Commentary

Ironic Case in Point on Tenure

A lot of the University of Wisconsin professoriate is outraged that Republican governor — and presidential candidate — Scott Walker has worked to end tenure built into state law. One aggrieved professor who has attracted a lot of attention is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who recently likened Walker to Hitler, though the extent to which she meant to equate the two is in dispute. That said, Goldrick-Rab’s intentions are not the subject of this post. No, it is that the whole dust-up is a terrific illustration of the incompatibility of “academic freedom,” and tenure protections of it, with a free society in which no one should be compelled to pay for someone else’s speech.

Most interesting was Goldrick-Rab’s reported statement to the website The College Fix when contacted for her response to concerns about the Hitler comparison. And I don’t mean the main part of her statement, which was to qualify the comparison. No, I mean the preface: “Thank you for your question. Please note that I have taken time out of my unpaid vacation to respond, as a courtesy to the timeliness of your request.”

Apparently, criticizing Gov. Walker was ordinarily conducted as part of Goldrick-Rab’s job, because she made special note that she was responding during her “unpaid vacation.” But this would make her comments especially concerning not because she has no right to speak — she absolutely does — but because she apparently launched seemingly political attacks while explicitly working on the taxpayer dime.

Of course, even if this weren’t couched as part of Goldrick-Rab’s job — and I suspect she only meant to emphasize that professors don’t get paid during the summer months — it is impossible to disconnect in any meaningful sense a professors’ employment and what they, at least in inherently political fields such as sociology or political science, publish on political issues. And again, the problem is not with their speech per se, but that when they are employed by public institutions taxpayers are forced to subsidize speech with which they may disagree. Indeed, in this case they are subsidizing political speech intended to ensure that their money continues to be used that way.

The irony is that in defending tenure, Prof. Goldrick-Rab provided a terrific example of how direct taxpayer funding of public institutions, made worse when coupled with tenure, is incompatible with a free society. And that, not Goldrick-Rab’s Hitler comparison, is what should really matter in the public policy debate.

Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.