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Essay analyzes two recent disputes over academic freedom

A Little Discomfort
January 6, 2014

During December, the two most-viewed stories carried by Inside Higher Ed concerned academic freedom. The first reported on Shannon Gibney, a professor of English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The second was about Patricia Adler, a professor of sociology of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the recipient of awards for both her teaching and her research.

As I think about these two women with very different careers at very different institutions, I hear Big Bird singing a new refrain: “Two of these things are so like the other; two of these things seem so the same.”

Academic freedom is an old issue. In The Lost Soul of Higher Education, Ellen Schrecker reminds us that the concept arose in 19th-century Germany: One part, “freedom to learn,” she tells us, “had to do with the freedom that German students then enjoyed to shape their education to their own desires, while swinging from one institution to another, drinking beer, dueling and attending classes when so inclined. The other half, ‘freedom to teach,’ belonged to professors and not only gave them autonomy within their classrooms but also barred external controls on their research.”

Schrecker, like others, also reminds that academic freedom has had a checkered history in the United States. Mention the term and I think of both the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era and the foolishness of fundamentalist colleges that forbid instructors to suggest that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is superior to creationism. Both topics are controversial in some quarters and some administrators are most likely to commit transgressions against academic freedom when instructors broach topics or introduce teaching methods that may displease donors, trustees, legislators, or parents or arouse a furor in the media.

What’s new is the nature of these instructors’ alleged academic malfeasance. When Gibney discussed racism in her class, some white men felt uncomfortable, even offended. Administrators referred her to the college’s diversity officer for sensitivity training even though she had specified that she was talking about institutional racism, not individual racism (Perhaps neither the students nor the administrators understood the distinction and Gibney’s lecture did not go far enough.) 

Adler’s sin was different: In a class that had attracted 500 students, Adler’s teaching assistants, some of whom are undergraduates, performed an interactive skit about the social stratification of prostitutes. Consider the administrators' initial account. (They have offered multiple versions of how Adler provoked retribution. The initial account is revealing, because it announced what CU officials believed would play best.)

In that first version, the university claimed that more than one student in the room felt ill at ease -- sexually harassed, they claimed.  The relevant federal statute specifies that sexual harassment occurs when simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents about sex or gender are so frequent or severe that they create a hostile or offensive work environment.

That definition of hostile environment is very difficult to substantiate, and Colorado officials have continued to change their story anyway about what upset them.

Of course, there’s another possibility: Talking about the institutionalized racism and sexism that are embedded in the social organization of prostitution (and in many other occupations) makes students feel uncomfortable. As true of Gibney’s class, Adler’s interactive lecture discussed practices that many students would like to ignore. The infringements on academic freedom committed by Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Colorado at Boulder are indicative of a greater problem: These institutions refuse to realize that social science challenges preconceptions. As Peter L. Berger once put it in Invitation to Sociology, “It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem. This too is a deceptively simple statement. It ceases to be simple after a while. Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole.” Social science and the humanities analyze aspects of life that some students would rather not know about, especially if a discipline’s generalizations appear to apply to them.

Perhaps making students uncomfortable is now academic malfeasance. After all, an administrator might think, the students (or their parents) pay for their college education — what too many call their training for jobs. (That education is increasingly expensive and financed by loans whose cumulative amount is now larger than the debt involved in the mortgage bubble that led to the Great Recession.) As some administrators see it, students are higher education’s customers. Their reports of their experience may influence application and yield rates and so the economic well-being of a college or university. 

Punishing professors whose content or teaching methods make students feel uncomfortable may be “just” another aspect of higher education’s accountability regime – a politics of surveillance, control and market management disguising itself as the scientific and value-neutral administration of individuals and organizations, as I discussed in Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Pleasing students seems to have become what corporate managers call a best practice -- “a commercial or professional procedure that is accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective,” as an online dictionary put it. And if one were to believe the administrators at the University of Colorado, best practices trump academic freedom. 

As the Adler controversy continued, a University of Colorado spokesman suggested that she might teach her course if her peers in sociology and perhaps in other disciplines reviewed it and “that review resulted in an O.K. of the course and its materials and techniques, or recommended structural changes acceptable to her.” That review took place and she has now been cleared to teach, although she remains concerned about what happened, and hasn't said if she'll go back. The spokesman did not explain why a course that had been taught for over 20 years should be subjected to review. Faculties review courses before they are offered, not after, unless, as the Colorado conference of American Association of University professors explained, there is  a compelling reason.

Meanwhile I wonder whether either the Minneapolis Community and Technical College or the University of Colorado has even tried to learn about instructors who make passes at students, behavior that the EEOC regards as quid pro quo harassment -- not whether procedures are on the books, but whether they are used. How many of their departments maintain an atmosphere that is hostile to women, people of color, gay people, or any of the other groups covered by EEOC regulations?

Bio

Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News.

 

 

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