Friday, November 18, 2022

Philosopher Brian Leiter says universities are one of the nation's last outposts for truth searching as right wing pols threaten tenure and teachers and graduate students in California and New York are forced to strike for better pay and worker rights

(Philosopher Brian Leiter)


Some 48,000 University of California researchers, graduate students, and other workers went on strike this week to demand better wages to cover rising costs of living. More than 1,300 part-time faculty members also voted to go on strike this week at the legendarily progressive New School in New York City to protest their low pay and difficulties in getting health care coverage.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and potential presidential candidate, has declared his intention to put restrictions on tenure in Florida’s public universities, while Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, also a Republican, has pushed legislation that would eliminate tenure altogether in his state.


The Mississippi Institutions for Higher Learning board recently met and voted in new language that would add “contumacious conduct” and lack of “collegiality” as well as lack of “effectiveness, accuracy and integrity in communications” to reasons to consider in granting tenure and for firing a tenured professor. It also shifted from itself the final sayso in tenure decisions to college presidents.


In the midst of all this upheaval in higher education, noted philosopher and Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Brian Leiter met this week with members of United Campus Workers Local 3565 at the University of Mississippi and other UCW members and interested parties across the state in a zoom session to discuss academic freedom and tenure.


“Universities are—at least in the capitalist world—the primary sites of … challenges (in search for truth), the only ones, outside of courts of law, in which knowledge of the truth stands some chance of prevailing subject to rigorous disciplinary interrogation,” Leiter has written. “Academic freedom is the hallmark of a serious university.”


Ah, truth! How elusive in today’s world of fake news, conspiracy theories, and utterly compromised mainstream media. How would the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes fare today in his search for an honest man and unfiltered truth. Probably not much better than he did in the glorious democratic experiment that was his Athens, where he was forced to live in a rain barrel and survive on handouts.


Yours truly and Joshua Bernstein of the University of Southern Mississippi served as moderators of Leiter’s discussion, which included issues facing part-time faculty as well as those on tenure track and other challenges to higher education today.


The strikers at the California and New York schools are members of the United Auto Workers, a union that itself is facing an upcoming election that pits an entrenched and sorely compromised leadership against a much-needed rank-and-file challenger to the status quo in Will Lehman. These academic workers' fight "is not just a trade union struggle," Lehman has written, "but a political fight against both corporate-controlled parties. At its center is the question: Who will determine how society's resources are distributed?"


Leiter, also director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago, spoke at length of the basic rights of free speech afforded faculty just as they are all American citizens. Tenure, a kind of job guarantee that isn’t unlimited but which goes much further than what most American workers have, serves as a form of “non-monetary compensation” for faculty, Leiter said. It thus benefits universities that must hire employees who might could expect much higher compensation due to their advanced education.


The Mississippi IHL board’s March meeting, during which it discussed at length its subsequently approved changes in tenure (and hiring) rules, was held without public or faculty input. However, reports surfaced about the discussions that took place. At one point, the board was told that even tenured faculty can be fired for just or good “cause”.


“But I can terminate without cause in my company,” CITE Armored President and board trustee Teresa Hubbard responded, according to Mississippi Today.  CITE Armored manufactures SWAT vehicles.


I asked Leiter if these threats to tenure could ultimately lead to a slippery slope in which at-will firing becomes the practice on university campuses.


Leiter again cited the freedom of speech guarantees that all Americans at least in theory enjoy. In addition, if such a situation became the rule in Mississippi, for example, prospective faculty would be going to another state, and certainly not Mississippi, he said.


The United Campus Workers, a member of Communication Workers of America, has issued an open letter to the IHL opposing the recent changes.  Also, PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have decried the changes and warned that they pose threats to First Amendment rights and could lead to the kind of self-censorship that itself threatens academic freedom.