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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

One Irony and One Tension on "wrong for faculty to be thinking"

I do not have the full correspondence that Eugene Volokh had with a Georgetown Law faculty member concerning the dismissal of one adjunct faculty member there and the placement of another on administrative leave. I do not know the identity of Eugene's correspondent (understandably enough), nor all the nuances of the full correspondence. That has made me reluctant to comment on the startling quote from the correspondence that appears in Eugene's post: that it is "wrong for faculty to be thinking—not just speaking—along those lines, because it will tend to create the very facts that it purports to describe." (Emphasis added.) The background topic does not necessarily encourage candid or public discussion, notwithstanding the fact that tenure and responsibility for one's academic discipline make candid and public discussion a duty and a well-protected one. Nor am I sure that the word "Thoughtcrime" in the title of Eugene's post helps to encourage that discussion, whether it is accurate or not; arresting language is powerful but can be, well, arresting.

All that said, I cannot help but add two observations. First, we recently had a couple of posts here about a lovely exchange between Mark Tushnet and Michael Seidman discussing their experience in law teaching. In that exchange, as Rick noted in his post, Seidman expressed discomfort over the sectarian nature of Georgetown as an institution, saying that "Georgetown Law Center is a nominally Catholic institution and one aspect of the residual Catholicism there is the notion that we're educating the whole person. Frankly, that gives me the creeps." He continues by asserting that universities have a "very limited function" or jurisdiction, and that "an educational institution that is concerned about the whole person risks totalitarianism."

Like Tushnet, I think there is room for more institutional pluralism than that--that there is room for universities that "care about the whole person." But I should like to note an irony here. Seidman is likely right that Georgetown is more "nominally" than deeply Catholic in its approach, and I'm sure many people there do not think of it as an especially sectarian institution. And yet, if the "wrong to be thinking" quote that Eugene offers is accurate, if it is shared by other faculty or students, and if it is reflected in the administration's actions (and they are not simply a university exhibiting the modern consumerist tendency to do what it has to do to fend off bad publicity and placate fee-paying stakeholders), it would be hard to imagine a more sectarian position. It is true that the quote offers a lightly consequentialist justification for objecting to faculty "thinking--not just speaking--along those lines." But at that level of abstraction and of intrusion, the idea that the wrong thought leads to the wrong world is surely deeply sectarian in nature, in effect if not in intent and perhaps both. It might not be the sect Georgetown started out with--it is actually closer to Puritanism--but it is sectarian just the same. The argument that some modern movements and sentiments are effectively religious or serve as a substitute for religion has at this point moved from insight to bumper sticker slogan. But this would be one case in which the bumper sticker seems to stick pretty well.

The second point is that I detect in some of the academic commentary (or lack of it) a sense that things are different in this case because the affected teachers are "merely" adjuncts. It is true that adjunct professors do not enjoy the protections of tenure. It is also true that many have argued that the "deprofessionalization" or "adjunctification" of the university poses dangers to academic freedom as a general institutional duty. But one can at least observe that the movement in law schools for some time with respect to another, previously contract-based sector of the law school faculty--clinical and legal writing professors--has been that they should be put on the tenure track and given equal status with doctrinal, tenure-track faculty. There is, I think, some tension between that and a view that what would be a controversy in the case of a tenure-track faculty member is much less consequential if it involves adjunct faculty. Whatever else one thinks of their status, one would think that one who has made arguments for expanding the professional status of teaching members of a law school should believe either that the "thinking" of adjunct faculty should be as protected as that of any other teacher (or student) at a university--or that wrong "thinking" ought to be unprotected for everyone, tenured professors included. I hope many more members of the broader university community share the first view than the second. But I'm not sure that's so.      

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 16, 2021 at 11:29 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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