The Corner

‘Rice for Life’

In today’s Impromptus, I quote Arthur Waldron, the China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania: “If your university has gone to the trouble of building an endowment so that you don’t have to fight in the marketplace for a living, but are guaranteed rice for life in return for what you think, you should say what you think. That’s part of the deal.” I put this quotation in a piece for National Review called “Scholars with Spine: Notes from the field of China studies.” Another China scholar, when he read Waldron’s words, said, “This makes me realize that to accept academic tenure and then not tell the truth as you see it ought to be viewed as corruption.”

Here in the Corner, I’d like to share a story that Charles Murray told me, long ago. (I share it with his permission, in case you’re curious.) With Richard Herrnstein, the late Harvard professor, he was about to publish The Bell Curve. There were early warnings that the co-authors would come in for a rough time of it. Murray was in the Herrnstein home, having a nightcap. And he said to the professor, “Exactly why are we doing this anyway?” Herrnstein recalled the day he got tenure, and how happy he was, thinking what it meant: For the rest of his life, he was free to do the work he loved at a place he loved. “I said to myself, there has to be a catch. And I figured out what it was: You have to tell the truth.”

Not everyone thinks of tenure that way — but they ought to. It is really a beautiful thing, tenure: abused as it is, irksome though it can be. A lot of the “scholars with spine” I have talked to? Their spines were stiffened, and their tongues loosened, by tenure.

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