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.
#share#You can make another case against the new Pomona standards, too. We don’t quite know how tenure committees at Pomona will evaluate whether a candidate lives up to the diversity and inclusion standard, but it seems fair to assume that students — the people who are actually in the classroom, and the people who were a motivating force behind the change — will play a significant role in that process, providing first-hand accounts to the committee of a candidate’s behavior in the classroom. So if you just plain don’t like your professor, you can call them a racist and thus make it harder for them to get tenure. (That’s not impossible under most tenure systems, since accusations of racism are damaging and hard to counter, but the Pomona standards formalize it and perhaps tilt the balance of power toward the students.) That many students would actually do that seems unlikely, but it’s a real possibility, and its enshrinement in the Pomona standards is a worrying thing.
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But it goes further than that. What if you think your professor is a representative of a racist system — that teaching the material the way it’s always been taught amounts to a marginalization of minority narratives and therefore an affront to diversity and inclusion? The Western canon, for instance, is full of white, male authors. If your English professor believes that teaching the Western canon in its traditional form is right and proper, he or she might be considered on the wrong side of “diversity and inclusion” under the Pomona guidelines and thus unfit to receive tenure.
#related#One could even go a step further and imagine a world where universities set strict quotas for the percentage of authors on a course’s reading list who must come from a certain ethnic group, so as to protect “diversity.” Administrators who introduce diversity policies into the classroom typically have good intentions. But those diversity policies often are at odds with the traditions that have shaped academics for centuries and that are necessary for professors to be able to conduct inquiries into their fields. Pomona’s policy is a classic example of that trend — though administrators view the policy as a means of forcing professors to think about the type of student body they’d like to have, it could instead be used as a vehicle for coerced assimilation to the amorphous liberal idea of “diversity” and the breakdown of the college classroom. Were such efforts extended to all universities, the consequences would be stifling.
— Noah Daponte-Smith is an intern at National Review.