they want to remain within the new standards. A third was more modest, thinking simply that professors shouldn’t be rude to students and should run classes based on pre-agreed standards. That none of them had the same conception of what the new requirements actually mandate suggests the presence of a certain worrying vagueness, a move away from bright-line (or as close as we can get to bright-line) criteria toward a more malleable set of standards that leave room for abuse.
And make no mistake: Unclear, imprecise standards are liable to be abused. When nobody knows exactly what the rules are, they become whatever those in power want them to be. This is a case for bright-line rules in the law; it’s also a case for removing ambiguity from tenure standards. Under the current Pomona standards, who decides whether a faculty member adheres to the values of “diversity and inclusion”? As Friedersdorf notes, the phrase’s meaning is “contested” even on the left, and the chances of reaching a consensus definition — the sort of thing that’s typically required of words if you’re going to base a rule system on them — is slim. Even if you agree with the sentiments behind the standards, their apparent ambiguity is reason to pause and ask yourself whether they shouldn’t have been written more clearly. And if the standards do in fact mean that professors should be required to limit white students’ speaking time — well, that should give everyone more than mere pause.
Dont try to speak common sense to any U system they are so far gone into the land of unicorns and fairy dust the futures of the students they take tens of thousands of dollars a year from are not the main concern of these people.
So many activist students need to be sent home to mommys tit until they are ready to join the adult world, the professors that encourage the childish behavior need to get a real world job.
If the ratings are anonymous, I think that it will be the intolerant Liberal professors who will be hit the hardest by this.
The screeching crybabies among the students may be the loudest, but they are in the minority.
I guess the students want classrooms to be “safe zones” from any education that makes them “feel” uncomfortable.