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David Horowitz's Next Campaign

David Horowitz's Next Campaign
November 18, 2005

David Horowitz has a new target: the confidentiality of college tenure rules.

Horowitz inspired legislative hearings and infuriated professors nationwide with his Academic Bill of Rights, which he says is designed to protect students from being punished for their views, but which many professors say would limit their academic freedom. On Thursday, he announced a new campaign -- to ask colleges to modify their rules governing the confidentiality of tenure discussions.

Horowitz is urging colleges to change their policies so that any time a faculty member who participates in a tenure review believes that there have been violations of due process in such a decision, that faculty member would not be required to keep the discussions confidential. While the proposed policy does not state how the faculty member would report such violations, Horowitz said in an interview Thursday that the release of confidentiality might allow professors to report on those discussions to deans, to the faculty member under review, or others -- possibly including reporters, although he acknowledged that academics might frown on that.

Horowitz said he hoped colleges would change their rules voluntarily and that he did not know what he would do if they did not take his advice. With the Academic Bill of Rights, when they did not do so, he urged legislators to codify his ideas.

Horowitz compared tenure review committees to "star chamber proceedings" and said changes were needed to open up the process and prevent abuses. He said that he was convinced that conservative professors are unfairly punished in tenure reviews for their views, and that they need to know how their rights are being violated.

Academic groups immediately attacked the new Horowitz campaign. "It's ideological claptrap," said  William Scheuerman, president of the United University Professions, which is the American Federation of Teachers unit that represents faculty members at the State University of New York. While Scheurman and others said that the Horowitz plan made no sense, they said that it should be taken seriously, and they noted that his previous effort had won backing from some prominent legislators and placed academics on the defensive.

"I think you should take it seriously," Scheuerman said. "It will allow him to raise more funds, and to sell his program -- no matter how superficial and idiotic it is. And that will create problems."

The exact nature of confidentiality rules varies from campus to campus. But generally, tenure review discussions are supposed to be confidential. The theory is that professors on tenure committees need to have confidentiality assured for them to discuss frankly the merits of a candidate. At the same time, several college lawyers noted that this confidentiality right is far from absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990, for example, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had the right to seek tenure records involving the case of a woman who said that she was a victim of illegal discrimination in being denied tenure by the University of Pennsylvania.

But Horowitz maintains that aggrieved professors should not have to count on the EEOC. In announcing his new campaign, he cited two cases as examples -- pointedly noting that one of the cases involved a professor of the left and the other from the right.

In the former, a popular anthropology professor at Yale is losing his job -- and his supporters say that it's because he is an anarchist and a backer of graduate student unions. In the latter, a professor at Indiana University's law school in Indianapolis says that colleagues are out to deny him tenure because he doesn't fit their concept of what an American Indian professor should be. Among his unconventional views is backing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In both cases, Horowitz said, the professors would be better off if confidentiality rules were waived and they could see what people had said about them. And in both cases, he said, there is evidence that review committees didn't just look at teaching and research, but considered qualities that didn't belong in the reviews.

"If a department establishes criteria like publications, teaching and service and a candidate is stellar in all three, then that's it," Horowitz said. "You may not like the smell of his breath or whatever, but that's not a legitimate cause for rejecting his tenure."

Horowitz said that he viewed the Academic Bill of Rights as a way to help students. The new campaign is a "natural extension" to help professors, he said. And he said that the help was clearly needed, citing recent surveys indicating that the vast majority of professors are Democrats.

"I believe that there is a systematic exclusion and discouragement of conservatives," he said.

Horowitz acknowledged that if a professor on a search committee today feels that inappropriate issues are being raised, he or she could always go to a dean or some other administrator and raise concerns. But he said that colleges should change their policies to offer "a formal invitation" to professors to share information if they feel that rules are being violated. Asked if this would invite any professor on the losing side of a tenure vote to eliminate confidentiality, he said he thought it would be up to the professors, and that some tenure cases do not feature any rules violations.

"My whole campaign is about process," he said.

To many academics, however, his new campaign would mess up a process that is confidential for a reason. "The reasons for maintaining confidentiality in tenure review procedures is to try to elicit candid evaluations of individuals," said Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education. "If the process were to be made public, most individuals participating would withhold their negative evaluations out of fear of adverse interpersonal relationships and/or defamation actions. There is seemingly a lot to be lost and little to be gained by further opening up the tenure process."

Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the American Association of University Professors, said that the Horowitz proposal was not needed. He said that faculty members on tenure committees can already go to others at their institutions to report any improper actions during a review. The AAUP believes that people who are denied tenure have a right to know why, but Knight said that procedures must also protect the faculty members who serve on tenure committees.

Horowitz's comparison of review committees to star chambers was inaccurate and unfair, Knight said. Because the AAUP investigates complaints of unfair treatment of faculty members, Knight said that he is well aware that there are cases where procedures aren't followed. But he said it was "quite silly" to suggest widespread problems in a system in which there are "literally thousands and thousands of searches and tenure reviews every year."

Scheuerman, of United University Professions, said "this is David's world of make believe here. Is the process perfect? No. But does it generally work? It generally does."

 

 

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