If you think the threats to our freedom are primarily external, you haven't been paying attention. In recent years, the institution that enshrines one of our most prized freedoms—the freedom to seek truth itself—has been collapsing. I am speaking, of course, about the university.
Over at Duke Divinity, Paul Griffiths has just resigned from his chair in Catholic theology. Why would an eminent Catholic theologian resign? The immediate reason was that Prof. Griffiths had spoken his mind freely and frankly about his reservations regarding the various diversity initiatives on offer at Duke. For this sin, he was swiftly and resoundingly disciplined by his administration. Tired of fighting, Griffiths has decided to leave academia behind. His swan song to life in the university is worth our time and careful reflection.
The scandal at Duke is one part of a much larger struggle on our campuses to preserve faculty tenure rights and the academic freedoms they are meant to secure—most crucially, the freedom to express views in accordance with one’s moral conscience. These battles are often framed in terms of liberal administrators who are out to silence what few conservative voices are left in academia. But this is a misleading narrative. As is well documented, administrators have gone after liberal professors as well—at times ruthlessly, and with no regard for tenure rights or the due process that is supposed to come with them.
The battle for tenure rights is also playing out on Catholic campuses across the country. Let us not forget the scandal that rocked one of the oldest Catholic liberal arts universities in the US just last year. In the mercifully short amount of time that Simon “drown the bunnies” Newman was in charge of Mount St. Mary’s, he managed to do significant damage both to the reputation of the school and to the lives of many of its exceptional faculty. But Newman wasn’t a liberal out to get conservatives. A former executive, he sought to secure the Mount’s financial health—an eminently reasonable goal. The trouble was that he sought to undermine both tenure rights and the university’s historic commitment to the liberal arts in order to achieve it. His mistreatment of faculty in the philosophy department was particularly egregious.
The liberal arts and tenure now appear to be under attack at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Just last week, the administration announced that it was moving to eliminate the Center for Thomistic Studies—its only Ph.D. program, and the only program in the United States devoted solely to the thought of one of the most important doctors of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The CTS is, by universally accepted academic standards, a successful program. Not only is it led by prestigious and productive faculty, it also attracts excellent students, who complete the program in large numbers, and the majority of whom go on to secure academic appointments of their own.
After some pushback from alumni and concerned academics, the administration now appears to have changed its mind about eliminating the program—at least for the short term. Whatever ends up happening at USTH, we are led to ask the obvious question: Why would the University of St. Thomas’s administration actively consider, seemingly unilaterally, the destruction of a highly successful and greatly valued academic program dedicated to the thought of the university’s namesake? It would be as absurd as if the leaders of MIT eliminating its programs in math or physics.
One disturbing hypothesis is that this move is at least in part a retaliation against faculty who expressed concerns about the administration’s past decision-making (setting off threats to tenure from the president for the first time last year). The end result of those exchanges was a no-confidence vote from the faculty council last March.
Whatever the administration’s ultimate motives are, this much is clear: The elimination of the only PhD program in philosophy at USTH would allow the administration to change the terms of the contracts of many philosophy faculty and, more dramatically, eliminate their tenure altogether. Furthermore, the administration clearly indicated its intent to pursue these drastic measures in writing, without any faculty input and on a suspiciously accelerated timeframe. Once again, we have a direct assault on the tenure rights of philosophy faculty at a Catholic liberal arts university.
Of course, administrators are free to disagree with the faculty they oversee on any number of issues, just as students are free to disagree with faculty and faculty with each other. But in the midst of these disputes, we must not lose sight of the proper order of things. Our universities are supposed to be institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth as a common good, and faculty, given their training, ought to be accorded a certain deference as leaders in that pursuit. Administrators only exist to facilitate the necessary work to secure this common good as the basis of university life; thus, to the extent that administrators impede or undermine lively intellectual exchange between faculty and students, they fail in their primary duty.
This is why tenure is so important. Tenure rights for university faculty exist for one purpose: to safeguard academic freedom. Academic freedom is simply freedom to pursue the truth in good faith, unimpeded by fear of dismissal by those who wield power. When faculty members can be fired or summarily punished for expressing their considered opinions on issues of concern to the common life of the university, this hinders their ability to execute their primary task, which is to educate their students and contribute to the collective store of human knowledge. Of course, a university education is much more than the transmission of knowledge; at its best, a university education instills the capacity for deep, rigorous, and creative thought and inquiry. But such an education cannot take place in a climate of fear, and to the extent that a climate of fear is fostered on our campuses, the mission of the university is compromised.
What the cases at Duke, the Mount, and USTH all appear to have in common is this: They are examples of the erosion of the traditional rights and privileges of tenure. This erosion coincides with a power shift that marginalizes the role of faculty within the university’s shared governance. This is a direct attack on the institution of the university itself. This is why far more is at stake at USTH than the fate of an excellent philosophy program and the lives of its students and faculty. The ideal of the university itself is on the line, and we should have the courage and the conviction to stand up to defend it.