I recently had a discussion that led me to a basic question: Why is the concept of academic freedom as a semi-protected activity limited by custom to people who teach in universities? Why doesn’t it apply to any person engaged in research and publication on issues important in our lives? What is the theoretical underpinning of the argument that non-faculty don’t have academic freedom in the same sense that faculty do? What is it that faculty actually do that is different from what I do, at least part of the time?
Is it that faculty need to be free to publish important books and articles? I have published four books as author or contributing editor (three with a university press), one of which is a five-pounder and is considered the definitive modern work in its field. I have published chapters in other major books, 36 articles or commentaries on education issues, 75 on ornithology (mostly in non-refereed outlets) and another two dozen that don’t fit neatly into categories. This doesn’t count work that I produce in my job as a college evaluator. I’m also the new book review editor for a small, well-respected refereed journal and a glorious but undiscovered poet.
Because I work as a college evaluator and routinely review faculty qualifications, I can say that my actual output of what would normally be considered scholarly work is quite similar to what I would expect of a mid-career professor at a mid-level college. In short, in terms of tangible product, I do what they do.
Is it that faculty teach? Let us define teaching. Let me know when you’re done -- with luck, I will have retired by then. I suppose we have an obligation to at least attempt to answer the question, but allow me to argue that teaching and learning take place all the time in all parts of society, whether or not a traditional cage is constructed around the putative teachers and learners.
Is the difference that I as a non-faculty member have been classified by society as fit for some tasks but not for others? By whose order? Under what theory? With what brief? Certainly as a state employee I am obligated to perform the tasks that are in my job description, and likewise obligated not to go about publicly trashing the goals of my employer. Beyond this, am I not free to pursue the truth wherever it may take me?
Universities have traditionally been assigned by society the role of pursuing truth and transferring knowledge in a semi-protected setting, if not beyond the reach of interfering powers, at least having some defenses against those powers. This is a good thing, but doesn’t it seem strange that a special kind of institution in society must be set aside for this purpose?
I do not think that the traditional collegiate cloister as our sole reservation for academic freedom works very well any more. The ability of independent scholars to operate outside institutions has increased along with the utility of the Internet. The Supreme Court wrote, in an era before the personal computer, PDA and cell phone (to say nothing of iPhone), that:
“Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” (Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 1967)
Where, and what, is the classroom today, 40 years downstream from Keyishian? If a friend of mine publishes a detailed study of hospital spending practices, molt strategies in the American Wigeon or the perfidy of Donald Rumsfeld on a blog, Web site or other nontraditional venue, and invites comment from all comers, isn’t that just as much a classroom as an enclosed space in which one human is bleating in person at a roomful of (mostly) younger humans? Certainly the gray area is taking on more and more layers and shades with the advent of more varieties of distance-learning.
To spend a moment longer in the relatively cramped legal arena, the Supreme Court has also granted certain kinds of academic freedom protections to universities themselves, under a theory that they as institutions have a special role in society and need to have some protection from unseemly attempts to influence their work. Yes, to be sure, that is true, but there are other institutions in society, e.g., publishers, think tanks, foundations; whose role is, if not the same in structure, surely overlapping in goal and function.
At a time when more and more people of all ages get their news and information off the Internet, and when young people of traditional college age do a vast amount of their fact-gathering online (whether the facts are, if you will, true, is another question), the argument that universities need a special protected status as our principal conductors of information and values to young adults has been losing weight for years.
We see more and more corporate sponsorships of research or faculty positions and degree programs that, as a practical matter, relate solely to the products of one or two companies. The idea that the university is separate from the pressures of the outer world (and therefore that people who work there should have a special status for themselves and their work) is getting harder to sustain. Should people employed by banks, supermarkets or governments who publish academic work be afforded protection under an academic freedom theory from retaliation by their employer if the employer happens to dislike the work? I can’t think why not.
When we have resources as good as, for example, Reginald Shepherd’s teaching-blog on poetry, the argument that the traditional classroom is necessary as a baseline for the theory, practice and legal protections of academic freedom begins to look like an argument that a sufficiency of draft horses is necessary for national security.
Norms move forward. I argued a while ago ("Accrediting Individual Instructors," The Independent Scholar 18(1):10-12, Winter 2004) that we need to stop accrediting colleges and start accrediting teachers. The fact that a top-flight poet like Shepherd now contracts with students privately and engages in significant dialogues on poetry and culture via a blog is but one example of an educational trend that militates toward recognition that academic freedom, in its purposes, results and legal classification, needs to be decoupled from the nature of an individual scholar’s employment.
Academic freedom adheres to the purpose and function of academic inquiry, not to technicalities of institutional affiliation. Anyone who engages in inquiry and publication according to the norms of academe is entitled to the scholar’s woolen cloak. It may not protect against all enemies, but it serves to reduce the chill of unpopular thought.
Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon, where Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution allows him to publish what he pleases. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. He blogs at oregonreview.blogspot.com.
This month in an important victory for free speech on campus, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Temple University’s former sexual harassment policy was unconstitutional. While free speech advocates from across the ideological spectrum cheered the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn v. Temple University, some critics expressed dismay at what they deemed a “very ominous” example of “activist judging.” These critics are wrong -- and it’s important for both students and university administrators to understand why.
In February of 2006, Christian DeJohn filed a complaint in federal district court alleging that Temple had violated his First Amendment rights by punishing him for political expression. Among other serious allegations, DeJohn’s complaint charged that Temple’s sexual harassment policy (which, for example, prohibited “generalized sexist remarks”) violated his First Amendment right to free expression. DeJohn asserted that he felt inhibited from discussing his views on the role of women in the military, among other issues, and worried that he could be punished under Temple’s policy for expressing his opinions.
Seeking to obviate DeJohn’s First Amendment challenges, Temple revised its sexual harassment policy in 2007 by scrapping the sections of its policy at issue before the district court. Having done so, Temple asked the court to dismiss the portion of DeJohn’s complaint that related to the sexual harassment policy. However, the district court denied Temple’s motion, arguing that nothing prevented Temple from reinstituting the original policy following the conclusion of DeJohn’s suit. In March 2007, the district court found Temple’s now-abandoned sexual harassment policy to be unconstitutional on its face and issued an injunction against its enforcement.
Temple appealed the district court’s ruling to the Third Circuit in April 2007. This month, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of DeJohn, concluding that Temple’s former sexual harassment policy was unconstitutionally overbroad and affirming the lower court’s holding. Explaining that “[d]iscussion by adult students in a college classroom should not be restricted,” the court found that Temple’s former policy prohibited constitutionally protected speech and was therefore unacceptably overbroad.
Some critics of the opinion argue that the court should have found DeJohn’s claims moot since the university voluntarily revised the policy before the appeal was heard. But in the opinion, the Third Circuit rejected the mootness argument. Following U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the court held that a finding of mootness is only appropriate if “it can be said with assurance that there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur.” Because Temple, in its appellate brief, defended both the constitutionality of its former policy and its particular necessity on Temple's campus, the court held that it could not be certain that Temple would not simply reinstate the policy once the litigation was over.
Indeed, Temple’s brief on appeal argued vehemently for the constitutionality of its former policy. Temple’s aggressive defense of its policy was fueled by outside events: between the time the District Court found the policy unconstitutional and the Third Circuit was to hear the appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant decision that Temple hoped would change the outcome of its case.
In Morse v. Frederick, decided in June 2007, the Supreme Court held that a public high school did not violate the First Amendment in suspending a student for unfurling a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” at a school-sponsored event. In their appellate brief, Temple seized on Morse and sought to expand its holding. Temple contended that Morse granted public colleges broad authority to restrict the speech of adult college students in the same way that high schools could regulate the speech of their students (who are generally under 18) -- an expansion particularly threatening to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. As a result, Temple argued, its sexual harassment policy was acceptable in the post-Morse environment.
Given Temple’s argument that its sexual harassment policy was constitutionally permissible in light of new legal precedent, it is not surprising -- and hardly a mark of activism -- that the Third Circuit felt compelled to issue a decision on the case. But in reaching its decision on mootness, the Third Circuit did not fashion new legal principles out of whole cloth. Rather, the court followed the explicit guidance of its own precedent -- which, as the opinion notes, “articulate[s] the burden for the party alleging mootness as “‘heavy,’ even ‘formidable.’” Indeed, every aspect of the Third Circuit’s decision relies heavily on appropriate precedent, whether from its own appellate decisions or those of the Supreme Court. If anything, Temple’s brief argued for the more “activist” outcome by claiming that the Supreme Court’s narrow holding concerning high school students in Morse could be used to justify maintaining an overbroad speech code in the collegiate setting. Had the Third Circuit applied a high school case like Morse to colleges and universities, the resulting opinion would have represented a sea change in our legal thinking about college students’ rights, opening the door to the wholesale evisceration of free expression on campus.
Not only is the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn not “activist,” it is not political, as some have charged. DeJohn is squarely in line with 50 years of Supreme Court decisions placing special emphasis on the importance of free speech in higher education, as well as two decades of district court decisions uniformly ruling that at public colleges, speech codes (often masquerading as anti-harassment policies)are unconstitutional. In this case, opposition to Temple’s speech code brought together groups as ideologically varied as the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Christian Legal Society, Feminists for Free Expression, the Student Press Law Center, Students for Academic Freedom, Collegefreedom.org, and the Alliance Defense Fund. If anything, opposition to speech codes has transcended partisan divides, as judges and advocacy organizations from all over the country and the political spectrum agree that such codes are incompatible with fundamental First Amendment freedoms and the unique role of the university in American life.
DeJohn’s critics also argue that the Third Circuit erred by considering DeJohn’s claims against Temple without what they consider to be ample evidence that DeJohn had been specifically harmed by Temple’s sexual harassment policy. Robert M. O’Neil, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, told Inside Higher Ed that he found the Third Circuit’s opinion to be “very ominous” because he believed the court did not sufficiently consider whether DeJohn was actually affected by the policy. O’Neil said the court offered “no proof that this plaintiff was in any way put at risk or threatened or even reasonably felt threatened by the existence of the policy.”
Facial challenges for overbreadth are a unique, well-established and crucial aspect of First Amendment law. Recognizing that First Amendment rights are “supremely precious in our society,” the Supreme Court developed the overbreadth doctrine to protect speech from the chilling effect that occurs when a law or regulation is written so broadly that it reaches substantial amounts of protected speech. Plaintiffs may challenge allegedly overbroad statutes “as written,” rather than “as applied,” on behalf of those not in front of the court. The idea is that anyone subject to a law or policy that restricts his or her right to freedom of speech may challenge it on behalf of all citizens negatively affected by the constitutional violation.
Contrary to O’Neil’s characterization that there existed “no proof” that DeJohn “reasonably felt threatened” by Temple’s policy, the Third Circuit determined that, as a Temple student, DeJohn suffered from the policy’s existence. As the court noted, DeJohn argued that the policy made him feel “inhibited in expressing his opinions in class concerning women in combat and women in the military.” In other words, the policy had an impermissible “chilling effect” on his right to free expression. DeJohn was “concerned that discussing his social, cultural, political, and/or religious views regarding these issues might be sanctionable by the university” -- and by concluding that Temple’s policy “provide[d] no shelter for core protected speech,” the Third Circuit accepted these concerns as legitimate and reasonable. Because the Supreme Court has held that even a fleeting loss of First Amendment freedoms “unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” the Third Circuit was absolutely correct in determining that DeJohn had suffered sufficiently to entertain his facial challenge.
The DeJohn opinion should come as no surprise to public universities. District courts have been striking down overbroad harassment policies for nearly 20 years. Rather than reaching unexpectedly “ominous” or “activist” legal conclusions, DeJohn simply provided a reaffirmation of clearly established law.
The Third Circuit adhered strictly to the standard for student-on-student harassment announced by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, a 1999 opinion holding that actionable harassment is limited to that behavior so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive ... that the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” The Third Circuit made clear in DeJohn that Davis’s standard must be carefully followed, writing that “[a]bsent any requirement akin to a showing of severity or pervasiveness -- that is, a requirement that the conduct objectively and subjectively creates a hostile environment or substantially interferes with an individual’s work,” harassment policies like Temple’s provide “no shelter for core protected speech.”
If anything, the most noteworthy aspect of the Third Circuit’s ruling was the court’s refusal to import Morse’s restrictions on student speech into the university setting. That is a victory, because treating the First Amendment rights of university students as functionally equivalent to those of high school students fundamentally confuses the unique pedagogical missions of each level of schooling. The Third Circuit’s clear pronouncement that the First Amendment rights of adult college students must not be abridged should be welcomed by public universities, not feared.
William Creeley, Samantha Harris and Greg Lukianoff
Will Creeley is a lawyer and the director of Legal and Public Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Samantha Harris is a lawyer and the director of Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource for FIRE. Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer and president of FIRE.
Over 40 years ago, when I was still an undergraduate at Antioch College, the student government sent out a large number of letters to controversial or accomplished Americans and invited them to talk on campus. One who accepted was George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell asked if he could bring 20 of his storm troopers with him, but permission was refused. So he asked if he could hold a news conference on campus; that request was turned down as well. He would be picked up at the airport, driven to the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus to give his talk, and returned.
Although Antioch may not be anyone's image of a disciplined campus, the 500 students and faculty in the auditorium that day in 1964 were well disciplined indeed. They sat in absolute silence throughout the talk. When the question period came, no one raised a hand. Instead, everyone rose and exited, again in silence. So Rockwell began to curse us all. Still no one reacted. Eventually he gave up and left.
There was, quite understandably, no anxiety before or afterward that these impressionable college students might be persuaded by the talk. It was a chance to see firsthand a monster with a constituency, albeit a relatively small one. College audiences have special reason to see such people in the flesh, so as to try to understand how they might draw people to their cause. Monsters, as it happens, also have a way of showing their true colors, as Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did at Columbia University. His ludicrous assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran did more to discredit him as a competent leader than almost anything one might say about him.
The notion of a monster with a constituency affords at least some opportunity to avoid emptying all prison systems and hospitals for the criminally insane in search of campus speakers. It suggests instead that students who want to understand their culture might benefit from exposure to both its angels and its devils, along with those not so readily classifiable. What one learns can be surprising. What I learned in 1964 was to value the power of silent, nonviolent witness; that, and the special experience of sharing a moral conviction with hundreds of other people.
Of course some whom the public come to consider monstrous may not be so. The media and political groups can combine forces to create monsters where none are to be found. Then it is best for students and faculty to find out for themselves. High on my list of current faux monsters would be Ward Churchill and William Ayers.
Many faculty and students across the country expect Churchill to be a relentless ideologue. If you spend time with him, as I have, you meet a rather low-key, affable fellow, who wears his trials surprisingly lightly. Ayers, billed as an unrepentant radical, is an accomplished education professor who talks about classrooms and books, not bombs. Yet talks by both have repeatedly been canceled, thereby denying our students the chance to form opinions based on direct experience.
The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. So far as I remember, no one was silly enough to make the counter claim about the Rockwell invitation. Nor was it necessary for Columbia's president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.
But then efforts to get an invited speaker disinvited are not necessarily really based on anger at giving the person a platform, especially since real monsters often acquit themselves poorly on stage. They are as much as anything else efforts to housebreak American higher education, to establish external forces and constituencies as campus powers. They are about establishing who is really in charge -- students and faculty, or politicians, talk show radio hosts, and donors. Get a university to cancel Churchill or Ayers and anyone on the political or cultural spectrum whose views you oppose can be your next target. Once Hamilton College canceled Churchill and the University of Nebraska canceled Ayers, the playing field was open to all comers. Then state legislators could pressure the University of Oklahoma to cancel a talk by biologist Richard Dawkins. Why? Because the man treats evolution as an established fact. Oklahoma stood its ground, perhaps realizing it would be shamed for generations had it canceled the talk.
The most unwelcome trigger may be a donor¹s threat to withdraw a gift. No administrator likes to knuckle under to extortion. But that is not the most efficient way to get a speech canceled in any case. The new weapon of choice is the anonymous threat of violence delivered by a phone call from a public booth. Then the president or his spokesperson can cancel a speech in a voice filled with regret, ceremoniously invoking "security" concerns, as Boston College did in canceling an Ayers talk. It is the ultimate heckler's veto. Place a call and you are in charge. Better yet, call the threat in to a talk show host and give his hate campaign a newspaper headline.
We either must stand firm against these efforts to undermine the integrity of our educational institutions or agree that academic freedom no longer obtains in America. Boston College tried lamely to say the decision was purely an internal matter, but press coverage appropriately turns each of these incidents into a national test of an institution's values and commitments. Each institution's decision about whether to show courage or cowardice helps set a pattern, strengthening or weakening academic freedom everywhere. Thus we all benefited when Pennsylvania's Millersville University resisted legislative pressure and held an Ayers lecture as planned.
And we are all diminished by Boston College's incoherent performance. Because the consequences of these decisions are considerable, the campus as a whole must bear the cost of assuring that invitations are not withdrawn. If a threat requires extra security, let the campus itself -- not the students or faculty who issued the invitation -- cover the cost. That is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors.
The financial sector catastrophe and consequent worldwide recession are a crisis of “ethic” proportion, in Vanguard founder John Bogle’s words. Higher education’s own responsibility for the failures of ethical leadership in business, the gatekeeper professions, and government should trigger a careful self-assessment. Could it be that the academic profession, whose members both educate and serve as role models in the formation years for leaders in business, government, and all the other peer review professions, is falling short in its own ethical responsibilities?
A major theme of "The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance," the first in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' new Intentional Leadership in the New Academy series of essays, is that the academic profession has been failing for many years in its ethical duty to acculturate new entrants into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The central argument in "The Future of the Professoriate" is that members of a peer-review profession cannot aggressively justify and defend their control over professional work when they do not both understand the profession’s social contract and internalize their responsibilities under the social contract. The social contract of each peer-review profession is the tacit agreement between society and members of a profession that regulates their relationship with each other, in particular the profession’s control over professional work. Essentially, in order for the public to grant a peer-review profession more autonomy and control over the work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations, the public must trust that the profession and its members will use the autonomy at least to some degree to benefit the public in the area of the profession’s responsibility, not abuse occupational control over the work merely to serve self-interest.
The simple fact is that all the data available indicate that a substantial proportion of graduate students and faculty members do not clearly understand the profession's social contract, academic freedom, shared governance, and each professor's and the faculty's specific duties that justify the profession's claims to autonomy. Osmosis-like diffusion of these concepts and duties does not work. There must be required education on professional ethics for graduate students and entering and veteran faculty just as there is for law students in all states and members of the legal profession in many states. (Academic Ethics (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 2002) outlines the content of this education.)
The governing boards of many colleges and universities represent the public in the social contract between the public and the academic profession. "The Future of the Professoriate" argues that the boards and their senior administrative teams have faced substantial market changes in higher education in recent decades; the current budgetary disaster driven by reduced taxpayer support for public higher education and reduced endowments is among the most difficult of these market changes. While members of all peer-review professions carry an ongoing burden to justify to the public (and the boards representing the public) the profession’s occupational control over the work, carrying this burden is particularly critical during a time of rapid market change.
The report's analysis is that during this period of market change, the academic profession has been almost totally missing in action in mounting a robust public defense of both how the public benefits from the profession’s autonomy and control over its work in the form of academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance and how the profession and its members are actively fulfilling their duties under the social contract. Paradoxically, while we are educators, we are not educating. The situation is similar to the failure of the medical profession to mount a robust public defense of its autonomy during the 1980s and 1990s when the health care market changed toward managed care that dramatically reduced the medical profession’s control over its professional work.
At a significant swath of institutions, the academic profession’s defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security. As Eliot Freidson in Professionalism: The Third Logic (University of Chicago Press, 2001) has observed, when the peer-review professions defend their social contracts, they typically rely on a rhetoric of rights, job security, and “good intentions, which [are] belied by the patently self-interested character of many of their activities. What they almost never do is spell out the principles underlying the institutions that organize and support the way they do their work and take active responsibility for [the realization of the principles].” They do not undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members’ work. The academic profession’s anemic defense of its social contract confirms Freidson’s observation.
The predicable result of an anemic defense of a profession’s social contract during a time of market change is that the society and employers will restructure control of the profession’s work toward the regulatory and employer control typical for other occupations -- essentially the default employment arrangements in a market economy. This is what has been happening to the academic profession. The boards at many colleges and universities have been renegotiating a sweeping change in the academic profession’s social contract over many years to reduce the profession’s autonomy and control over professional work. "The Future of the Professoriate" details how the renegotiation is most evident with the dramatic increase in contingent faculty to the point that, by 2003, 59 percent of all newly hired full-time faculty started in non-tenure-track positions.
The academic profession must not resign itself to the current trend toward contingent faculty, but it cannot reverse the trends toward a higher proportion of contingent faculty and less occupational control over professional work by employing a rhetoric of rights, job security, and good intentions. However, professors cannot defend the social contract without both having the knowledge necessary to make the defense and actively meeting their duties under the social contract. The single most important step for the profession is improving the acculturation of graduate students and veteran academics into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The best starting point at each institution may be a simple faculty self-assessment of the degree to which the faculty is helping new and veteran faculty members understand and internalize both the minimum standards of competence and ethical conduct for the profession (the ethics of duty) and the core values and ideals of the profession (the ethics of aspiration).
If the academic profession at many institutions does not undertake these responsibilities, then this crisis of ethic proportion will continue, and the trajectory for the academic profession for the next twenty years will, in all likelihood, look like the trajectory for the last thirty years. Members of the profession will continue a slow transformation toward employment as technical experts subject to the dominant market model of employer control over work.
While many in the profession believe the battle is against oppressive governing boards, administrators, and market forces, the battle is actually for the soul of the profession. Imagine a world in which each professor at an institution had fully internalized the tradition and ethics of the profession. We are educators. From a position of knowledge and moral authority, not just self-interest, we could then convince the public -- and, most importantly, the governing boards and administrative leadership who are trustees for the public good of creating and disseminating knowledge -- that academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance best serve the institution’s mission.
Neil W. Hamilton
Neil Hamilton is professor of law and director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas.
Warning: I am writing this article as an administrator without first seeking permission and you are reading something you’re not supposed to know. I write because my narrative may not just be indicative of the shortsightedness of one university administrator. It may well be connected to a disturbing trend that markets universities as if they were for-profit corporations. When image control and raising money are the top priorities, the combination can lead to censorship and the curbing of academic freedom.
Having had the opportunity to look at academe from both sides now — as professor and administrator — I’m disillusioned. The divide I had always suspected between faculty and administration seems quite real, and any ideals I might have entertained of mutual respect have been tarnished. Still, if as Joni Mitchell claims, “something lost is something gained,” perhaps by reflecting on the details of my disillusionment, I can ward off cynicism and gain a measure of sanguinity.
As a professor of English and feminist critic for 20 years, I have always hoped to be an assertive advocate for women in academe. Such an opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2008. After months of administrative wrangling, the Women’s Studies and Resource Center (WSRC) was without a director. Someone needed to step in as interim administrator. I had been instrumental in creating the WSRC and didn’t want to see it fail, so I took the opportunity to see how the other half lives and hopefully to resuscitate the center in order to hand it over, healthy and vigorous, to a permanent director one year later. When I started last August, the Center had just been reassigned to a different branch of Academic Affairs — Institutional Diversity and Inclusion — and placed under the auspices of a new associate provost, who in turn reported to a new provost. Faculty members involved in the center simmered with suspicion about the new arrangement. Getting the new administration on the same page with these prickly faculty members seemed challenging, if not impossible.
What did seem achievable was to initiate invigorating programming for the center. Here I could invest my energy and enthusiasm and bring the center back to life for women on campus and in the community. I immediately began planning.
Back in 2002, our Wellness Services and Counseling Center had brought photographer Frank Cordelle’s The Century Project to UNCW. I had been moved and inspired by Frank’s powerful nude portraits of females ages 9 months to 94 years. The exhibit had been well attended and well received. Bringing it back for Women’s History Month 2009 seemed to ensure a surefire hit for the WSRC by effectively underscoring the themes I had chosen for the month: Women’s Bodies/Women’s Lives: Our Bodies, or Theirs?
I don’t think I could have made a better choice. Once again, the project’s exquisite representations of real women, their bodies and their stories, connected with a diverse audience. In five days, almost 1,100 people came, responding to the portraits and the brief stories that accompany them with words like “invaluable,” “inspiring,” “comforting,” “compassionate,” “touching,” “earnest,” “staggering,” “respectful,” and “heroic.” Once again, the Century Project met my expectations by getting busy people to stop, reconsider, and reflect upon women’s bodies and women’s lives.
What I did not expect was the decision by a few UNCW administrators to censor the images of the minors in the exhibit.
Surprisingly, it took only one letter from an angry professor in Oklahoma to our chancellor and provost to bring censorship to UNCW. He portrayed the Century Project as soft-core pornography a la Playboy. In a simultaneous press release, he maintained: “When men are exposed to naked pictures of teenagers and younger girls ... what before was taboo .... now becomes ‘normal.’ .... The girls in such pictures ... forever become tools for masturbation by pedophiles and others seeking to exploit their images. Anyone paying the owner of their image participates in the exploitation of these naked children and teens.”
One would expect that when faced with such dramatically provocative accusations, chancellors and provosts would want to consult with the person responsible for bringing the exhibit to campus — namely the interim director of the WSRC. But that was not to be, and it is here that the rickety bridge between administration and faculty, one that I had been cautiously trying to rebuild, was demolished.
Rather than consult with me, or Frank Cordelle, or with our resident photography professor, who happens to specialize in the nude, or with other women’s studies faculty, or with our journalism and art history professors, or with any faculty for that matter, our chancellor and provost turned instead to fellow administrators, who raised questions about showing images of minors.
Based mostly on these misconceptions, which either Frank Cordelle or I could easily have easily dispelled, a handful of administrators let their own perceptions about the impact a controversy might have on the university’s image (i.e., brand) prevail. If asked, I could have referred them to Frank’s Web site and his book, Bodies and Souls: The Century Project. He makes it very clear that he received parental consents for all the photos of minors and that he remains willing to remove any photos if asked. Rather than cross the divide between administration and faculty to discuss the ethical ramifications of censoring an art exhibit, a privy chamber of six ruled that the images of the girls under 18 were verboten. Their decision was issued as an ultimatum — either censor the project or cancel.
Frank reluctantly agreed to bring the censored exhibit to campus, but he did not simply consent. Instead I provided open forums where Frank could discuss the banned images. I invited professors, student media, university librarians, the director of our community rape crisis center. We worked hard to be sure that open, spirited, and informed conversations occurred all week.
As a result, the project was galvanizing. Students, faculty, staff, and community responded indignantly to the administration’s decision to censor the project with earnest, thoughtful, and often outraged written comments at the project site and in the student newspaper. We were all reminded of the university’s theoretical commitment to nourish new ways of thinking, not hinder them out of fear, and we all came to understand how crucial it is that we steadfastly defend our right to freedom of expression.
So was justice eventually served? Not really.
Freedom of expression was still under assault. When the students published the censored images, they interviewed the provost and printed his remarks, including claims I considered erroneous about the WSRC. When I refuted his mistakes in writing, the administration produced another ultimatum: if I spoke to the press again without first clearing my remarks with Marketing and Communications, I could face a letter of reprimand. Since, this is the policy for all administrators, I had to conform to the policy, even if it meant swallowing untrue accusations. On the ladder of priorities, image came before democratic ethics.
My naive expectations of academic freedom evaporated. Clearly, the upper echelon of administrators was dubious of the lower ranks’ understanding of the “real” world. Ironically, I was told that as a faculty member, I could speak publicly if I made it clear I was speaking as an individual, not as a representative of the university. This was cold comfort as I found myself in an intellectual Catch 22: faculty are respected for their scholarly expertise, but at the same time, they are readily dismissed as impractical — unless, of course, they are from Oklahoma!
And, they were right about me. I am impractical. I continue to value academic freedom over upsetting potential donors.
The divide between faculty and administration, that clichéd “us” against “them” mindset, was firmly in place. Some consolation was to be gained when the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly to admonish the administration for failing to consult with campus experts before asking Frank to remove the images of the minors. And there was a sense of poetic justice when three weeks later, the provost resigned his position in order “to pursue other interests” after completing just eight months on the job.
Have lessons been learned? Has mutual respect between administrators and faculty been reestablished at our university? Not really. I was hopeful, but, when asked, the chancellor declined to agree to an inclusive, collaborative, and transparent process for consultation with all relevant parties when administrative concerns arise regarding controversial academic programming.
I return to the English department faculty in the fall, but I wrote this essay while still an administrator, expected to clear these words with Marketing and Communications before I send them off. I won’t. When I did confide in one administrator that I was writing about the Century Project, he immediately advised that I publish anonymously. So much for free speech.
What I can see from both sides now is what could have happened, what still could happen. Administrators need to work harder to raze the divide between administration and faculty, to construct sturdy bridges of mutual respect that encourage communication, consultation, and collaboration. Is it too facile to say, “We’re all in this together”? Shouldn’t all educators be guaranteed freedom of speech — free speech, that is — not speech that first has to be vetted by a marketing director? I believe a university serves its better angels best when it resists autocracy and secrecy and strives for democracy and transparency.
The urge to control discourse is tempting, in our government, in our military, and in our corporations. But in our universities, the consequence of marketing “savvy” is chilling. It erodes the values and morale of discourse communities that should epitomize engaged and informed public citizenry. Given the opportunity to see from both sides of the divide, it is the promise of academic freedom that I worry about, precious and vulnerable.
Janet Mason Ellerby
Janet Mason Ellerby, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, was until recently interim director of the Women’s Studies and Resource Center.
Submitted by Cary Nelson on September 15, 2009 - 3:00am
It’s not easy to find a country in the Middle East whose universities honor academic freedom as we know it in most Western countries. Syria is a police state, comparable in some ways to North Korea or Myanmar. Iran has substantially become one. Egypt’s security police maintain a chilling presence on campus. The one country that maintains academic freedom is Israel, though of course not in the occupied territories. The comparative climate for intellectual debate in the region is too often ignored or slighted in discussions promoted by the various boycott movements. Simple intellectual honesty and political accuracy requires that every discussion of Israeli academic conduct be framed with a reminder of the regional context. Otherwise, inadequately informed audiences can become victims of demagoguery and an exceptionalist fantasy of Israeli monstrosity be promoted.
But the dynamic of debate in the Israeli academy has suddenly changed, and part of the debate is now being conducted in American venues. As Inside Higher Ed reported last month, a Ben-Gurion University political science professor, Neve Gordon published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, in Counterpunch and in the Guardian that endorsed a gradually expanding international boycott of Israel. In her response, also published in the LA Times, Ben-Gurion University’s president, Rivka Carmi ventured not only to castigate Gordon but also to redefine academic freedom in ways contrary to traditions of the American Association of University Professors.
With these very troubling ideas circulating in the United States, a clear need for the AAUP to address the story has arisen. That need is underlined by the fact that several American scholars writing about the Middle East have either lost their jobs or had their tenure cases challenged because of their scholarly or extramural publications. Statements by Carmi and other Israeli administrators thus have the potential to help undermine academic freedom not only in Israel but elsewhere. These are in every sense worldwide debates.
As the Inside Higher Ed story points out, Gordon has been critical of Israeli conduct for some time. His protest columns regularly appear in The Nation here in the United States and in the Guardian in Britain, and he is the author of a 2008 book called Israel’s Occupation, published by the University of California Press. All this work, including the LA Times column, falls within his areas of academic specialization. It ranges from scholarly publication to extramural speech. It is all without question covered by academic freedom. Carmi’s assertion that the LA Times column “oversteps the boundaries of academic freedom — because it has nothing to do with it” is wholly unsupportable.
Gordon’s column, it is worth noting, adopts a somewhat different persona than a number of his other pieces about Israeli policy. It is not, for example, a straightforward protest against Israeli military actions, but rather a confessional staging of his anguished journey toward boycott advocacy: “as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.” He has, he is suggesting, had a breakthrough amounting to a recovery of his humanity, something thereby that his opponents implicitly lack. Throughout his 2009 responses to the Gaza invasion he has been moving in that direction, suggesting earlier that he opposed Israel’s military action despite Hamas rockets falling near the home he shares with his children, and arguing that the invasion is distorting the humanity of Israeli children.
I am willing to believe that this tactic is both genuine and a calculated rhetorical strategy, but in either case it has probably contributed to the intensity of the response, since it frames the LA Times piece not as political polemic but as a personal narrative about, as he puts it, “the question that keeps me up at night.” It thus has special power to move ordinary readers, and many of those readers here and abroad have responded passionately. Publishing the column in the United States, rather than Israel, was, to be sure, a deliberate provocation. It moved the argumentative terrain to that of Israel’s major military and political ally, and to the home of many of Israel’s and his own university’s most important donors. The affront was not simply in what he said but where he said it, though it is hardly the first time Israeli scholars of both the Right and the Left have brought these debates to American shores. The response both here and in Israel has been intense. As we saw in the Ward Churchill case, academic freedom does not always fare well in a public firestorm.
The public response called for a principled defense of academic freedom by President Carmi. Instead, she made herself part of the public outcry against Gordon. Worse still, Carmi has sought to narrow academic freedom and undermine the protections it offers, calling Gordon’s column an effort “to advocate a personal opinion, which is really demagoguery cloaked in academic theory.” The notion that a political scientist cannot combine academic arguments with conclusions, theory with advocacy, strikes at the heart of the principle that academics have the right to advise the public and seek an impact on public policy. As Matthew Finkin and Robert Post argue effectively in their 2009 book For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, faculty speech in scholarly venues and in the classroom cannot be protected (and cannot fully serve society) if faculty members are not also free to deploy their expertise in the public sphere without fear of government or university reprisal.
Gordon calls for a boycott of the state of Israel, thereby advocating something much more comprehensive than the focused boycott of academic institutions that the AAUP opposes. Some Israeli commentary claims Gordon’s remarks amount to treason, a dangerous and overheated accusation that responsible opinion must reject. Gordon is in fact performing his job as a political scientist and following reasoned moral and professional standards in doing so. Even if he were not a political scientist, he would have the right to say these things, but as a political scientist who writes about Israeli policy he has a disciplinary justification to offer advice and opinion in the public sphere. But academic freedom should protect still more extreme statements than those Gordon has made; it should hold harmless a faculty member who argues that his or her country has no moral or political legitimacy and thus no right to exist.
Extramural statements by faculty are especially vulnerable in times of national crisis. The United States can hardly be said to have protected them during World War I or in the McCarthy period. Many in the Middle East, including many Israelis, consider themselves to be in a permanent state of war. In many area countries Gordon would already be imprisoned or worse. In Israel his right to public speech is being eloquently defended by many both within and without the academy — but not, deplorably, by his own university administration. On several Israeli campuses petitions supporting Gordon have circulated, and a number of scholars have come to his defense. Once again, such robust debate hardly typifies all area countries.
Since Gordon is tenured and cannot be fired, Carmi instead bellowed that he “has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the university setting.” A few days before publishing her LA Times piece, Carmi had already urged Gordon to resign, a view endorsed by Ben-Gurion University’ rector and faculty member Jimmy Weinblatt.
On August 28th, Ilana Curiel reported in Israel News that Carmi and Weinblatt were also exploring options for removing Gordon as department head. There, it should be clear, Ben-Gurion administrators are on more secure ground. In the United States a faculty member serving as an administrator -- including a department chair -- is essentially an at-will employee. He or she can be removed from an administrative post and returned to the faculty if they displease their supervisor. In a public case like this one, of course, Carmi will be contemplating public fallout from a decision to force Gordon out of his chairmanship, so a good deal more than simple line administrative authority is at stake.
Indeed it has been clear from the outset, as Carmi openly acknowledged in an August 27th letter to Ben-Gurion faculty, that donor anger is a major factor in her attacks on Gordon. Inside Higher Ed reported that Amos Drory, Ben-Gurion’s vice president for external affairs, wrote to complaining donors to say “the university is currently exploring the legal options to take disciplinary action.” It is not the first time fund-raising priorities, not principle, have shaped administrative understandings of academic freedom, but that does not blunt the lesson that this represents one of the most severe threats to academic freedom.
Carmi’s own academic freedom, one may note, would have allowed her to reject Gordon’s views while asserting his right to hold them. That is, in effect, what Gordon recommended: “She has to cater to the people that provide the money, so a strong letter of condemnation of my views would have been fine with me. But there’s a difference between saying you disagree wit me, and threatening me.” Instead she mounted an international assault and sought to gut academic freedom in the process. While Gordon has job security, his vulnerability to myriad other forms of internal reprisal is obvious. There are many kinds of research support and institutional recognition that require administrative endorsement. More serious still is the message Carmi has sent to untenured and contingent faculty: exercise your academic freedom at your peril. The chilling effects at Ben-Gurion University have hardened into a deep freeze. There is reason for principled faculty to question the president’s ability to serve in her position.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.
Scattered through the Modern Language Association’s 2009 convention were telling sessions devoted to the state of higher education. Compelling testimony was offered in small and sometimes crowded rooms about the loss of long-term central features of the discipline, from foreign language study to graduate student support to tenure track jobs for new Ph.D.'s. In many respects, the MLA’s annual meeting is more responsive to higher education’s grave crisis than the other humanities and social science disciplines that should also be part of the conversation, from anthropology to classics to history and sociology. There are simply more MLA sessions dealing with such issues than there are at other disciplinary meetings. Yet there was also throughout the MLA convention a strong sense of irrelevant business as usual, in the form of innumerable sessions devoted to traditional scholarship. There is a certain poignancy to the orchestra playing Mozart while the Titanic slips beneath the waves: We who are about to die salute our traditional high cultural commitments.
Of course we should sustain the values and the ongoing research that make humanities disciplines what they are. But the point is that the ship does not have to go down. There is action to be taken, work to be done, organizing and educating to do when faculty members and graduate students come together from around the country. Disciplinary organizations thus need to revise their priorities to confront what is proving to be a multi-year recession in higher education. As I argue in No University Is an Island, the recession is prompting destructive changes in governance, faculty status, and educational mission that will long outlast the current crisis. Because MLA’s members are already talking about these matters in scattered ways, it is time for the organization to take the lead in revising the format of its annual meeting to address the state of higher education -- and prepare its members to be effective agents -- in a much more focused, visible, and productive way. Then perhaps other disciplines will follow.
A generation ago, when the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus sought to reform the organization, it circulated several posters at annual meetings. Most telling, I thought, was a photograph of the Titanic, captioned “Are you enjoying your assistant-ship?” It was no easy task back then convincing the average tenured MLA member that the large waves towering over our lifeboats would not be good for surfing. Now the average college teacher is no longer eligible for tenure, and the good ship humanities is already partly under water.
The MLA’s response to a changing profession was to increase the number and variety of sessions, to give convention space to both fantasy and reality. The MLA would cease to be exclusively a platform for privilege. The organization would become a big tent. Unfortunately, the big tent is looking more like a shroud. The humanities are drowning. It is time to rethink the annual meeting to make it serve a threatened profession’s needs.
Until we can secure the future of higher education, we need to be substantially focused on money and power. That, I would argue, should be the theme of the 2010 annual meeting, and the structure of the meeting should be revised to reflect that focus. Instead of simply offering incoherent variety, the MLA should emphasize large meetings on the current crisis and its implications. And I do not mean simply paper presentations, telling as local testimony can be.
Disciplinary organizations need to offer substantial training sessions -- typically running several hours each and perhaps returning for additional sessions over two or three days -- that teach their members the fundamentals of financial analysis and strategies for organizing resistance. The AAUP, for example, teaches summer workshops each year that show faculty members the difference between budgets, which are fundamentally planning documents riddled with assumptions, and financial statements, which report actual expenditures for the previous year. We work not with hypothetical budgets but with examples from a dozen universities. Attendees learn that there are virtually always pots of money not listed on a university budget at all. A budget, MLA members will benefit from learning, is essentially a narrative. It can and should be deconstructed. I expect the AAUP would be willing and able to conduct such training sessions at disciplinary meetings. Indeed we already have the PowerPoint presentations and detailed handouts we would need. We have faculty members who specialize in analyzing university finances ready to serve the MLA and other disciplinary organizations.
The AAUP could also join with the AFT and the NEA to offer workshops in the fundamentals of collective bargaining, explaining how faculty and graduate employees at a given school can create a union that meets their distinctive institutional needs and embodies their core values. We can stage scenarios that give faculty members and graduate student activists experience in negotiating contracts. And the MLA should schedule large sessions that help faculty in places where collective bargaining is impossible, to recognize that organizing to have influence over budget decisions and institutional priorities is also possible without a union. The organization should also invite the California Faculty Association to conduct a large workshop on ways to reach out to students, parents, alumni, and other citizens and rebuild public support for higher education. CFA has been running a terrific campaign toward that end. The point is to empower faculty members to be the equals, not the victims, of campus administrators.
I am urging an annual MLA meeting that promotes not only literary studies but also material empowerment, that equips the members of the profession with the skills they need to preserve an appropriate environment for teaching and research. If the MLA takes the lead in reshaping its annual meeting this way, other disciplines will follow.
It was late at night on a spring evening in 2006 at Columbia University, and a dozen of us remained around a table; no one wanted to leave. Earlier I had spoken about how to identify what was and what was not anti-Semitism. This group of progressive Jewish students wanted to keep talking. I had expected their post-presentation conversation to be about Zionism or definitions of anti-Semitism, but what made the students want to stay for that last hour was a discussion about the college experience itself.
After talking about the expected topics, one student had said, “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable saying what I really think about Israel.”
When I asked why that was, she said, “Because I always have to gauge, if I say what I think, whether that would impact a grade or a friendship.”
“Is this only about Israel that you find yourself repressing your views?” I asked. “No,” she said. Others agreed – this culture of double-checking one’s thoughts, they said, applied to many issues, and was experienced by non-Jewish students at Columbia, too, as well as by students they knew at other campuses.
How depressing that at an institution designed to shake up the thinking of smart young people, the message heard instead is the importance of self-censoring. Not because of harassment or intimidation, but because there was insufficient space created and cultivated for students to take intellectual risks. College should be the time when students receive encouragement to say things that others might find difficult or even offensive, as part of the learning process.
The flip side of this problem occurred Feb. 8 at the University of California at Irvine. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke, or at least he tried to. He was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Israel students, heckling him.
This is part of a disturbing trend of Israeli speakers on campus being denied the ability to speak or speak without harassment (as has happened at University of California at Los Angeles, University of Pittsburgh, University of Chicago and elsewhere). The UCI campus has had a long history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents, usually tied to its Muslim Student Union. These students were not afraid to say what they thought, but they displayed a complete unwillingness to listen. They interfered not only with Oren’s ability to share his ideas and experiences, but even more importantly, the ability of their classmates to learn.
To the university’s credit, protesters were removed and arrested. An Irvine official noted that disrupting a speaker violates the campus code of conduct, and that suspensions or expulsions might ensue. The students who disrupted the event must be disciplined. What they did directly undermines the integrity of the academic process, much as plagiarism does, and should not be tolerated.
But there is a larger issue here. As young adults become engaged with new ideas, especially ones that touch some supercharged aspect of their identity, they may lose the capacity to see complexities and grays, and self-righteously see themselves as arbiters of correct thoughts or morality.
Rather than just accept this developmental zealotry as a fact of life, university leaders should strive to educate students who can think clearly about -- as opposed to demonize and dismiss, or be fearful of engaging -- ideas with which they do not agree.
The problem is that students do not sufficiently understand the nature of the academic enterprise, and what is expected of them. To help them learn, faculty members and university leaders must mine conflicts (about anything, not just views toward the Middle East), not avoid them. It is from difficult and contentious questions, not the easy or formalistic ones, that students can learn the most.
Yes, it is true that students identify with one faction or another and may have a great desire to “win” a political contest. But universities should be much clearer about defining the importance, and uniqueness, of the academic enterprise and the culture it requires. No student should be afraid to say what he or she thinks, and no student should prohibit another from learning. It is no accident that the smartest people I know are more likely to begin a sentence with “I might be wrong, but....” It would help if students learned they might be too, and that being wrong is not the end of the world.
Academic freedom, of course, requires that people have the right to talk on campus. But for that freedom to be real, rather than a nice-sounding notion, much more than policy statements and enforcement of rules is required. Campus administrators need to have a clear goal: that every student should understand, in his or her core, that the purpose of their college education is to help them learn one thing -- to be a critical thinker.
A critical thinker appreciates ideas that challenge or contradict more than those that endorse or confirm. And a critical thinker takes risks.
Kenneth Stern is director of the American Jewish Committee's Division on Antisemitism and Extremism.
As a child of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I cannot say the n-word unself-consciously. Nevertheless, it is regularly placed on my tongue — not by Joseph Conrad, since I no longer teach fiction, but rather by African American poets from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka. Some faculty members no longer teach Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, since the title alone is enough to place an impassable roadblock on the syllabus. I have no choice. I am not about to teach African-American poetry while repressing its diction. So much for the notion that the word is forbidden in the classroom.
I take a certain pride in reading poetry dramatically. I urge my students to perform the week’s poems at home out loud before coming to class. I perform Robert Bly’s Vietnam poem “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” much as he did, in a wrinkled rubber mask suggesting ancient evil gloating over death. I try to occupy the bodies of the racist speakers in Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi.” But the n-word exits my mouth in a flat, decathected tone that does no justice to its injustice. The word “nigger” defeats me.
I would not myself say what Allen Zaruba did this semester, though I understand how both personal experience and a certain collective cultural inertia brought him there. A part-time faculty member at Towson University, he described himself in class as “a nigger on the corporate university plantation.” People now regularly refer to the corporate university’s plantation mentality, to an authoritarian style of top-down management invariably indifferent to its underpaid and exploited employees. And I, among others, have called its contingent teachers “wage slaves,” drawing the usage from Marx and Emma Goldman and the long history of the labor movement. The phrase resounds through Joe Hill’s songs. So Zaruba’s next step was surely inevitable. Indeed the administration’s decision to fire him summarily exposed the extreme vulnerability of contingent faculty members and reflected the very power relations his declaration evoked.
Zaruba was not teaching a Langston Hughes poem, so Towson University administrators finessed their abridgement of his academic freedom and due process rights by saying the declaration was not specific to the classroom context. But it was germane to every moment of every class he and others teach at Towson. It underpins the classes Towson’s students take. The exploitation of contingent teachers is now the bedrock of American higher education. Zaruba has the right to testify to his working conditions and all students’ learning conditions in every class he teaches. He cannot devote his entire course to those facts, but neither can he be compelled to suppress them. While the analogy between today’s contingent teachers and plantation era slaves is far from exact, and it is arguably clumsy and historically inept, the formulation is well within his pedagogical rights.
The staff of the American Association of University Professors has appropriately emphasized that Towson violated our recommended standards. Zaruba was entitled to a hearing before his faculty peers, not dismissal by administrative fiat. The 13th section of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations makes it clear that part-time faculty members, like full-time faculty members, can be fired before the terms of their appointments end only for cause. “Cause” must be adjudicated at a faculty hearing. And every faculty member is due a hearing when a violation of academic freedom is asserted. Zaruba never received the educational equivalent of his day in court.
Of course a more enlightened and courageous administration might have expressed regret at Zaruba’s rhetoric while defending his right to use it and might even have acknowledged a certain logic underlying his claim. But that would have entailed a critique of Towson’s hiring practices. Instead administrators chose to behave like plantation managers, punishing him by fiat. If administrators wanted to sanction Zaruba in any way, they had to base their action on the recommendation of a faculty hearing, a procedure they failed to follow. But I do not believe Zaruba’s remark justified either intervention or punishment.
Zaruba apologized abjectly, more than he should have needed to. That should have put the matter to rest, but the apology was to no avail. The administration treated what was in fact an economic and political analysis in miniature — decidedly within his academic rights — as a crime so monstrous that frontier justice had to be meted out without delay.
Whatever else it was, Zaruba’s remark was not a racial slur. It was not directed at people of color generally, as was its 2007 use by a board member at Roger Williams University who was compelled to resign. It was not uttered as an assault on one or more students, as it was when a baseball coach at the University of Oklahoma lost his job in 2005. Zaruba’s declaration was a warranted expression of personal anguish, an instructor’s reflexive act of higher education witness. Firing him summarily undermines academic freedom, eviscerates shared governance, and diminishes us all. Allen Zaruba deserves his job back.
I was an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, the heyday of identity politics. We read copious amounts of Cornel West and bell hooks, demanded multicultural centers and gender studies departments, applauded Ellen’s coming out and protested demeaning mascots like Chief Illiniwek. “Race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality” was repeated so often, it almost became a single word.
No doubt parts of the identity politics movement went off the cliff (down with Western Civ!). And there was pushback, of course (only the West has civilization!). But over all, university administrations recognized an important opportunity and charted a sensible middle course.
In a society with too much racism and sexism, in a globalized world with too much ignorance and misunderstanding, campuses could be alternate universes – models where equity, harmony and appreciative knowledge of other cultures were the norm, launching pads for leaders who absorbed that larger vision and learned the skill set to improve the broader society when they graduated.
So new centers were started, new professors hired, new course requirements added. And most importantly, new norms were set. College leaders at the highest level defined their campuses as models of inclusiveness and open-minded learning. Incidents that were seen as marginalizing a particular group (white students showing up to a party in blackface), or books like The Bell Curve that argued that some races simply had lower aptitude than others, were met with the higher education equivalent of social outrage. Of course, the flags of “free speech” and “academic inquiry” were raised, but the mantle of building an inclusive learning community carried the day.
Muslim students waking up to chalk drawings mocking the Prophet Muhammad on their college quads are probably likely wondering why their identity is not a cherished part of the college ethos of inclusiveness. In case you missed it, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which is today, is a campaign that has hit several campuses already and has the potential to scale, fast.
The only ingredients you need are a handful of students who believe they are crusaders for free speech, some chalk and the cover of darkness. The campaign was sparked by Comedy Central’s decision to censor an episode of “South Park” that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning manner. “South Park” has a reputation for offending roundly, and is, of course, on a cable channel people pay for and opt in to. A college quad is a public place where there is an implicit promise by the university that students of all backgrounds will feel safe and accepted.
When there is a racially demeaning event on a college campus – like the Compton CookOut at the University of California at San Diego – higher education responds like it’s a five-alarm fire. Administrators organize town hall meetings to discuss the threats to inclusiveness, Presidents send out e-mails to the whole campus calling for racial sensitivity. Faculty committees are formed to submit recommendations on how to make minority students feel welcome. The incident is used, appropriately, as a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm and expand the university as an inclusive learning environment.
If there was any alarm raised by higher education in response to the chalking Muhammad incidents, it’s been hard to hear. (With the important exception of chaplaincies on certain campuses that have adapted to engage religious diversity.) For the most part, the discussion has been in the free speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam frame. But isn’t this incident also a teachable moment about identity? Shouldn’t universities be boldly advancing the narrative of actions that build an inclusive campus vs. actions that marginalize a community?
While this particular incident may be about the sensitivities of Muslim students, there is a much larger issue at play here. What the race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality movement of the 1990s missed was religion. But faith can’t be swept under the rug any longer. Religion is the new fault line in the culture wars. From the “The Passion of the Christ” to the passions raised by the Middle East, from the new aggressive atheism to the religious revival among evangelicals and Muslims, conflicts in the culture are quickly becoming conflicts on the quad.
Colleges ought to view this as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a headache to be ignored. Just as campuses became models of multiculturalism, so too can they become models of interfaith cooperation. After all, campuses gather students from different religious backgrounds (including no religion at all), they view themselves as a vanguard sector that models positive behavior for the broader culture, and they already have an ethos of pluralism.
An awful lot is at stake here, especially if campuses want to maintain their reputation as inclusive learning environments. Just about the only agreement among different religious student groups right now is that the only identity you can openly insult on a campus without inviting social outrage is religion.
And as far as being the nation’s flagship learning environments, higher education ought to consider this: Probably the most salient thing many U.S. college students know about the central figure in the world’s second largest religion -- among the most influential people in history -- is that Comedy Central won’t let him be portrayed on South Park.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues.