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June 16, 2009


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Kim--thanks for raising these important, indeed central, questions. And really looking forward to how bank regulation provides a font for law schools.

A lot of this relates to how we assess the likelihood that there will be retaliation for taking politically unpopular stances, no? That is, is it true that if you're *really* good (but controversial), you'll have an easy time finding another job? Perhaps, but I'm not sure.

We haven't yet spoken at the faculty lounge about Robert Post's and Matt Finkin's important new book on academic freedom, though I hope someone here (or more than one) will address it. Seems to me that as we focus on the role of tenure in protecting unproductive (or less productive) people, we run the risk of loosing an appreciation for the value of tenure in promoting academic freedom.

Jacqueline Lipton

I too am very interested in your further thoughts on this issue, Kim, and really loved the link to the discussion of "deadwood" and other forms of "wood" in legal academia.

Kim Krawiec

Thanks Al and Jacqui for the comments. I think it’s clear from Levitt’s essay that he considers protecting unpopular views to be one of the least persuasive arguments in support of tenure, under exactly the rationale you mention, Al: if someone is doing high-quality (understanding the subjectiveness of that term) but controversial academic work, then some other institution will value her for exactly the reason that another lets her go. I think I tend to mostly agree with that, but I’m anxious to hear from others whose fields may be more ideological than my own. The other arguments in support of tenure are to me stronger, and I’ll discuss them more in my next post on this topic. What’s my incentive to hire a person in my field who is better than me this year if next year the faculty might decide to fire me, since they’ve now got someone better in the same field? There could be a “race to the bottom” in terms of faculty quality that is only corrected by turning over hiring to university administrators, who don’t have these same unhealthy incentives, but do have less information about scholarly and teaching quality than faculty members who regularly perform those functions. As most of us know, however, tenure has not seemed to eliminate this sort of “turf protection” across the board.


Given the amount of talk about "tenure as protection for politically controversial work," we should be able to test this question: do untenured people who are fired for taking controversial stands locate decent employment elsewhere? I'm aware of few examples along these lines for recent times. But there are certainly some well-known cases in the 20th century, which point in the direction that Kim and Levitt suggest. That is, some prominent people who were fired for political reasons went on to decent jobs elsewhere. Vernon Parrington (formerly of University of Oklahoma, later of the University of Washington) was fired for political reasons, yet ended up with a good job. But I'm not sure why the same political reasons that cause a controversial person to be fired wouldn't exist at other institutions, too. And maybe we should be concerned about the good but not fabulous faculty who might be fired for political reasons, too? That is, I don't know as anyone should be fired for political reasons. If faculty aren't doing their job, that should be handled in whatever way's appropriate (internal discipline, up to firing, I'd suppose). But I wouldn't want to say that faculty who're not doing a great job and are saying things that are politically controversial should be expendable. I know this is getting rather far afield at this point.

Anyway, what about more recent cases? I'm not thinking of a lot of cases of late where faculty have been fired for political reasons. So it's a little hard for me to test some of this.

One different recent situation comes to mind--and here it's of a formerly tenured professor at Emory--is Michael Bellisles. He's not quite a test of this, because he resigned after his book Arming America was withdrawn by Knopf and was found to have had some very serious problems. I'm not aware of him being able to find another academic job anywhere--though that may have been by choice. And, as I say, there were scholarly, as well as political, reasons behind the attack on his scholarship. But his other work was well-regarded.

Anyway, glad you're here and looking forward to hearing about the banks....

Jean Camp

Levitt's work complies with the dominant paradigm of Market Uber Alles aligns with the concentration of economic power. So his willingness to "give up" tenure for a small amount of money is laughably flaccid. I suspect, if pressed, he would assure you that the reality of the market influences everything BUT economics research. Economics research is the Search For Truth. And he is well=paid not because he serves the interest of capitol over labor or reifies the dominant discourse, but because he is Close To Truth.

No doubt, in real terms, he has given up far more than an expected value of $15k to stay a professor. That he is delusional as well as dishonest should have no bearing on academic debate.

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