This Most Ancient Privilege

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 some form, tenure has existed for scholars for more than eight hundred years.

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.

13 thoughts on “This Most Ancient Privilege”

  1. Universities are becoming less and less differentiated from commercial businesses in thier exploitation of intellectual properties at the same time they become more and more alienated from the mainstream culture. They are already developing CEOitis in the pay scales for their presidents. Penn State is currently in a controversy regarding its law school. Regardless of the merits of the case, Graham Spanier, the president of PSU has acted with an arrogance worthy of Jacques Chiraq toward all other parties, including the Governor of Pennsylvania.

    Educational institutions use immense amounts of valuable land in poor cities tax free. At some point, there will be calls for the revocation of these ancient privileges. Let’s hope they can clean up their act before they are compared to English monastaries.

  2. Is this your way of saying that you don’t like the system of academic tenure? Do you think Ward Churchill should be fired for what he said? Or do you think that academic free speech should trump other concerns in this case?

  3. Before? I think the deal is before their land is expropriated. They’ve long thought they were monastaries with sex.

  4. Of course they should fire Churchill. He’s corrupt (cf., “moral turpitude”) and incompetent and they shouldn’t have hired him. And once he’s gone he’ll give lectures at several $k a pop and/or find himself a sinecure in some lefty think-tank, so it’s not like anyone expects to censor him. Indeed, this squalid affair has turned into a boon for him, as he gains valuable publicity while simultaneously waiting for his employer to buy him out. Nice trick.

    This case is a good example of how tenure tends to protect precisely the wrong people. The kinds of people whose academic freedom needs more protection are students and junior faculty with unpopular views (often, nowadays, political conservatives), who haven’t yet become established in their fields. Yet these are the people who, if they are honest about their views, can reasonably expect to be harassed and denied tenure at many universities.

    So the tenure system, which was intended to protect faculty against capricious administrators, now seems notably to shield tenured faculty from accountability for their abuse of junior faculty and students.

  5. Thatcher of course abolished Tenure in the UK in the 8o’s and there hasn’t been any noticable decline in freedom of speach since. The whole idea is indefensible (except perhaps as an excpetional reward to Nobel laureates and the like).

  6. Jonathon mentioned:

    “Of course they should fire Churchill. He’s corrupt (cf., “moral turpitude”) and incompetent and they shouldn’t have hired him.”

    Very well and I agree that moral turpitude is a good reason to fire a tenured faculty member. But that’s not what I asked. I asked Shannon, “Do you think Ward Churchill should be fired for what he said?” Perhaps Ward Churchill isn’t a good example since he’s clouded by many allegations, any of which would be grounds for dismissal. But my real question here for you or Shannon is do you or do you not believe in tenure? And if you do believe in tenure, do you think it should protect people who write themes like the “little Eichmanns” remark?

    What I gathered from you comment is that you’d like the idea of tenure if it protected people you agreed with. Sure, that makes sense, everyone roots for their own team. But would you be into a system that protects everyone or would you rather the tenure system be eliminated and efforts made to fix some of the imbalances you see?

  7. I think our we’d be better off without tenure, or at least without tenure as the norm. I certainly don’t see any reason to perpetuate the tenure system at State institutions. (That’s an argument for privatization, BTW.)

  8. I suspect (though this may be mere snarkiness on my part) that tenure is part of the reason academics are so consisently leftist. That is, not unlike others who live chiefly in terms of government money, academics want a strong, even confiscatory, government because they are cocooned in relative comfort with government money–and they want that comfort to grow.

    With tenure they have the ultimate government safety net. They can use the tradition of academic freedom to reject any attempts to make them accountable (in the classroom or out). Much can then be included in such rights that have to do with how a class is focused and what the class covers. I will admit that some of the best teachers I had as well as the worst ones abused that privilege. I did, however, figure out in my freshman year in college that a teacher described as “charismatic” was usually one I avoided.

  9. Shannon,
    If professors had to compete for their job-security by proving they could teach better for less than the next prof, tenure would exist only as an encyclopedia entry.

    You got me thinking, the “feudal system” you describe mirrors the “for-life” position of members of our SCOTUS, too. Does this life-time appointment share a similar geneology with “tenure”? There is a some accountability in the initial nomination and “advise and consent” process. But, after that…

    By filibustering Bush’s nominations instead of processing them democratically, it seems the Dems are proving your point. Could it be they are trying to transform that institution into another “unaccountable intellectual aristocracy?”


  10. I clearly remember Milton Friedman (may he live to be a hundred and twenty) giving a lecture about Tenure way back in the 1960s when I was an undergraduate at UofC. He was opposed to it and had some pithy quote from Smith to support his argument.

    Of course, even then he needed tenure like a moose needs a hat rack, and that was before they started giving the Nobel Prize in economics. (First one 1969, Uncle Miltie got his in 1976).

  11. chel,

    “”Do you think Ward Churchill should be fired for what he said?”

    Basically no, although his statements did send up a red flag that them man was intellectually incompetent and an academic fraud. Only someone vastly ignorant of basic history could make such a declaration so the fact that he made did become prima facia evidence that he wasn’t the scholar he pretended to be.

    The subsequent revelations of lying about his ethnic identity, lying in his scholarly work and plagiarizing another artist painting are quite in keeping with someone so ignorant that they would call the victims of 9/11 “little Heichmans.”

    I do think that many in academia are so mindlessly radical that they have ceased to function as academics and now serve only to abuse their positions as political hacks.

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