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The toxic marriage of tenure and identity politics

Robert Oscar Lopez explains: "Academic freedom ... is not a virtue in its own right. The false view of it as an absolute good is an outgrowth of the United States' corrupted tenure system..."

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Professor Robert Oscar Lopez continues his journey from more-or-less willing participant in the saturnalia of academic identity politics to outspoken critic of said politics and, consequentially, an academic pariah in another interesting article in American Thinker.

Early in his academic career, Lopez hit a sort of identity politics superfecta, presenting himself as a (self-identified) bisexual, black, Puerto Rican son of two lesbian mothers. But later, while on the tenure track at California State University, Northridge, he published “Growing Up With Two Moms,” an article criticizing gay parenting based on his negative experiences as the fatherless child of a lesbian union.

As with many journeys from the left (or at least from the politically agnostic) to the right, Lopez’s began and for all professional purposes ended with little more than that one first step. A solitary transgression is all it takes to cross the tenured gods and goddesses (and cisodesses and gayods) who decide who’s in and who’s out of the Ivory Tower. And, as Lopez quickly discovered, the gods and goddesses of the faculty lounge are every bit as narcissistic, shallow, vengeful, and all-powerful as those populating Ovid’s Mount Olympus.

While it is possible that Lopez’s (often repeated) litany of identity checkmarks protected him from more dire professional consequences when he challenged the status quo, or even made his climb to tenure possible in the first place, his intellectual evolution is still fascinating to behold. He is a gifted narrator of his own life and even open to self-reflection about the ways his multiple-minority status has protected him.

Lopez furthermore offers important lessons to campus conservatives who are at risk of being seduced by the rewards of claiming a victim status of their own. In the immediate wake of the vicious attacks directed at him, Lopez’s first instinct was to cling to the game of identity mongering. He merely adopted a new identity: professional embattled conservative fighting campus leftism. As such, he traveled widely, wrote and lectured about his persecution, and received support from conservative allies.

But to his credit, he recently appears to have come to a deeper understanding that conservatives cannot continue to fight identity politics with even more identity politics:

My two young children and my stay-at-home wife were being housed, fed, and supported by money coming ultimately from California State University, an institution I’d described as degenerate in hundreds of columns.

Is one accomplishing anything by railing endlessly against the very source of one’s livelihood? There are many secular leftists who romanticize this intellectual contradiction as heroic, like Columbia students in 1968 taking over campus buildings to protest the inequity of a system that was bound to give them unequal privileges.

Lopez has now decided to forgo tenure, move to a conservative state for a new job, and practice what he is preaching:

I moved my family from California to a red state and started a new life. I do not have tenure, and I live with the understanding that I will have to be diplomatic or jeopardize my livelihood. The end result is that I chose a job I believe in, and I trust in God’s promise. I have to behave myself and look both ways before crossing the street. I am a better Christian for it.

In this most recent offering, Lopez reflects on his own changing perceptions of tenure and the peculiar institution known as academic freedom:

One year ago, I would have called myself a staunch believer in academic freedom – a free speech purist. … Now things look very different to me. … Academic freedom, I have come to believe, is not a virtue in its own right. The false view of it as an absolute good is an outgrowth of the United States’ corrupted tenure system. Tenure gives no protection to adjunct faculty who teach most classes, then handpicks a small number of people to tenure, who are usually chosen because they hold views favorable to their reviewers.

Lopez accurately identifies the tenure system in contemporary America as the source, not of free intellectual inquiry, but of the ever-increasing thought suppression blighting higher education. It’s an important insight and one that also applies to the dead end we’ve reached regarding collegiality in places like colleges. To echo Milton Friedman, endowing the “right” to research and teach freely only to a dwindling pool of hard-left identity politics nutters is about as sustainable as throwing open the borders to a welfare state.

“The vast majority of humanity does not have tenure,” Lopez writes, “and that is a good thing.”


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Tina Trent

Tina Trent writes about crime and policing, political radicals, social service programs, and academia. She has published several reports for America’s Survival and helped the late Larry Grathwohl release a…