The Historical Mix of Tenure, Academic Freedom and Torture

21 Oct 2008 // science

Juniorprof wrote a fascinating recent post on Tenure, Academic Freedom and Torture as it applies to today. In fact tenure, academic freedom and torture have run together in strange ways since the foundation of the university in the 12th century. Cribbing from the immensely detailed history of the university Academic Charisma and the Origins of the University by William Clark, the original universities had no academic freedom, no tenure, but was quite okay with torture, as long as it wasn't granted to the Arts faculty.

The original universities arose with the new found wealth of cities in Europe coming out of the middle ages, when the engine of commerce started to hum again. As rich young men of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie flocked to the cities to get an education, teachers started to gather in cities to teach.

In particular, they came to study the Liberal Arts. The original universities provided degrees in 4 major faculties: theology, law, medicine and the liberal arts. Liberal arts was called liberal because they were considered the essential knowledge of free men – not serfs or slaves or peasants or tradesmen. The liberal arts were pitted against the manual or mechanical arts, in other words, the work of the guilds. Originally there were seven liberal arts: grammar, dialetic (logic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy, and these were considered the essential knowledge that rich young men were expected to learn, and they came in droves. These young men had money, loved to drink, caused a ruckus, got girls pregnant, were loud and arrogant, and some of them may even have been brilliant scholars. Universities have always been associated with frat boys.

There was no academic freedom in the early universities. The early universities were incorporated by the Crown and the Church of the time in order to bring order to the mass of teachers, snake merchants and other unsavory characters who would fill the young men and a handful of women (think Heloise who got her teacher Abelard castrated) with strange new ideas. Professors had to get a degree dispensed by the university in order to teach. This degree, originally known as a Master degree, demonstrated that you had a thorough knowledge of the canonical texts, and that you could interpret correctly (orthodox).

There was no academic freedom in the sense that to get a Masters, you had to prove that you could interpret the canonical texts correctly and could adequately defend attacks to the orthodox positions in public debate. The point was that all who had a Masters degree must teach in an orthodox fashion acceptable to the Church. Getting a position in the university was often a family affair where sons of Professors would themselves become Professors, and often, whole families would sit on the faculty of a university.

Actually teaching may be too strong a word. The lecture was so-called because originally classes literally consisted of a Professor reading out a text, and maybe expounding them. Books were hard to come by – they were incredibly expensive to make and they had to be copied out by hand. It was often difficult to obtain an original to even make a copy. So students had to attend to class to hear these books at all.

There was no tenure in the original universities. You got paid directly by the students in your classes. As such, there was a lot of political skulduggery to get to teach the subjects that were most popular. Seniority counted a lot, and it directly resulted in how many students (and money) you would end up with.

These students bought a lot of money to university towns, and they had a lot of pull. They coddled the students so they would stay and spend their money in the towns. The mayors of these towns would give privileges to the professors in order to placate them so that they wouldn't move elsewhere. Furthermore, the professors of theology became highly respected and essentially acted as courts of law in theological cases. Many famous questions of heresy were argued by Professors at the University of Paris. Losing such cases sometimes ended on the pyre or in banishment.

As theology and law was so tightly entwined, and given the respect afforded to the University Professors, the Catholic Church bestowed a very important right to university professors, or men who held a Doctor of Theology and Law. Namely, Doctors of Law and Doctors of Theology could not be tortured under interrogation.

This legal protection against torture was a jealously guarded right by the Faculties of Law and Theology. It took another hundred years or so before the Professors of the Liberal Arts obtained an equivalent degree. It took a lot of surreptitious maneuvering that resulted in a Doctor of Philosophy (not a Doctor of Liberal Arts) but the Faculty of Arts finally got a Doctorate degree recognized by the state. The irony is that the Faculty of Arts eventually splintered off into the plethora of Faculties of today (including Film, Science, Computer Science, Gender Studies...) but even today, it is a PhD that is awarded.

Tenure was invented to attract the talent. As different universities fought to get the best professors in order to attract the richest students, eventually rich patrons came up with the concept of endowed chairs – specific positions for professors where they had a guaranteed salary for life – to attract the most famous professors. Being incredibly prestigious, each endowed position was often given a specific title depending on who funded the chair.

Stories abound about how tenured professors, once they got comfortable with their guaranteed salaries, would slack off in their teaching. Allegedly, Isaac Newton, holding the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, would lecture to an empty room because his lectures were so interminably boring. But he could do so as he was one of the most famous professors of his time. He was eventually elected to the Parliament as a representative of Cambridge.

Academic freedom in the modern sense came about from the reinvention of the University as the modern Research University in Germany in the 19th century. This was part of the incredible reorganization of the German state after the disastrous Napoleonic wars, when the brilliant Wilhelm von Humboldt reorganized the entire German education system in order to compete head on with France. Humboldt reformed the University system to promote Professors who discovered new shit, starting in the famous seminars on Linguistics, and eventually opening up to the sciences. This was coupled to the nationalization of the public education system which required the training of a whole new generation of high school teachers, who would teach German in a modern way that would socially reengineer the patchwork of German feudal states into a truly modern state. As well, the development of new chemical, electrical and steam technologies required a whole new generation of scientists and engineers.

And today, it seems that we have come full circle. Tenure is increasingly under threat as young researcher professors are expected to bring in their own money. Academic Freedom is no longer a holy grail, as Academia has become such a cutthroat industry that few dare rock the boat. Is it then no wonder that John Yoo, a tenured Professor of Law in Berkeley, publicly advocates torture as a legal convenience. We have returned to the Medieval University. You can almost hear the Spanish Inquisition laughing all the way from the Vatican.