Prior to last Friday, the famous pro-life philosopher Francis Beckwith was at the pinnacle of his career. His latest book had been accepted for publication by Cambridge University Press, one of the most prestigious academic publishers in the world. The deal with Cambridge was the capstone on several years of prolific publishing in an impressive variety of journals. In an academic world that is feared by many young faculty for its “publish or perish” reputation, Professor Beckwith had nothing to worry about. He’d published…and published…and published.
Tenure was surely a foregone conclusion. Or was it?
Last Friday, we found out just how ugly the politics of the university can get. Francis Beckwith received formal notification that his tenure had been denied by Baylor University. The word that came to the lips of everyone I spoke to on Friday and over the weekend was the same: injustice. Rank injustice.
When I first heard the news I experienced for the first time what is known as cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t hold the two ideas in my mind. Professor Beckwith. Denied tenure. It was impossible to believe. There were people who told me it could happen, but I discounted the notion. After all, even political enemies have consciences, right? They have some commitment to integrity, don’t they?
I’m a lot less naive about human nature today than I was on Friday morning. Now I understand why my conservative and Christian friends are so hesitant to write anything for publication using their real names. I’ve taken it up myself. Starting today.
Some who read this story will wonder whether there is some other serious weakness that has resulted in Beckwith’s being denied tenure. The publication record is one of the best on campus. The teaching evaluations were good.
Many suspect that if the university ever issues a justification for its actions, “collegiality” will have been the all-important factor. If so, I hope the always active Baylor chapter of the American Association of University Professors will leap to Dr. Beckwith’s defense. After all, the AAUP has had occasion to address the prejudicial use of “collegiality” in tenure decisions before:
Historically, “collegiality” has not infrequently been associated with ensuring homogeneity, and hence with practices that exclude persons on the basis of their difference from a perceived norm. The invocation of “collegiality” may also threaten academic freedom. In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.
A distinct criterion of collegiality also holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion. Criticism and opposition do not necessarily conflict with collegiality. Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions. They have sometimes proved collegial in the deepest and truest sense. Certainly a college or university replete with genial Babbitts is not the place to which society is likely to look for leadership. It is sometimes exceedingly difficult to distinguish the constructive engagement that characterizes true collegiality from an obstructiveness or truculence that inhibits collegiality. Yet the failure to do so may invite the suppression of dissent. The very real potential for a distinct criterion of “collegiality” to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations.
In short, it is likely that “collegiality” is often a code for unjustified discrimination or the practice of ruthless politics.
Beckwith was one of a new breed of scholars brought to Baylor by Robert Sloan, Baylor’s former president. Sloan was a key architect of Baylor’s vision for Christian academic excellence and the move toward true research university status. Rather than being a less well-funded version of the University of Texas with a vaguely parochial identity, Baylor would stand as a real alternative, a daring affirmative statement of the broad intellectual horizons of the Christian faith. Disgruntled veteran faculty managed to push Sloan out, but the embattled president and others believed that the school would continue along the path upon which he had set it. The chairman of the Board of Regents, presumably speaking for a majority of board members, proclaimed that message when, early last year, Sloan announced his resignation.
Those of us who cared about seeing the vision fulfilled watched hopefully to see what would happen next. We knew we’d discover the real score when Francis Beckwith’s tenure came up for review. Out of the class of faculty members under consideration, he was the best-known and the most public symbol of Sloan’s vision. Either the university would allow those who pushed Robert Sloan out to take further revenge on one of his prize academic recruits or it would ensure that the decision was made objectively and fairly based on job performance. Regrettably, we now know which path Baylor chose. Permission for political retribution granted.
This is a story that deserves to have legs. Baylor is experiencing cognitive dissonance of its own. The university claims to be committed to the integration of faith and learning and to upholding and expanding the best traditions of Christian scholarship. At the same time, it allows a faction of disgruntled faculty who deny the possibility of the above project to exert brute political force over decisions like the tenure of Francis Beckwith. The two ideas can’t coexist. Frank Beckwith is an outstanding Christian scholar. He’s an outstanding scholar period. If there’s not room for him at Baylor, then the dream is dead on arrival.