May 5, 2004
My recent postings on my decision to leave academe to teach at a boarding school have triggered some interesting comments on both the ethics of staying in academe and the ethics of commenting on academe's problems. At Easily Distracted, Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke reflects on why he thinks most people who leave academe do so, explains why he has no intention of leaving himself, and offers some suggestions for what might be done within academe to reform the exploitative employment system that currently dominates so many humanities departments. At Academic Game, Academy Girl holds a mirror up to Burke's post, and doesn't like what she sees. Worth a look, as are the comments to AG's post. Also brewing: an excellent discussion at Rana's of the role the concept of courage should or should not play in this discussion.
I won't take sides on what looks to be a potentially acrimonious, if also potentially constructive, dispute. Instead, I'll just note a couple of things. The first is that the current debate about what's wrong with the academic labor system is miserably refracted through the identity politics that so dominates the scholarship of the humanities and social sciences. Tim's comments are noxious to AG in part because he assumes he knows what motivates AG and others, because he deigns to pronounce on the plight of those who not only are not him, but who exist in no small part, collectively, to prop up jobs like his. Writing from within a comfortably tenured position at an elite liberal arts college, and doing so unapologetically, Burke leaves himself wide open to attack on the basis of his always already compromised position: in this logic, he does not know whereof he speaks, he offends by speaking for others whose experiences are not his, and he speaks, ultimately, only and ever to rationalize his own indefensible position of privilege.
Of course things are more complicated than that: The answer here is not for someone as intelligent and clear-sighted as Burke to take a vow of silence when it comes to thinking through the problems at hand; sharp, constructive thinking about these problems is desperately needed, and much of it ought to be coming from the "haves." They, after all, are in the safely tenured position to put theory into practice. At the same time, people like Burke are inevitably going to take some harsh hits when they try to rationalize their own good fortune before an audience of people who are just as smart, but not as lucky.
That's one point. Another point, and this is one Tim touches on, is that it is not possible to think responsibly and constructively about the adjunct-side of the academic labor problem without also questioning the great white elephant of the academy: tenure. The adjunct labor system and the tenure system go hand in hand. They sustain and support one another; the tenured feed off the labor of adjuncts, and they also create the culture of corrupt self-justification that ensures the perpetuation and expansion of the adjunct system. After all, they are the ones who hire and fire the adjuncts. They could get together and say, "Instead of hiring adjuncts this year to teach these 25 courses over here, we'll all pitch in and teach another course." But they don't. That would deprofessionalize them, you see. It's much, much preferable to deprofessionalize others.
I thought briefly, sort of as a thought experiment, about the possibility of giving up tenure and staying within academe as a lecturer on fixed-term contracts. There is a guy at Cornell--actually the chair of one of their science departments--who refused tenure for ethical reasons, and whose career has never missed a beat because of it. But, then, he's a scientist and his work is quantifiable. The work of the academic humanist is so impossible to quantify these days, teaching is so devalued, and politics reign so supreme, that it would be suicidal for a humanist to do what this scientist did. Take tenure away from the academic humanities, and you'd get total anarchy. But that's not because tenure is a good thing. It's because tenure is the power of security, and as such it acts as a stabilizing wedge between those who possess it, and those who never will. That means that it is not only easy for tenured academics to theorize the problem of academic labor (they risk nothing by doing so, and actually gain academic street cred by showing that they understand and deplore the system that has been good to them), but also strangely conservative (as long as it all stays at the level of theory, nothing changes).
The real issue is, how many people in positions like Burke's are willing to do more than make tentative recommendations? How many would actually stir themselves to bring about actual change? How many would be willing to give up their own tenure, or even simply to teach more, if these things were necessary to reform the system? Burke's willingness to say publicly that tenure is a problem is quite something. It's honest, and it shows a willingness to consider an institutional reorientation that would put his own job security at risk.
But these are just random reflections. My real point is that there is something crucial getting lost in the emerging debate about the academic labor system, and that is that it really isn't all about who has what. It's crucial not to reduce the discussion about whether to stay in academe or to leave to a debate about the shapes of jobs. The casualization of academic labor is terribly important. But focussing on it exclusively obscures something more important, which is teaching.
I've been teaching college since 1991. Along the line, I've stopped feeling that I can do the sort of teaching I want to do in a university setting. Too many people arrive at college--even a place like Penn--without solid reading and writing skills. And once they are there, it's almost guaranteed that they won't acquire them. Their educations are too unstructured, there is too little continuity with individual professors and too little coordination among professors, there are too few professors who will take the time to work closely with students to help them develop and improve their skills. I noticed that the best students were ones who brought their skills with them to college, while the weaker ones were those who had been done a disservice in K-12. I noticed, too, that most people turned a blind eye on this realization, and taught their classes as if their students were far more prepared than they were. I noticed that they inflated grades to cover this up, and that they groused among one another--utterly unselfconscious about the fact that as teachers they have a responsibility to, you know, teach--about how students these days just aren't very smart. I realized that there was not much I could do in such a setting to change things, and that if I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives, I needed to encounter them when they were younger. My leaving academe is certainly in part a gesture of disgust at the corruption I've documented endlessly on Critical Mass. But, far more elementally, it is an attempt to put myself in an educational setting where I can actually do some solid, lasting good.
I think it's great that discussion is brewing about what it means to stay and what it means to go. But I hope, too, that the parameters of that discussion can widen a bit. It's not just that people who cannot find tenure-track jobs in academe might want to think about secondary school teaching. It's that secondary school teaching is something any academic might reasonably and responsibly choose.
Academy Girl's response to Burke is unfortunate -- she is offended chiefly by statements Burke never made -- and I'm hoping that we don't lose track of the points Burke does make. For starters, Burke is implicitly asking us to distinguish between problems that
a. are univerally, or almost universally, characteristic of the American university;
b. are universally, or almost universally, characteristic of a particular discipline in the university; and
c. are characteristic of a particular institution.
These distinctions are important, because it MAY be (I'm not sure about this) that as a historian at an elite liberal-arts college Burke has different ethical obligations than a literary critic at an elite university. It MAY be that the situations that quite rightly aroused Erin's "disgust" are less egregious at Swarthmore, or that there are in that instutution possible compensatory strategies that could make it worthwhile to stay in the game.
Then again, it may be the humanities in the academy are just plain screwed, whether through ideological deformation or economic injustice or both. But at the very least the different contexts need to be understood, and Tim Burke does us a favor by pointing them out.
Tim in part started his essay by bouncing off the post on my site, and I'm grateful for the traffic over the past few days! My biggest concern is that he feels there's a difference among institutions -- he pretty much says some people don't like teaching because they're at state universities, others don't because they're at large research universities, but -- eureka! -- if you teach at a prestigious private liberal-arts school, you've got it made!!
Tim's isn't the only such response to the IA/Critical Mass/academic labor critiques of the academy. Those who are in tenured situations primarily tend to answer the critiques by saying that the critics somehow haven't played the game correctly -- or as Tim says, with a little more humility, simply aren't as lucky.
I submit, though, that these aren't answers to the specifics of the critiques. I find myself somewhat more on Erin's side here (and haven't often found myself there, either).
As usual, I find myself largely in agreement with you, but I would place the emphasis differently.
Our local newspaper recently ran a profile of a Music professor who continually reminds her students, "Do the work." I take this to mean: forget about making an impression, forget about getting ahead, and focus on cultivating your craft and your discipline. I think that all of academia could use this reminder. We have lost sight of "the work," and we're doing less and less of it.
Of course, we're publishing more and more pages, but generating pages is not "the work". The work, in research, is making an honest contribution to scholarship, submitting it to the critical review of one's peers, and imposing it upon readers only when it is worthy of their attention. Churning out papers to fill ad hoc anthologies is not the work. The crucial difference is between promoting oneself and promoting one's discipline. And I think that the ideal of promoting one's discipline is the crucial piece that is missing. (By "discipline" I don't necessarily mean a departmental Fach. One's discipline, in my sense, might be literature or science, for example.)
The de-professionalization of university teaching is directly due to the increasing reluctance of tenured faculty to do the pedagogical part of the work. But I don't think that we should focus on limiting the number of adjuncts hired or changing the balance of faculty incentives between research and teaching. Again, we should try to recover the ideal of the professor as the servant of his or her discipline, where serving a discipline includes everything from doing original scholarship, to training the next generation of scholars, to showing undergraduates how the discipline can help to liberate their minds. There is a very important difference between fiddling with the balance of incentives and recovering an ideal. In my view, only the latter will do.
Why aren't we doing the work? As we all know, the increasing importance of departmental and institutional rankings is partly to blame. My own discipline, philosophy, has fallen victim to rankings more than others. And the rankings don't reward a department for doing the work; they reward (and create) academic celebrity -- the phenomenon of being distinguished for being distiguished, or being prominent for being prominent. The ambition of climbing the academic rankings has replaced the ideal of serving philosophy or literature or science. Again, we need to recover the ideal.
Another reason why the work has fallen by the wayside is the politicization and trivialization of many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences -- the trends that you have been criticizing so well in this blog. If our goal is just to sympathize with the right victims and to rail against the right oppressors, and if the instruments of oppression include such things as intellectual standards and the very concept of truth, then there really is no *work* to do, just placards to be painted and slogans to be chanted. In this case, political ideals -- some of them laudable ideals, though pursued in the wrong ways -- have replaced intellectual ideals, which need to be recovered.
One final note. The trends that you have been criticizing in this blog should lead you to hesitate before challenging the institution of tenure. I have spent a fair amount of time over the past decade writing essays and editorials that go against the prevailing ideology on my campus. Whenever I publish one of these pieces, I get emails from all over campus saying, "Thanks for saying what I wouldn't dare say in public." My answer is, "That's what tenure is for." I have very little respect for the tenured faculty who send me those messages. But if I didn't have tenure, I would probably be keeping my mouth shut, as they are. Reinstating intellectual ideals to their proper place in the academy will require fighting the establishment, which is now composed ideologues, publicists, and poll-takers. Tenure doesn't always succeed in protecting faculty who take up the fight, but without it there would be no protection at all.
I do hope that you will continue blogging in your new job.
In the spirit of brewing up some more discussion, I've posted a more extended reaction to Rana's and Timothy Burke's posts on my site.
I am not an academic but I do have an opinion on the subject of teaching by the professors. I did teach at a university a long time ago for a couple of years and found that I actually got as much from my students in forcing me to rethink my positions as I gave them in teaching them the subject. I think many in academia have lost sight of the rewards to be gained from working with people who have not yet become so hidebound in their thinking that they cannot let their imaginations flow in new directions. Sometimes these directions are misguided but how are we to know until someone looks there.
What brought this to mind was my remembering a professor I had in quantitative analytical chemistry whose test papers were so old that they were yellow and crumbling. Every fraternity on campus had copies of all his tests. Granted that many things did not change much in his subject area but the least he could do for students in his course was to spend the time to think about his subject. I have to admit that his lectures demonstrated that he ws working on autopilot. As we students were paying for his time (since this was a very expensive private university) he should have done more to earn his money.
Personally I am very chary of taking classes from a professor who is not willing to give of himself to his students. While publishing may be required to gain advancement, the professors are being paid to educate the students and work with them to develop their thinking skills and anything less is a disservice to the profession. Is there any wonder that professors and academia in general are valued so little in our current day. The diploma is required and people will strive for that. Doing the work that makes the diploma valuable is another story altogether.
Interesting point you make about students not being prepared to write when they arrive at college. I attended an elite North-Eastern liberal arts university. I arrived, thanks to prep school, with solid writing experience. We had Composition Period ("Comp") every monday when we were given a topic and required to draft a five paragraph essay in our little black and white composition books. The essay was graded and became part of our overall English grade. Comp prepared me to write longer papers because the process, while expanded, was really just the same as a basic 5 paragraph essay. We wrote a lot at prep school. When I got to college, I was the only one on my floor who placed out of 1st Year Composition and then I taught every person on my part of the dorm floor, all 16 of them, how to outline and write an essay. I'm still grateful to my prep school English teachers for taking the time to teach me how to write coherently, preparing me for college, and for doing so with great kindness. I, for one, think you're on the right track, Erin!
I'm happy for you, Erin, although I'll miss your blog. I left graduate school ABD (18th-century literature....now, there's a smart career move) & after a few years of textbook editing joined the faculty of an independent high school in Brooklyn, NY. I had the freedom to design my own courses (including, yes, 18th-century prose. Teaching EVELINA to 17-year-olds was soooo fun), terrific colleagues who loved their subjects and their students (although not, in all fairness, the parents. Be warned: the parents of private school kids can be VERY DEMANDING), an OK salary & benefits, and a fair say in curriculum design & other institutional issues. The sheer luxury of teaching what I loved to kids who were funny & into it -- as opposed to the obligatory boredom of freshman comp -- and the sense that you can really make a kid's day, week, month when they suddenly "get it" & the wheels start turning over a piece of poetry or a film (do you have ANY idea how many otherwise sophsiticated NYC teenagers have never seen a black-and-white movie? or even THE WIZARD OF OZ?) -- does that happen on a college campus anymore?
Sure, call me romantic, call me a fool. The drugs these kids took would stun a horse; the parents were insanely demanding (until the kids got into some great college....then they eased up)....but where else do you get to teach Casablanca, EVERYMAN, Elizabeth Bishop, and the history of the blues all in one semester? (No, not all in one course.)
Lordy, lordy, the excesses, disconnects, and self-regarding obfuscated anger in the AG carryings-on make me grateful I left grad school and adjuncting in English for law (Wall Street and ambulance chasing at different times). The root problem with tenure is the pretentious claim that in this era it "protects" risky "search for truth," when it mostly sustains highly-paid luck at musical chairs, or successful PC politicking.
Erin's move sounds ethical and practical, and I wish her well. Those in academia and everywhere, either love your life or change it, in line with whatever reality circumstances create.
"the tenured feed off the labor of adjuncts, and they also create the culture of corrupt self-justification that ensures the perpetuation and expansion of the adjunct system. After all, they are the ones who hire and fire the adjuncts. They could get together and say, "Instead of hiring adjuncts this year to teach these 25 courses over here, we'll all pitch in and teach another course." But they don't."
What you describe as "feeding off the labor of adjuncts" is only descriptive of the largest research schools. Here in state-college-land, the _tenured_ faculty teaches 4/4, so the "let's all pitch in and teach more" you describe is way off. I think you're confusing apples and oranges: the problems with the dependence on, and exploitation of, adjuncts has nothing to do with tenure, but with short-sighted financial decisions by administrations. Tenure remains the only reliable guaratee of academic freedom. People deride tenure as some sort of unfair job-security program, but it's not: tenured profs can be fired for gross dereliction (e.g., not teaching classes at all) or grave misconduct (e.g., plagiarism, raping a student, murdering the dean). What they can't be is fired for expressing or espousing unpopular views.
But, as tenure advocates like King Banaian admit, the typical tenured prof does NOT speak out. It's probably a combination of many years not speaking out as grad student, TA, and non-tenured assistant prof -- if you've succeeded so far by blending into the background, why change at 35 or 40 once you get tenure? -- and also the desire not to offend colleagues, committee members, department chairs, deans, etc. So keep in mind that many of the big academic problems -- speech codes, lockstep political correctness, bias against centrists or conservatives -- are because the supposedly protected tenured faculty are NOT speaking out. I would tend to say that the public is entitled to begin to favor a "use it or lose it" provision here. And keep in mind that somewhere around half of all faculty, being probationary, visiting, or adjunct, is not tenured. Students are not tenured. TAs are not tenured. Even if the protection were used, fewer and fewer faculty have it.
"Even if the protection were used, fewer and fewer faculty have it."
I'm sure that's true, but that's not a good reason for abolishing it. In any case, as far as I can tell, plenty of profs speak out all the time, but inasmuch as they're saying things that everyone agrees with (wal-mart is bad, bush is evil, the soviets failed because they didn't do marx correctly), the issue of protections doesn't arise. A college professor who is very vocal in, say, opposing the Iraq war, might as well be tenured or untenured, since 99% of his or her colleagues agree anyway. It's only unpopular speech which needs protection. As to this:
"I would tend to say that the public is entitled to begin to favor a "use it or lose it" provision here." -- I don't follow. The public isn't "entitled" to anything with respect to which formal mechanisms to protect academic freedom. Are you suggesting that if Prof. A _isn't_ outspoken and controversial, that this is a reason for revoking his or her tenure? It's entirely possible that Prof. A could be a productive scholar, but just doesn't happen to be working on anything that pushes people's buttons.
As to the larger point that many tenured profs have gotten into the habit of being inoffensive and uncontroversial, well I don't know, seems like some are and some aren't.
I'm not talking about "revoking" any particular prof's tenure. But in terms of public interest, let's look at a parallel legal situation (I am not an attorney) called "estoppel". If I have a piece of property, and the public has been accustomed to walking across it as a shortcut for many years, I can't suddenly say "no trespassing". I have to exercise my property rights or lose them. Same as with a trademark -- if everyone calls a certain type of machine a "caterpillar" or "cat", or a ceertain type of soda a "coke", or a certain type of bandage a "band-aid", then if I don't act to protect my trademark rights, I lose them.
I don't see why we, as interested members of the public who have a stake in the educational system, shouldn't be able to say "all you professors who are so antsy about keeping your tenure (or I should say, the half of you who've lucked into that sweet deal) keep maintaining that academic freedom will go down the tube if you can't keep tenure, whether you ever exercise your rights of protected speech or not. We say baloney -- you guys are, as members of your own caste acknowledge, cowards about saying anything remotely controversial in your little world, but you'll all call ROTC students babykillers 'til the cows come home, because you all think that way. Sorry, guys, we'll eventually exercise our influence through votes over public university funding, as parents, and as alumni. Get over it."
And as a member of that public, i would agree with that proposition.
"It's probably a combination of many years not speaking out as grad student, TA, and non-tenured assistant prof -- if you've succeeded so far by blending into the background, why change at 35 or 40 once you get tenure?" That's exactly right. There is so much "get along to go along" in the tenure review process that nonconformists rarely make it, so the conformism of tenured faculty is no accident. Not only is this particularly true of humanists and social scientists, but, especially in smaller teaching-oriented institutions where departments don't have the autonomy they enjoy at research universities (in exchange for bringing int he grant $$), they can have a malign influence even outside their own disciplines. In my case my own (biology) department thought highly of me, but I had made myself unpopular with some of the political-science types who formed the dominant caste at the college, because I openly questioned the corrupt and academic-standards-subverting way in which student evaluations of teaching were misused at the college. Fortunately I wanted out anyway, because I'm not interested in having a job that I'm not allowed to do properly. My only regret about academia is not leaving it sooner.
Your "estoppal" analogy isn't analogous at all. In the situation you describe, what's involved is partly the expectation of continuing to use the resource in question. But the general public has no "entitlement" to a professor's research or service. Who does? 1, students (at that college) do. Students are entitled to have professors who are good at their jobs, and they won't be able to do their jobs well if they constantly have to worry about whether their views are politically correct. 2, the college, as a sustained academic community which persists beyond the four years during which students pass through, is entitled to have faculty members whose research programs have as much integrity a possible, and that's not possible if they constantly have to worry about whose toes they step on in their pursuit of the truth. In some sense, each discipline, as a non-geographical community of economists, or historians, etc., might be entitled to expect the same thing from faculty belonging to that discipline, and the same reasoning applies again. Parents have no special rights in this regard, even if they're the ones paying tuition, no more than they have the right to tell a surgeon "I don't think you should use that retractor, and I'm the one paying the bill here." Parents (qua parents) aren't qualified to tell the surgeon which retractor to use, and they're likewise not qualified to tell a history prof whose account of the Pelponnesian War to rely on. They have a right to expect that their kids are being well educated, and it's peer evaluation that determines that, not the opinions of the parents. Ditto taxpayers w.r.t. state colleges - the taxpayers aren't entitled to micro-manage the state college faculty any more than they are entitled to micro-manage surgical technique at state hospitals.
Lastly, I am skeptical of the datum that half the professoriat is neither tenured nor on a tenure track. But as I said earlier, even if that were the case, overreliance on adjuncts isn't the fault of the tenure system.
I wonder if, without tenure, the single acceptable worldview that appears so eccentric to those of us who've never been in academia would have evolved. Out in the nonacademic untenured world, I've always worked with people who spanned the range of political thought. I've never needed academic freedom to say what I think, and no one else has either.
In your list of people who have a stake in how teaching is done, a.s., I think a kind of nebulous society-at-large actually does. For instance, based on Erin's post about the Boalt Law School nonsense, new lawyers from that school will be unprepared to deal with issues like common folk running their mouths. (They would be prepared if the ivory tower didn't keep the administrators and other decision-makers so insulated from Joe and Jane America that they can pretend this sort of thing (insensitive language) doesn't happen every day. And isn't it funny that academic freedom doesn't embrace the issue of role-playing a nonacademic who blurts out what she thinks.) To continue your analogy of parents not being able to tell a surgeon which retractor not to use, it is a legitimate interest of society that medical schools employ the best possible teaching techniques so that surgeon will use the right retractor.
"To continue your analogy of parents not being able to tell a surgeon which retractor not to use, it is a legitimate interest of society that medical schools employ the best possible teaching techniques so that surgeon will use the right retractor."
Right, so medical school education and medical research have to be about truth, not about popularity and conformity. (Ditto with all research and all education, of course, it's just that surgery seemed like an illustrative example.)
So the interests of "socity-at-large," as you put it, is best served by knowing that truth is being pursued, as opposed to knowing that comfort zones are being protected, offense is never given, orthodoxies are being maintained. Granted not every single academic doggedly pursues the former over the latter, but without tenure it would be far worse, nearly impossible I'd argue.
"I wonder if, without tenure, the single acceptable worldview that appears so eccentric to those of us who've never been in academia would have evolved."
Just so happens that it worked out that way. But if you ever hope for it to change, doing away with tenure is precisely the wrong answer.
"Out in the nonacademic untenured world, I've always worked with people who spanned the range of political thought. I've never needed academic freedom to say what I think, and no one else has either."
First of all, the fact that _you've_ never needed to worry about it (as far as you know) can't be generalized over "no one else has either." But second of all, and more importantly, most non-academic jobs aren't fundamentally about discovering and communicating truths. The reason a marketing manager or systems analyst doesn't need protection from hostility to her political views is that her political views aren't part of her job as a marketing manager or systems analyst. To make the difference more formal: in most jobs, your boss knows what constitutes doing your job well or poorly, and you'll thrive or get the sack accordingly. Your boss, if even remotely rational, won't care what your politics or religion are, or what others think of your views, so long as you're doing your job well. But in the academy, this is not the case at all. First of all, deans and provosts and presidents and trustees aren't typically in a position to know whether Joe Historian or Jane Philosopher is correctly pursuing truth, although they can respond to what peer evaluation from other historians or philosophers reveals. Second of all, there is much more of a tendency to be wary of giving offense (a) than there used to be and (b) than there is w.r.t. other professions (i.e., you probably don't know or care what your plumber's or your architect's politics are). Academic tenure is close to sui generis because being an academic is close to sui generis. (Why "close to"? Because it's not: judicial tenure exists for a very similar reason - that too is (optimally) about truth not popularity.)
AS you make some good points. When I said "no one else has" I mean no one else I've worked with; given the range of views I've heard expressed, I'd hate to think what anyone's repressing.
And you're right that my job has nothing to do with politics. I guess it kind of did when I was doing environmental chemistry. But even there we had our tree-huggers and our skeptics, and no one cared as long as the work was done on time and was defensible (done right and documented). Of course, lots of professors teach things that have nothing to do with politics too. And of the professors that do teach politics-related material, can you honestly say that they have academic freedom? If so, why do we keep reading that they all have the same opinions? Why the hysteria over the Boalt instructor?
Most interesting about this discussion is its focus on the academy--although that makes sense given the choice you are making to leave it. As a grad students, I already see the problems you are leaving behind, and applaud your decision to continue teaching--in an environment that will let you be the teacher you want to be.
Having come to the academy, however, from teaching high school, I would encourage you to think about your comment about those students k-12 has done a disservice to. That comment if unpacked could be so interesting. I taught HS reading and writing before entering my grad program in rhetoric and composition and I hear so much about what our students DIDN'T learn throughout k-12. You'll have seen both sideds of that issue at this time next year. I think all the time about what my former students did learn and what my current students do know. But that knowledge doesn't get nearly as much mention.
Second, let us know how your 45 hour work week turns out (especially as you live with your students). I loved my students and almost every minute I spent with them. But I didn't live with them, I only earned 25,000 a year, and I'm not sure I ever had something as short as a 45 hour work week.
But having said all that, I applaud your decision and may someday soon follow you.
"Of course, lots of professors teach things that have nothing to do with politics too."
Yes, and technically, protection of a mathematician's pursuit of truth doesn't necessarily need to extend to his or her stance on gun control. On the other hand, if we think of the faculty as a community of scholars, it's not hard to see why it would be harmful to that community to punish the math prof for having unpopular political views. Having said that, though, we should also keep in mind that (a) what we might call "political views" might come up in places less obvious - for example, in physics or antrhopology, so best to have broad protections, and (b) it's not just politics in the sense of Locke and Mill and Marx, but also campus politics. If we're to have academic self-governance, faculty members have to be able to speak their minds on college issues without having that held against them either. (By the way, this isn't to excuse "soapboxing": I'd take a dim view of, say, a physics prof who, rather than the scheduled hour of fluid dynamics, spends the hour on the Iraq war or gun control or what have you. It's one thing to have a view on these issues, but using your classroom time to soapbox them is, depending on the class, fradulent.)
"And of the professors that do teach politics-related material, can you honestly say that they have academic freedom?"
As far as I can see, yes, although it's true that the PC wars and speech-code frenzies of the 90s (which haven't entirely ended) are troubling - but that's an argument _in favor of_ maintaining the tenure system.
"If so, why do we keep reading that they all have the same opinions?"
Well, that's a bit of a generalization, but it's true that there are orthodoxies in the academy, e.g., not registering Republican, but again, that's an argument in favor of maintaining tenure. The argument that tenure _doesn't go far enough_ towards promoting and protecting an independent-minded faculty works for me, but that's not a reason to get rid of tenure.
"Why the hysteria over the Boalt instructor?"
That's an example of speech-code madness. Fortunately, thanks to the blogosphere, it's gotten huge exposure and they'll probably be forced to back-pedal.