Saturday, November 12, 2022


Interview with Dr. Hutchens
research manuscript: “‘Flipping’ the Tenure Debate and the Continuing Need to Protect Academic Freedom,” Counterpoint, Vol. 517; Colleges at the Crossroads: Taking Sides on Contested Issues (2018) p 67-78. 

Hutchens looks at tenure for one of its most important incidental benefits: academic freedom. He shows how tenure is a twentieth century invention to help secure the ideal of a life of the mind in  universities, long held to be  dedicated spaces to think and reflect as opposed to places to produce specific, tangible goods or services. But tenure as we know it is being diluted—by a diminishment of tenured positions through the ever-expanding percentage of contingent faculty—and simultaneously eroded— by laws that seek to constrain the landscape that tenure encompasses. These threats to tenure imperil academic freedom, the ability to say and think and research as one will without regard to those who hold the purse strings. “Currently, uncertainty encompasses the available mechanisms to protect professors’ academic freedom,” (p. 70) and “failing to support academic freedom i higher education undercuts the kind of intellectual and scientific advancements that have made American higher education a model looked to by the rest of the world.” (P. 72). The answer, he suggests, is by extending those protections of academic freedom—explicitly and without regard to tenure—to all employees of the university, thereby rendering the so-called “tenure debate” toothless while also re-elevating the university campus to its ideal, and some might claim rightful, place as a place to think and to reflect.

During the interview, I asked Dr. Hutchens what led him to tie the two threads of academic freedom and tenure together in the particular way that he did. He told me of his origins as a history student, and then a law student and how he initially thought that he would focus on the K-12 education and the law, but then found himself fascinated by higher education. He was intrigued by the, admittedly medieval in many ways, notion of an entire system dedicated to the life of the mind, while at the same time seeing the many legal and cultural efforts to dismantle it. He said he feels we might well be at a “windmill and Don Quixote moment” culturally, given the recent political efforts to dismantle what is arguably a crown jewel in many of the states that are striving hardest to constrain tenure and the university itself.

He talked about how the foundations of the academy are precarious and eroding, and how they have been since the 70s but that recent efforts are nothing short of astonishing, seeming to be the epitome of cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face. We spoke of union efforts on campuses, a coalition between collective bargaining and traditional law, and he said that recently the AAUP and AFT are joining together to enter the conversation on unionizing and other protection efforts. 

I asked him what the role of SACS and other regional accreditation agencies is in light of universities  removing standard majors such as history or philosophy, or closing whole departments such as English. He said that though the agencies were originally regional, they aren’t any longer, and a university can now shop around until it finds an agency that will provide credentials, and the credentials are only meaningful for student aid. He can see a bleak time when these less rigorous agencies will hold a place of preferential status, wherein a governor might decide that only certain agencies are relevant for accreditation credentials, and that could lead to a dismantling of the contemporary university. 

What then? I wondered. Ideological conformity is threatening decades of university building, and where does that leave us—academics, specifically, but American culture more generally—if even only some of these efforts succeed? He agreed that there would be long term and far reaching consequences to whatever we think of as American culture. 

Despite the grim and gloomy nature of the topic, I found Dr. Hutchens upbeat and engaged. He truly loves the idea of university and loves the universities themselves, embattled though they are. We discussed the professorate and the role and possible responsibility of the university in being forthcoming about how many positions are available for faculty, which is merely a small fraction of the graduates produced each year.  I mentioned the meager stipend often afforded to teaching assistants, and noted how I had opted to take on dogsitting instead, earning nearly as much as a TA position at University of Kentucky, while somehow also failing to make what seemed to be expected and appropriate steps for my off-transcript resume. I confessed that while I wasn’t approaching my doctoral studies as a path to a career, it was good that I wasn’t, because by not doing these materially bad and laborious off-transcript steps, I was gravely diminishing my chances of employment anywhere. Are we all to become public philosophers? I asked. I told him of reading Kim Tolley’s collection Professors in the Gig Economy, (2018) and how it cemented my view that while I love universities, I think I don’t have any place there and am much better off hosting philosophy talks at the local public library while wearing my regalia, once I’ve earned them. And in many ways, doing so would feel as though it were a return to the more ideal, albeit quasi-medieval, role of the university itself, the life of the mind made manifest.

Neither of us expected to talk as long as we did, going on for over an hour. I asked him to send me something short and digestible if he had anything like that handy, and he mentioned a column he recently wrote. I look forward to talking with him again, and feel there are many rich threads left to explore at the intersections of higher education, the law, and the culture of the mind.