Tenure, Academic Freedom and Torture [UPDATED]

Last night Mrs. JP and I watched the excellent, and horrifying, documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side“. This film won an Oscar for best documentary last year and is currently playing on HBO. The film is about the terrible story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was turned in by an Afghan warlord trying to protect his own interests (which were turning in innocent people by day and bombing American troops by night). Dilawar was tortured to death while in American custody.

During the film, we were re-introduced to the infamous John Yoo, current professor at the School of Law at Cal Berkeley and former Bush administration attorney. You may remember John Yoo as the author of the torture memos, those documents that made the case that prisoners taken during the Afghan (and Iraq invasions) were somehow outside the law and not subject to Geneva Conventions — opinions based in part on some of our darkest days as a nation, the mistreatment, killing and forcible relocation of Native Americans. During the original Afghan invasion, the run-up to the Iraq war and the early stages of the Iraq war John Yoo was a frequent guest on the NewsHour, making his legal case for continued extreme treatment of prisoners taken during these conflicts in order to extract information from them. He disgusted me then and he disgusted me yet again last night as I saw him make the same arguments to the filmmakers. But, alas, my point is not to belabor the high crimes of John Yoo, this has been done in nearly every major news outlet in the world, my point is to examine what his case, as a tenured professor at Cal Berkeley School of Law, tells me about my own academic freedom.

After watching the documentary, I headed off to the series of tubes fully expecting to find that John Yoo was no longer a professor at Berkeley. How could he be? Surely this renowned institution would not see fit to continue to employ such a character. I would be wrong. Despite continued protests, John Yoo is still a prof at Cal Berkeley and he is supported, at least in terms of continuing to work, by his Dean, Christopher Edley. It turns out that on April 10 of this year, Mr. Edley wrote a memo supporting John Yoo on the premise that he has obtained tenure and that his academic freedom must be protected.

Professor Yoo began teaching at Berkeley Law in 1993, received tenure in 1999, and then took a leave of absence to work in the Bush Administration. He returned in 2004, and remains a very successful teacher and prolific (though often controversial) scholar. Because this is a public university, he enjoys not only security of employment and academic freedom, but also First Amendment and Due Process rights.

It seems we do need regular reminders: These protections, while not absolute, are nearly so because they are essential to the excellence of American universities and the progress of ideas. Indeed, in Berkeley’s classrooms and courtyards our community argues about the legal and moral issues with the intensity and discipline these crucial issues deserve. Those who prefer to avoid these arguments—be they left or right or lazy—will not find Berkeley or any other truly great law school a wholly congenial place to study. For that we make no apology.

It is certainly the case that Mr Yoo deserves his First Amendment and Due Process rights. However, this argument is being tied in with his security of employment and academic freedom, based on tenure. So this got me thinking about what obtaining tenure would mean to me. I have about 4 years to go before I will go up for this review; however, I am already quite aware of what tenure will imply for my career: a slight increase in pay and promotion to the rank of assistant professor, and nothing more or less. The next step will be to full professor, which will mean another increase in pay and yet another higher rank. To think that I will ever be entitled to professor of some dept until I choose to retire is a laughable proposition for me or any other professor in a basic or clinical science department at nearly any research-intensive university in the US. Will I have some modicum of academic freedom? Yes, I suppose. After obtaining tenure I think that I can expect to not be fired for espousing views that my colleagues find objectionable. However, I have no disillusions, my continued employment is completely dependent on my ability to produce scientific manuscripts in good journals and obtain a certain level of funding. If I cannot continue to do this I know what will happen, I will be fired, undoubtedly without ceremony and with no attention paid to my tenure status.

How is it then that tenure can be viewed so differently within different schools of the same university (note, I am not at Berkeley but my university has a renowned school of law that I suspect has similar tenure policies to those espoused by Dean Edley)? Part of the answer is obvious. Us scientists are cash cows for universities. We occupy expensive space and are expected to bring in money to offset the costs of occupying such space. Our indirect costs go toward supporting the infrastructure where we work but our indirect costs are also important for other programs within our universities that do not bring in substantial amounts of external funding. If we fail to produce the expected amount of money for the university, it is wise, fiscally, to replace us with someone who is more capable of bringing in such funding. Or is it?

So what about our tenure rights and our academic freedom? Why should John Yoo expect such protections while someone like me has no expectation to receive similar treatment if I were to do something as pedestrian as fail to renew an R01 after I get tenure? This, apparently is the standard for John Yoo:

This very restrictive standard is binding on me as dean, but I will put aside that shield and state my independent and personal view of the matter. I believe the crucial questions in view of our university mission are these: Was there clear professional misconduct—that is, some breach of the professional ethics applicable to a government attorney—material to Professor Yoo’s academic position? Did the writing of the memoranda, and his related conduct, violate a criminal or comparable statute?

Absent very substantial evidence on these questions, no university worthy of distinction should even contemplate dismissing a faculty member. That standard has not been met.

I am well aware that this standard does not apply to me.

Go read what Bosco has to say

4 responses to “Tenure, Academic Freedom and Torture [UPDATED]

  1. True. Although I can’t help but think–there are legions of people out there who think that what I do every day to cute little mousies could be considered maltreatment (torture? dunno) and should be illegal.

    My university, though, protects me wholeheartedly against these folks, by means of keycard and passcode access to the colonies; by means of strong campus security, especially during animal rights week; by means of simply standing behind me and asserting my right to behead adorable furry critters at will.

    So, it’s not as though the universities are only willing to support the right of their law profs to condone what many people think absolutely IS horrendous torture. The argument’s a bit stretched here (and I personally think Yoo, Gonzalez, Ashcroft, and the rest of them should be hung by their toes for the next five years) but you get my point.

  2. Your great post got me thinking about a recent book I read about the history of the University. Indeed, the present of no tenure, no academic freedom and torture is merely bringing us back to the origin of the Medieval University: http://boscoh.com/science/the-historical-mix-of-tenure-academic-freedom-and-torture

  3. I personally think Yoo, Gonzalez, Ashcroft, and the rest of them should be hung by their toes for the next five years

    I’d be more happy with simple jail time. On Ashcroft, as much as I despise his political views, may have actually been a voice of reason within the DoJ with respect to the implementation of Yoo’s memos. There has to be a clear distinction between politicizing justice (which is unethical) and enabling war crimes (which deserves hearty prosecution).

  4. Someone else at Cal Berkeley: Peter Duesberg

    Doesn’t seem to have anything in CRISP since the early 90’s.

    When I was interviewing for grad school there almost 10 years ago, he came to many of the recruiting events, but we prospectives were steered away from him by the current students.

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