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Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from English professor Douglas Bruster.
In a sentence of two dozen words during his final State of the University Address last Monday, President William Powers Jr. floated an ominous trial balloon. "We need to use tenure," he said, "when it is most needed: where competition is the keenest and where research is more central to the enterprise."
This is a troubling statement for several reasons. At base is the idea of tenure as something like a corporate retention tool — a gift to be reserved, perhaps, for professors in such fields as law, engineering, business and the sciences. More worrying are a possible misunderstanding of what tenure is and the corresponding redefinition of the University itself.
If tenure is a gift, it's not the kind of golden handshake that faculty in well-compensated fields need as incentive. Instead, tenure is a gift of time and security to established scholars. Importantly, it is also a gift to students, alumni and citizens generally.
How does tenure benefit those inside and outside the University? It does so in part by buying time for committed researchers to imagine, design, and conduct their inquiries, to publish them, and to engage with other scholars over their ideas. As crucially, tenure promotes the integrity of this process. It helps guarantee that scholars, and their research and teaching, remain free from external influences.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for such protections. Men with money and power would leave the University alone, not seeking to influence scholarship or teaching. We don't live in that world. We live in Texas, where interfering in the business of others is bad form for the great majority of us but a lifetime hobby for the very wealthy.
Skeptical of the dangers to free inquiry? Consider a handful of topics: Economic Theories and Practice, Education, Elections, Electronic Surveillance, the Emancipation Proclamation, Eminent Domain, Employment Discrimination, Energy Production, the Environment, Equal Rights, Ethics, Evolution.
You'll note that these all begin with the letter "E." As such, they are only a small selection of the areas where an untenured faculty member could expect to be fired for producing the "wrong" answers or accounts. Imagine a donor making a large gift contingent upon a department hiring or firing faculty members of a particular ideology or political affiliation. Or imagine our legislature doing the same. It hasn't been so long, historically, since faculty, staff and students were required to sign a loyalty oath in order to be associated with the University of Texas.
But the security to learn the truth, and to teach it, is only part of tenure's gift. Tenure allows scholars to think about things without immediate monetary or political value. So when Powers suggests that the University give tenure only in areas "where research is more central to the enterprise," we can rightly wonder, "Which enterprise is that?" and "When?"
I don't know what Powers was doing Sept. 10, 2001. But it's a safe bet that, like me, he wasn't thinking about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Or about the prudence of that University, and Nebraska's taxpayers, in having funded, three decades prior, a center for studying such a far-away place. What sense did it make for this Great Plains state to tenure speakers of Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Persian and Hindi? That next morning in September, the wisdom of supporting such scholars became as clear as the blue skies above.
To imagine that we know the future is to go against everything we have learned from the past. As the receding months and decades have taught us, no one knows what subject or discipline will become essential, or even useful. Universities exist to advance universal knowledge. A university of the first class cannot afford to restrict its enterprise by redefining tenure as suitable for only a select few fields. To do so is to misunderstand our mission and charge.
Powers' notion to give tenure in competitive fields gets things exactly wrong. When professors in law, science, business and engineering justify their high salaries by pointing to what they could earn in private industry, they are revealing a safety net that protects them from reprisals over their scholarship and teaching. It is scholars without this safety net that tenure is for — those, for example, in the languages, history, social science and the fine arts. Tenure in these fields is a valuable investment by the University, a way to nurture research that has no immediate monetary value but may prove priceless in advancing knowledge of our shared human condition.
I have served under a number of excellent university presidents, none finer than Powers. It is difficult to put into words how hard, and faithfully, he has worked for our University. As phrased in his recent State of the University Address, however, his ideas about tenure seem a distinct misstep and a departure from the sensitive understanding of higher education for which faculty, staff and students have more than once expressed their gratitude.
William Deresiewicz ruffled feathers in the higher education world when he criticized the priorities of contemporary universities, specifically calling out Ivy League institutions, in his article in the New Republic. Fueling further fires with his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, Deresiewicz has been criticized for denouncing the meritocracy without providing an alternative, overstating the actions of a select few and fundamentally misunderstanding the plight of the middle class trying to get the most for their money.
But in an interview on NPR’s On Point, Deresiewicz slips in a comment overlooked by many. Hidden in a conversation of whether college should be job training or experiential, Deresiewicz says, “Colleges did used to talk about, before they started treating their students like customers, ‘hey, you’re here for another reason too, you’re here to grow up, you’re here to become an adult, to become a self’ and that means a lot more.”
This idealistic statement is in itself elitist. Though it aimed to critique the job-seeking drones of top institutions, it revealed a deeper assumption of Deresiewicz’s about society at large. Embedded in the criticism of the value of a contemporary college education, this statement entails that one must attend college to become a self, to define oneself as a person. That an individual cannot become a full person, a complete human without this journey that, with rising tuition compounded by rising costs of living, is fundamentally unattainable by a significant portion of the population.
On this note, I question Deresiewicz’s premise for critique. He criticizes higher education institutions for failing to do their job of creating real people. But to say that this is purely the job of the institution and not the responsibility of the individual is a selective view of society that ignores the population excluded from these institutions. It is the duty of each individual to define themselves as humans, to define their self, not the job of the institution. To shift that responsibility wholly to an institution is a failure as a society in respecting the entire community. It is a failure in recognizing everyone as a self and individual that has agency and is capable of thoughtful decision-making and meaningful interactions.
While not an Ivy League institution, the University of Texas at Austin is a Tier 1 research institution deeply entrenched in the practical career based versus humanist education with the always looming seven breakthrough solutions, pushed by more conservative officials, which looks to give students more power but, according to critics, would undermine the research that they say makes the university great. In his State of the University Address last week, President Powers emphasized the need to balance these two agendas, preparing students for the real world while also allowing “ them to work on esoteric problems that may have no short-term practical payoff … because we think those students will be more creative and innovative in the future.”
The age one usually spends in college are transformative years, regardless of whether one pursues higher education. A university can help in fostering self discovery by exposure to new experiences, but Deresiewicz overemphasizes the connection between individual development and the university as an exclusive relationship. As a liberal arts student, I appreciate the critical thinking I have been taught, and I believe my education will continue to influence both my life and career decisions. I would not be the same person without my education, but I wholly reject the idea that I would be any less of a self without it, or that individuals without the perfect self-defining education would be merely sheep in our money-driven world.
Haight is an associate editor.
Editor's Note: As previously mentioned, Horwitz previously contracted work for the Clifford Group, a Houston firm that lobbied on behalf of Yellow Cab over the summer. He left the Clifford Group Aug. 22.
This evening, the Austin City Council will vote on a proposal by City Council Member Chris Riley to legalize so-called Transportation Network Companies, such as Uber and Lyft. Simply put, given the realities of the current proposal, the Council should vote no.
Uber and Lyft, app-based companies that serve as a decentralized sort of taxi option, first showed up here in May. At that time, they began operating in defiance of the city's local ordinances, which require strict safety regulations such as 24/7 insurance and metered fares. Originally, Mayor Lee Leffingwell set up a task force full of some of the most capable stakeholders in the community, charged with spending 180 days coming up with a good-hearted piece of legalization that would welcome the TNCs but still protect competition and safety.
Facing an uphill battle for the newly crafted District 9, Riley has tried to abruptly force this issue for a vote, ignoring the valuable work the task force is doing. In a last-ditch effort to attract the student vote, he merely talks in broad platitudes about "transportation options" without actually addressing any of the real problems or details.
Austin obviously has a taxi problem. There are far too few cabs on the road, leaving many people stranded or having to wait for excessive periods. But the number of taxis are capped by the city, and when a proposal was recently floated to raise the cap, Riley voted against it.
We should not be in such a rush to increase transportation options that we damage the livelihood of the average consumer. Last week, the editorial board of this paper expressed its desire for 24/7 insurance requirements for TNCs. Representatives from Uber soon met with us, and expressed their opposition to this and other taxi-centric requirements, proudly exclaiming not only that they are not cabs, but that they do not even compete with cabs. I have trouble agreeing.
If you are an on-demand vehicle for hire, be that a taxi or a TNC, you should carry 24/7 insurance that protects pedestrians and other cars from being trapped in a donut hole of non-coverage. Uber whined about the price tag involved, but a company that might be worth as much as $18 billion and hires some of the most expensive lobbyists in Texas should be able to pony up with relative ease.
Furthermore, Uber desperately defended its so-called "surge pricing," where they charge multitudes of their regular fares — often with little or no warning — just because. Recently, a short trip in Denver cost a local passenger $443. Call it "supply and demand" if you want; it sure sounds like price gouging to me.
I want Uber and Lyft in Austin, but they need to follow some rules first. Riley's proposal takes care of many of these, including background checks, vehicle inspection and customer service support. But commercial insurance and price stability are absolutely necessary before the green light can be given. Ideally, this should come from the capable task force, not a rushed gimmick by an out-of-options politician.
Horwitz is an associate editor.