Many of us would agree that, for all its esteemed worldwide reputation, American higher education is in dire need of reform, if not complete overhaul. And one of the elements on most reformers’ list is academic tenure, the century-old concept that provides job security in academic freedom for qualified professors. In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has placed tenure reform high on his list of priorities for the upcoming legislative session on the grounds that the concept provides undue cover for radical progressive ideas like critical race theory, and his plan goes beyond modest reform to the elimination of tenure for all new hires at public universities. But House Speaker Dade Phelan opposes the elimination of tenure because he thinks it would work against conservatives by removing the protection provided by tenure and making it more difficult to recruit conservative faculty members. In other words, be careful what you ask for, and I agree with Phelan–tenure might be the only thing keeping many vastly outnumbered conservative college professors in their jobs. There are other, more comprehensive steps that are more promising.
Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU Stern School, has written recently on the fiduciary duties of college professors. He believes that higher education should return to its telos, meaning the end, goal, or purpose at which a profession or institution aims, and that the telos of a university is truth, and he suggests that universities can have many goals and many values, but they can only have one telos. He argues that the wave of protests and changes sweeping through universities are attempts to elevate the value of social justice to become a second telos requiring a massive restructuring of universities and their norms in a way that damages their ability to seek truth. In fact, it seems we have reached the point at which it seems this conflict of truth vs. social justice is unmanageable, and will continue to be so until we return these institutions to their proper telos, the pursuit of truth as a fiduciary duty.
A most promising idea to restore this duty that I have recently been working on with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is promotion on college campuses of what has been named the Chicago Principles, founded at the University of Chicago, which has been called “the gold standard” as an in depth higher education policy commitment to the pursuit of truth through free speech and deliberation. ACTA has recently announced its national launch of this project and the chosen launch pad is The University of Texas at Austin. The donor and trustee-driven goal is to have every major university adopt and enforce the Chicago Principles or their like in policy. The initiative deserves our support.