What Acton and Hannah-Jones Can Tell Us about College Tenure

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Tuesday, July 6, 2021


Many conservatives are more than familiar with Lord Acton’s famous quote about absolute power: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the context of Acton’s quote is significantly less well-known. In an 1887 letter, Acton wrote to Bishop Creighton about what he viewed as a double standard between the moral judgment cast upon religious and historical leaders and the moral judgment applied to the common folk, following up his famous quote with a similar literary gem: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

While the British historian was referring to popes and politicians, in the more than 134 years since his letter, the heresy he described has passed to yet another social class: professors. It is high time that the country takes a look at a widespread policy that imbues countless academics with a power that sanctifies them far beyond any meaningful check or criticism. America needs to understand the hidden cost of college tenure.

Before any argument is made, I am compelled to both define tenure and address initial misgivings so as to generate criticism of actual use. When I say tenure, I refer to the practice of granting qualified teachers and professors permanent positions at academic institutions. To address the initial opposition, I am not saying that all tenure is impractical, nor am I saying that there is some perfect system to be pulled from the ether that will alleviate all of America’s issues in postsecondary education. I am arguing only that America’s current system of college tenure has a major issue that ought to be judiciously considered.

In early June, I covered the controversy surrounding Nikole Hannah-Jones’ hiring at UNC Chapel Hill, specifically the faculty’s reluctance to hire the author of the 1619 Project due to her nontraditional scholarly background. Opinions on Hannah-Jones’ background and work aside, it is abundantly clear what happened next: after Hannah-Jones hinted at a lawsuit against the university, UNC backed down and Hannah-Jones was offered tenure. Critics of this move called the offer to hire Hannah-Jones a “degradation of journalistic standards,” and their criticism elicits this question: would this criticism have been as heated if Hannah-Jones was not being offered tenure?

I don’t believe so. One of Hannah-Jones’ leading critics at UNC was top donor Walter Hussman, after whom the university’s journalism school is named. In the lead-up to Hannah-Jones’ hiring, Hussman opined about how, despite concerns over Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, he was still willing to take the path of discourse: “I would love to ask Nikole Hannah-Jones about the core values… if Nikole Hannah-Jones has information, has data… I’d love to see them.”

Whether or not Hussman’s misgivings are justified, his mindset can be seen quite plainly: he viewed Hannah-Jones’ potential tenure as a move with long-term consequences for UNC Chapel Hill. This is the issue of tenure: using the practice carelessly can change the ideological landscape of an educational institution.

I am aware that tenure is a practice that lubricates the gears of many universities, and that the judicious use of tenure can allow faculty to conduct invaluable research and create job security in a field that prizes it highly. However, educational institutions have to be very careful about who they grant tenure. It would be absurd to chalk Hussman’s reasoning for opposing Hannah-Jones down to some unsubstantiated claim of racism or sexism. Her tenure would have changed the Hussman School of Journalism, and everyone from Hussman to Lone Conservative’s readers to Hannah-Jones herself were well aware of this. While Hannah-Jones recently rejected the offer of tenure in favor of Howard University, bringing Hannah-Jones to Hussman would have had just as much potential to derail the school as it would for Liberty University to give tenure to some non-traditionally qualified right-wing loon like Steve King. 

There is no worse heresy than that the tenure sanctifies the recipient of it. Universities that heavily rely on tenure are giving up part of their ability to adapt to various factors in pursuance of their overall mission. Tenure is a powerful, powerful tool of a university, and just like anything else, its potentially adverse effects must be considered thoroughly in order to properly mitigate them. Granting tenure is not merely handing a professor job security; it is also handing a professor a chance to exponentially increase their influence at an institution of American higher learning. It would be absurd to claim that no professor is deserving of that chance, but it would be equally absurd to claim that just any professor is deserving of it.

Isaac Willour is an Executive Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, as well as an associate editor for the Grove City Journal of Law & Public Policy. He has 5 years of coaching students and has served in both national and global leadership roles in training people to refine and communicate ideas clearly. He has a passion for debating ideas and engaging in nuanced, thoughtful discussion as well as cultural analysis from a conservative perspective.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is an Executive Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, as well as an associate editor for the Grove City Journal of Law & Public Policy. He has 5 years of coaching students and has served in both national and global leadership roles in training people to refine and communicate ideas clearly. He has a passion for debating ideas and engaging in nuanced, thoughtful discussion as well as cultural analysis from a conservative perspective.

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