The word privilege means “private law.” In medieval times (in Europe), legal authorities were often a patchwork of jurisdictions. People in the countryside lived under the law dispensed by feudal lords, but cities often had the right to govern themselves and to dispense justice on their own authority. They had private law. The same concept applied to clerical properties as well.
Universities were also granted the right of private law. In many cases, they were under the jurisdiction of the Church but not always. Some centers of learning functioned as mini-states, owning land, having tenets and keeping their own military/police forces. The right to teach at the universities was often granted like a title of land in the feudal system. Each position came with a certain income with rights and responsibilities. In some cases, such positions were even hereditary. (This degree of security only applied to the upper tier of scholars. Most worked under conditions of great insecurity just like modern grad-students.)
The word “tenure” itself originally meant: to hold a piece of land within the context of a feudal grant. By 1599 it had come to also mean, “condition or fact of holding a status, position, or occupation.” Tellingly, however, the word was not applied to academic positions until the late 1950s. (1) Even so, it is clear that the modern academic tenure system is a direct, literal descendant of the medieval practice of granting academic offices.
In the Middle Ages, scholars and members of many occupations formed guilds to seek from their benefactors proper terms of employment and to provide mutual aid and self-protection. Continuation in the guild depended “not on the performance of specific duties, but rather on adherence to collegial rules.” Guilds attempted, often successfully, to extract from university administrations the notion that scholars were governed by the guild and owed their allegiance to the university and not the administration.
Scholars held a privileged position in society: “freedom from local tolls and duties, provision of good housing at fair prices, protection against overpriced or spoiled commodities, even relief from disturbing noises and distressing smells.” Medieval scholars were respected as agents of learning, and “learning was a precious light.” Scholars sought to be autonomous and self-regulating to protect knowledge and truth from corrupt outside influences.
America’s first university, Harvard (chartered in 1650), was modeled after Cambridge and designed to import its tradition. The charter called for the college to educate the young “in knowledge and godliness” and exempted the college members from “corporate and personal taxes (up to a specified limit) and from military exercises and the civil watch.”
So it is amusing, but not surprising to those paying attention, to see so many leftists defending such an elitist and anti-egalitarian practice. Leftists have shown themselves quite keen to grant “private law” to certain professions that — this is purely coincidental I am sure — seem to have more than their fair share of leftists. Shield laws, for example, grant “real journalists” the right to protect their sources, a private law not granted to ordinary individuals. Artists, even those working on the public dime, don’t have to account for their work to anybody. Lawyers and judges have their own set of rules.
Intellectual leftism is grounded in elitism, the idea that a certain subclass of individuals has a vastly superior understanding of how the world “really” works. Ordinary people can never hope to understand their betters and any attempt by them to inject themselves into the deliberative process can only have negative consequences. Therefore, the Left seeks to create and extend institutions, as well as social and cultural modes, that answer only to themselves. They see little potential for abuse, because they believe that by virtue of his arriving at the “correct” leftist viewpoint, an individual has demonstrated his intellectual and moral incorruptibility. Institutional restraints are for lesser people.
With the modern tenure system, the Left has sought to create an unaccountable intellectual aristocracy. They have preserved and expanded what is arguably (at least in America) the last vestige of feudal privilege. Their reaction to the Ward Churchill controversy reveals not a concern for academic freedom but a fear that the ignorant masses may rise up against their betters.