Academe Answers Anti-Tenure Arguments

, John K. Wilson, Leave a comment

Editor’s note: John K. Wilson objected to our quarterly review of professors we have covered. His response is posted in full below.

Back in the 1980s, Reed Irvine’s right-wing group Accuracy in Academia (AIA) caused controversy by recruiting students to spy on left-wing professors. With the growth of the internet, AIA can do the spying online, but its attacks on academic freedom continue to this day.

One of the most disturbing features on the AIA website is a series by executive director Malcolm Kline titled “100 arguments against tenure” (parts one, two, and three) in which he declares, “we offer the following pedagogues as proof that tenure doesn’t work.” Since tenure provides job security against arbitrary firings, we can conclude that any individual described as “proof” of the evils of tenure must be someone Kline thinks should not have tenure, and should be fired. I contacted Kline to ask if that’s what he wants and how he can justify taking away the jobs of these 100 professors, but he didn’t respond. But why would any professor be an argument against tenure unless they deserved to be fired? If Kline believed these professors should keep their jobs, how would that be “proof” that the system of tenure protects professors who are incompetent? The entire premise of Kline’s article only makes sense if he wants these academics to be fired.

So who are the 100 professors Kline wants to purge from academia? It’s a mixture of some of the most prominent scholars in the world (such as Nobel economist Joseph E. Stiglitz), plus any professor with the misfortune to come across AIA’s radar in the past year.

Kline has a particular aversion to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he identifies eight professors to justify removing tenure.

David Protess, Medill School (Northwestern), keeps the Medill Innocence Project going, even for the guilty.

Here, Kline is also factually wrong, since Protess has retired. Of course, the Medill Innocence Project seeks to defend the innocent, not the guilty, but Kline offers no evidence for this smear.

Kline provides a stunning list of various academic crimes in his eyes: doing research on consumerism or gambling, writing books on a left-wing priest or editing an “advocacy” magazine:

Ashlee Humphreys of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, gets academic about casino gambling.

Michelle Weinberger, Medill presented research on ‘Non-Participation in Consumption Rituals–A Christmas Story’ at the American Sociological Association Conference in August [2010],”

Medill’s Patti Wolter “spent five years as the managing editor and Editor in chief of The Neighborhood Works, a small advocacy magazine then-published by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology.”

Robert McClory, Medill, has written an admiring account of Jeremiah Wright’s favorite guest pastor, Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice;

Ellen Shearer, Medill bisected a long journalism career with a stint as public affairs director for the American Federation of Teachers teachers’ union

Presumably, Kline would argue for revoking tenure from anyone who ever worked for a union.

Rachel Davis Mersey, Medill, is so egalitarian that students grade each other, at least on the group project.

Kline bases this conclusion on one review on the sleazy website “Rate My Professor,” which is an entirely unsubstantiated and unscientific site that also rates faculty on their “hotness.” This single review merely said that students were asked to grade each other on how much work they did on a group project, which hardly seems like an “egalitarian” plot.

Abe Peck, Medill, played Boswell to the Johnson of Studs Terkel who the FBI described as “a radio/news commentator, actor, and award-winning author. Terkel was associated with a number of communist and communist connected groups.”

Studs Terkel is one of the great oral historians of the 20th century. To argue that anyone who ever associated with Terkel should be stripped of tenure and fired because Terkel was associated with communist groups is the worst kind of guilt-by-association-by-association McCarthyism.

McCarthyism is a favorite topic of AIA, and Kline vigorously supports the thought policing of the 1950s. He complains about one of the leading Constitutional scholars in the country:

Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago claims that “during the Cold War, as Americans were whipped up to frenzy of fear of the ‘Red Menace,’ loyalty programs, political infiltration, blacklisting, legislative investigations, and criminal prosecutions of supposed Communist ‘subversives’ and sympathizers swept the nation,” ignoring the information unearthed since then showing that there was some validity to the concerns.

Of course, nothing Stone says is wrong, nor is it contradicted by the fact that there were some Communist spies in America. But Kline doesn’t care about reality. He wants to punish any faculty who disagree with his far-right ideology.

Science, too, is greatly feared by AIA:

Richard Somerville of the University of California-San Diego says “we know CO2 is increasing and it’s because of humans” even though we don’t.

AIA seems to think any professor who believes in the overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made global climate change is real should be fired. So Kline is really calling for mass purges of virtually all scientists from universities.

And AIA even takes a shot at AAUP president Cary Nelson, adding his name to the list of professors who should be purged, in his case for daring to oppose the Vietnam War:

Cary Nelson, University of Illinois-Urbana, still brags about providing “draft avoidance counseling” during the Vietnam War.

I asked Nelson to respond:

I assume Inaccuracy in Academia is not quite wacky enough to argue that I should have been denied tenure because I had organized against the Vietnam War when I was twenty years old. My crime, presumably, is that I remain proud of my opposition to the war nearly 50 years later. As indeed I do. Few political theories have been so decisively tested and disproven as the domino theory’s warning that all of Southeast Asia would fall to communism if South Vietnam did. That said, there were many Antioch students troubled by the draft, and I was involved in networks helping people deal with it by increasing their knowledge and their options. The college decided to take advantage of my ongoing work and make my role official. As it happened, one student who consulted me was ready to enlist. I reassured him too. I’ve no regrets. Perhaps these ideologues think treason covers opposition to an undeclared war. Not in my constitution.

Accuracy in Academia’s “proof” against tenure is in fact the strongest possible evidence for why we need tenure. In a world where no one has tenure, groups like AIA would be lobbying to fire all of the professors who express anything resembling a liberal viewpoint, whether it’s scientific research on global warming or critical perspectives about McCarthyism. This is the dream of the thought police, and whenever anyone talks about abolishing tenure, we should all remember AIA’s list of professors to purge.


John K. Wilson is the editor of Illinois Academe, affiliated with the American Association of University Professors. This article originally appeared on