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July 25, 2007

Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine

Hal Bidlack (far right) with Penn & Teller at The Amazing Meeting 5 (photo by David Patton)

A Skeptic’s Faith

Does a belief in God undermine one’s ability to be a skeptic? This is the question Hal Bidlack seeks to answer this week, as he movingly recounts his own personal experiences as a man of faith — and as a skeptic and prominent member of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Atheism is relatively common within the skeptics community, and so it is sometimes supposed (especially in press accounts) that skepticism implies atheism. Dr. Bidlack is one of those who disagrees.

We’re certain you’ll enjoy his important, heartfelt contribution to this conversation.

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The Science of Good & Evil
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The following article on tenure by Michael Shermer was part of an invited open peer commentary on an article entitled “Is Tenure Justified? An Experimental Study of Faculty Beliefs About Tenure, Promotion, and Academic Freedom” by Stephen J. Ceci, Wendy M. Williams, and Katrin Mueller-Johnson, published in a 2006 issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, volume 29, pages 553–569. In this article Shermer proposes a market solution to the problem of tenure.

Is tenure justified?

Testing Tenure

commentary by Michael Shermer

Abstract of Ceci, et al.

The behavioral sciences have come under attack for writings and speech that affront sensitivities. At such times, academic freedom and tenure are invoked to forestall efforts to censure and terminate jobs. We review the history and controversy surrounding academic freedom and tenure, and explore their meaning across different fields, at different institutions, and at different ranks. In a multifactoral experimental survey, 1,004 randomly selected faculty members from top-ranked institutions were asked how colleagues would typically respond when confronted with dilemmas concerning teaching, research, and wrong-doing. Full professors were perceived as being more likely to insist on having the academic freedom to teach unpopular courses, research controversial topics, and whistle-blow wrong-doing than were lower-ranked professors (even associate professors with tenure). Everyone thought that others were more likely to exercise academic freedom than they themselves were, and that promotion to full professor was a better predictor of who would exercise academic freedom than was the awarding of tenure. Few differences emerged related either to gender or type of institution, and behavioral scientists’ beliefs were similar to scholars from other fields. In addition, no support was found for glib celebrations of tenure’s sanctification of broadly defined academic freedoms. These findings challenge the assumption that tenure can be justified on the basis of fostering academic freedom, suggesting the need for a re-examination of the philosophical foundation and practical implications of tenure in today’s academy.

Abstract of Shermer Commentary

Tenure debates and disputes are often irresolvable because of the complex and multivariate nature of contractual relationships between faculty and administration and the nuanced and varying beliefs about tenure held by the professoriate. The Ceci et al. study leads this commentator to suggest a simple solution — allow individual institutions to define the parameters of tenure according to their unique core values.

Shermer Commentary

Pepperdine University is a private religious school affiliated with the Church of Christ. When I matriculated in 1974, Pepperdine was extremely conservative — politically, religiously, and socially. Politically, the administration had ties to the Republican Party — President Gerald Ford spoke there, as did the physicist Edward Teller on the validity of Mutual Assured Destruction as a Cold War strategy. Religiously, my professors were Christians, and twice-weekly chapel attendance was required, as was a set of religion courses. Socially, student activities were closely monitored, with dancing prohibited and opposite-sex dorm-room visits forbidden. However, as I was a born-again Christian riding the wave of an inchoate evangelical movement, this was exactly what I wanted in a college, and my needs were well met by Pepperdine.

Today, however, although I remain fiscally conservative, I am a nontheist, a social liberal, and a public intellectual critical of religious extremism and excessive intrusion of religion in American public life (see Shermer 1999; 2004; 2006; as well as Skeptic magazine, of which I am the founding editor). Pepperdine would never hire me today, but what if they had before I bifurcated down this rather divergent intellectual path, and then used my position as a platform for converting conservative Christian students into liberal nontheists? If students and their parents complained that they were not getting what they paid for (in 2006, tuition was in excess of $40,000), should the Pepperdine administration have the option of terminating my employment? In my opinion, yes; in the opinion of all of my professor friends and colleagues whom I queried (both those with and those without tenure, and even one of my old Pepperdine professors), no. Their reasoning is that academic freedom trumps institutional needs, and the opportunity for faculty growth is more important than student preferences or collegiate predilections.

My informal survey was conducted in preparation for an American Civil Liberties Union conference on tenure and academic freedom, in which I defended the right of the University of Colorado to fire Professor Ward Churchill for stepping beyond the bounds of his duties as a college professor when he penned an essay that equated the victims of 9/11 to “little Eichmans.” The responses from my colleagues fall squarely in the range of responses offered by the professoriate surveyed by Ceci et al. Tenure, although flawed and in need of minor modifications, is rarely abused and is necessary to protect intellectual freedom in the academy.

There are two levels of analysis considered here in testing tenure: descriptive and proscriptive. The Ceci article is primarily descriptive and metadescriptive — what professors believe about tenure, and what they believe other professors believe about tenure. Although there are limitations to such self-report data (well outlined by the authors), the methodology offers important insights into beliefs that Frank Sulloway and I employed in our study of religious beliefs; for example, why people believe in God and why they think other people believe in God. As we noted in our own caveat, “we are not so naive as to think that people have complete access to their internal states that translate as fully accurate reasons for belief. However, in the spirit of recognizing that the observable level of behavior is a meaningful one for humans, we feel that one way to shift from the observable to the unobservable is to simply ask people why they believe” (Shermer and Sulloway 2006). What professors believe about tenure and why, and what they think other (higher or lower ranked) professors believe about tenure and why, across a wide range of hypothetical scenarios, is crucial information in shifting the discussion from the descriptive to the proscriptive; in this case, the Ceci et al. article reveals that extreme attitudes (positive or negative) toward tenure are not common in the academy and that recommendations of change must be made within certain modest boundaries to be adopted.

Having taught as an adjunct professor at three different colleges over a career of 20 years (Glendale College, California State University Los Angeles, and Occidental College) before embarking on a career as an independent researcher, writer, and editor, one solution occurred to me after reading the Ceci et al. article: Let the market decide. That is, allow individual institutions to define the parameters of tenure according to their unique core values. For example, if Pepperdine University is offering their customers (parents and students) a conservative Christian learning atmosphere, and as one of their professors I was purposefully undermining that mission through social activism inside and outside the classroom, then by all means the administration should do what it needs to do to preserve the integrity of the university’s core values, even if that means firing me. By contrast, Occidental College, which is well known to be a far-left-leaning institution (I kept my fiscal conservatism to myself when I taught there), can market to its potential customers that it fosters a liberal secular learning atmosphere. An extreme religious fundamentalist professor thumping a Bible on campus might reasonably be considered polluting this campus atmosphere.

In contrast, if an institution is willing to tolerate some deviance from its foundational norms as part of an intellectual diversity program, then contracts with faculty should specify such deviance parameters; where a contract cannot anticipate specific instances of parameter violations, conflicts can be resolved through institutional arbitration. In neither example is an all-encompassing rule about tenure — enforced through state or national teacher unions or courts — necessary or even possible. The problem in the case of Ward Churchill and the University of Colorado, as with so many tenure disputes, is the difficulty involved in attempting to apply a single overarching principle to a system as complex and multivariate as the academy. A simple solution, then, is to retain the spirit of tenure across the academic board while allowing each institution to define tenure within the parameters of its own core values. This market solution elegantly addresses the problem of grafting a general principle onto an extraordinarily varying human institution, a problem well captured by that sage dispenser of pop philosophy, Yogi Berra: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”


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