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… at the University of California Irvine, refused to take state-mandated sexual harassment training.

“I have consistently refused to take such training on the grounds that the adoption of the requirement was a naked political act by the state that offended my sensibilities, violated my rights as a tenured professor, impugned my character and cast a shadow of suspicion on my reputation and career,” McPherson said.

“I consider my refusal an act of civil disobedience. I even offered to go to jail if the university persisted in persecuting me for my refusal. We Scots are very stubborn in matters of this sort.”

Irvine removed supervisory responsibilities from him, threatened to reassign his courses, to put him on leave, boppity boppity boppity…

Eventually, McPherson did take the course, mainly because he became convinced his refusal was hurting some of his staff scientists. But he remained infuriated at the “coercive behavioral training,” which he called “insulting to the intelligence” and “a demeaning fraud.”


McPherson might have been factually wrong that this no doubt squalid training session violated his rights as a tenured professor; but he was certainly right to call it squalid, and to protect his intellect, his individuality, and his own way of looking at things, from the state’s sensitivity facilitators.

With his irritable, articulate, and maybe slightly crazy refusals, McPherson represents the greatness of tenure in the American university. He is what he is, believes what he believes, and doesn’t care what his deans say. Far from finding tenure attractive because he yearns for lifetime job security (indeed at one point in the farce McPherson almost left Irvine for Buffalo), McPherson likes tenure because it makes it more likely that his right to privacy, and his freedom to resist various forms of bureaucratic intrusion, will be respected.

What McPherson is protecting, above all, is the sanctity and complexity of independent thought. He knows that however mentally defended he manages to make himself throughout the harassment session, his mind will in some important sense never fully recover from its exposure to staggeringly reductive simple-mindedness about the world. Tenure goes a very long way toward shielding Alexander McPherson from the idiocy, conformity, and hypocrisy of much of institutional life; it even goes some distance toward protecting him from the consequences of his hatred of idiocy, conformity, and hypocrisy. Tenure – and Scottishness – have given McPherson the confidence to hate bullshit and love truth.


But tenure, Naomi Schaefer Riley argues in The Faculty Lounges, has just the opposite effect on American professors. It makes them lazy, cowardly, and truth-averse. Wedged into an enviable permanent sinecure, the tenured professor leans back and relaxes for the rest of her career, lecturing from yellowing notes, rewriting the same politically correct babble in journals no one reads… Oh, and running the university. As Riley describes it, the tenured faculty lounges about, nibbling on grapes or whatever… and at the same time holds all the power at the university. She talks about “the almost unchecked power of university faculties,” about administrators who “have no power,” and argues that only the abolition of tenure will check the irresponsible, complacent, self-interested machinations of professors. The faculty lounges and lunges.

Yet how to square this Oblomovian oligarchy with Benjamin Ginsberg’s argument in The Fall of the Faculty that “Power on campus is wielded mainly by administrators,” with faculty “shunted to the sidelines”? Ginsberg attacks the corporatization of the university, its takeover by anti-intellectual bureaucrats who, in their quest for power and money, ignore professors; he wants professors to get their asses out of their labs and libraries long enough to retake their schools.


Of the two writers, UD finds Ginsberg more convincing. Though he overstates the power and menace of administrators, the salient numbers are on his side, especially the insane growth of such positions at universities in the last few years. Riley might take comfort from the fact that tenure is steadily shrinking all by itself, without her having to break a polemical sweat. Administrators way up; tenured professors way down – that’s the way it is.

And it’s too bad. Because although of course Alexander McPherson is an extreme example, he nonetheless symbolizes well enough the subversive sangfroid of the free, even insolent, intellect. As our universities winnow people like McPherson and stock up on vocationally-minded, business-minded administrators, they risk their own demise.

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6 Responses to “In 2008, Alexander McPherson, an eminent biologist…”

  1. dmf Says:

    frankly I think that one would be hard put to place most faculty members in the pro-intellectual camp but lets take that as a given, how should we establish a basis for who is qualified (and how) to rule themselves out of the reach of such public/institutional directives/norms? Asking depts to rule themselves is like asking oil companies to be in charge of their own environmental standards, except one might expect that in oil companies there might be some place where people come together to see if their separate tasks are up to speed/quality and maybe even coming together to some common goal (as nefarious as it is likely to be).

  2. Who Has the Power to Refuse? « Clarissa's Blog Says:

    […] Soltan at University Diaries has published a great post about tenure and the power (or lack thereof) of tenured faculty. Make sure you read the post (and subscribe to the blog […]

  3. feMOMhist Says:

    great article (although for what its worth I support a one off SH training for all profs as I’ve seen way to much crap over the years). It prompted me to think how I’d use my newfound power as a tenured faculty member

  4. tony grafton Says:

    One question bugs me: people like Naomi Schaefer Riley look at the vast and varied and tumultuous and crazy world that is the American college and university, and think: I’m going to write a slim book with wide margins, based on earlier exposes and recent media articles, and that will–what? Solve all the problems? Induce trustees and regents across the country to join in cleaning the Augean stables? Make professors so ashamed of themselves that they’ll give up the Tuscan holidays that they pretend are research trips and teach 30 hours a week? What is the point?

  5. david foster Says:

    A related case here

  6. ima Says:

    My understanding is that tenure was originally designed to protect the efforts of faculty in the pursuit of truth, and the forceful opposition from both within and outside the academy that may greet such an effort. In practice, tenure was awarded not so much to indicate sufficient productivity, but rather whether over time, an individual had demonstrated in their daily efforts of teaching, lecturing, writing, etc., a focused pursuit for truth, practiced with a level of circumspect that acknowledged the responsibility that came with unfettered access to influencing less-well educated individuals, and which was consistently beyond reproach in terms of using one’s position within the protected walls of the academy.

    This is certainly a much different process than I experienced during my tenure review, which was successfully decided based solely on my productivity, defined in descending order of importance as: grants, publications, everything else. Perhaps, since the awarding of tenure is much less about pursuing truth, and more about grant dollars and the rapid publishing of iterative, and dare I say, at times, uninteresting research results, then the benefits of tenure are much less about protecting those with provocative ideas and more about how to keep the Ford-Factory approach of education rolling along.

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