faculty

Essay argues that recent statements by college leaders about civility are a threat to academic freedom

In his "Civility Manifesto" published here last week Cary Nelson cites my blog post, "Is Incivility the New Communism?," as "particularly hyperbolic" in its critique of efforts by some university administrators to demand that free speech be limited to expression they deem "civil." In his own expression Nelson himself has been known to employ hyperbole -- as well as sarcasm -- even to the point that some might call uncivil, so it's surprising he does not recognize that my exaggeration was intentional. Of course, we are not living through a new Red Scare on campus. But the point is that we could be if the incivility monitors have their way.

Nelson asks, "does unrestrained antagonism make for the best learning environment?" It surely does not. But that isn't the issue. No reasonable person welcomes hatred, harassment, or violence. According to Nelson, "Eloquence in the service of conviction does not require abusive rhetoric or personal accusation." But, like it or not, free speech does not require eloquence. It's one thing to encourage civil conduct and reasoned discourse, quite another to regulate expression in the name of such encouragement. But that is precisely what too many college and university administrators and trustees are threatening to do. The threat to free speech rights is real.

Take, for instance, the widely criticized statement by University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, which called civility and free speech "two sides of the same coin." The Council of UC Faculty Associations correctly responded that "while civility and the exercise of free speech may coexist harmoniously, the right to free speech not only permits, but is designed to protect uncivil speech." A group of veterans of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the 50th anniversary of which the campus is celebrating, replied: "It is precisely the right to speech on subjects that are divisive, controversial, and capable of arousing strong feelings that we fought for in 1964."

But we needn't go further than Nelson's own campus for the most chilling example of an effort to invoke civility as a criterion of free expression. According to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” This extraordinary dictate goes well beyond encouraging civil communication. Under Wise's disturbing standard a biologist who "demeans" creationism could be out of a job; indeed, the evolutionary viewpoint itself, which creationists claim demeans humanity, could be banned. 

While Dirks later clarified his ill-considered statement, Wise has not. Indeed, the Illinois Board of Trustees quickly declared its "collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights.” According to the board, UI must be a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”  We know who should assess scholarship: the scholars.  But who will judge what is civil?  That is precisely the issue. 

Nelson is correct that much of the uproar over civility stems from the Palestinian/Israeli dispute and I share his concern about the corrosive effect of that seemingly intractable conflict on both the campus climate and academic freedom. We differ sharply, however, about who is responsible. According to Nelson, only one side is to blame: "verbal excess, aggression, and ad hominem attacks are part of the standard repertoire of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. That typically stimulates raised tempers and sometimes similar behavior on the pro-Israeli side."

But the situation is more complicated. Elements on both sides invoke the protections of academic freedom and the First Amendment when it benefits them and violate these when it doesn't.  What about efforts by some supporters of Israel to effectively blacklist faculty members whose views on Middle East studies do not comport with theirs?  This move is truly evocative of the Red Scare and more threatening to academic freedom and the independence of the universities than a few "uncivil" words from pro-Palestinian students.

More important, the two sides are not in equivalent positions. Although support for the Palestinian cause is greater on American campuses than in society in general, those who control the universities -- administrators and trustees as well as powerful donors -- are most likely to support the Israeli cause. The expressive weapons of those in power and those without power almost always differ. It is usually the powerless whose voices must be shrill, who may break rules to be heard, who, in short, may be uncivil. Civility, however, can be a privilege of the powerful, whose control over institutions often leads them to silence opponents instead of engaging them. As Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted, in his experience "campus administrators are most likely to deem as 'uncivil' speech that criticizes them or the university’s sacred cows." 

This imbalance is illustrated by events at Ohio University, which Nelson cites as an example of "uncivil" expression escalating to arrests. Nelson ignores, however, what preceded these arrests. A student government leader filmed a video in which she poured fake blood over herself to protest Israeli actions in Gaza. The video was bold and even graphic, but under the law it is protected speech and as a video abused or threatened no one. The student, however, received numerous death threats. How did the university president respond? In a mealy-mouthed statement he disassociated the university from the video and called vaguely for civility, but remained silent about the death threats, effectively coming down on one side of the controversy. Only later were four pro-Israeli students arrested for disrupting a meeting, which suggests that lame public calls for civility are also largely ineffective.

"When administrators urge us to be models of civility they are doing exactly what their job requires," Nelson declares. I agree, but the danger to which I and so many others have been responding is that such urgings show undeniable and dangerous signs of becoming requirements. And such requirements may threaten academic freedom and free speech as much as any loyalty oath.

 

 

Henry Reichman is first vice-president of the American Association of University Professors and chair of AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He teaches history at California State University at East Bay. 

Editorial Tags: 

Princeton professor protests his exclusion from a panel on Gaza on political grounds

Smart Title: 

Princeton professor protests his preemptive exclusion from a panel based on his support of the academic boycott of Israel.

South Texas faculty members worry about lack of rights as two universities are combined

Smart Title: 

Professors at two South Texas institutions support the creation of a new, combined university, but see recent actions raising questions about job security and faculty roles.

Essay on the importance of word choice in the academic job search

Category: 

Slight changes in phrasing can make all the difference in networking, cover letters, interviews and your mindset about a job search, writes Joseph Barber.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Editor to Give Up Leadership of Philosophy Rankings

The University of Chicago's Brian Leiter has announced that, after 2014-15, he is giving up the editorship of The Philosophical Gourmet Report, a rankings system he created for philosophy departments. Leiter has come under fire for his exchanges with some philosophers (which he has defended as frank, but which critics say have crossed a line to rude and demeaning). Many philosophers have pledged not to participate in the ratings if Leiter continues to run them. Leiter announced his move away from the editorship, based on the recommendation of the project's advisory board, and while a statement from Leiter said that he agreed with the shift, he also indicated frustration with his critics.

 

Ad keywords: 

Nobel in Economics

Jean Tirole was this morning named winner of the 2014 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Tirole, of Capitole University, in France, was honored “for his analysis of market power and regulation." More information about Tirole and his research may be found here.

 

Ad keywords: 

Instructor unmasks streakers who tried to disrupt her class

Smart Title: 

When three streakers disrupted a class at UNC Chapel Hill last week, the instructor chased them down and unmasked two of them.

 

George Mason Grad Students Release Adjunct Study

The Public Sociology Association, made up of graduate students at George Mason University, has published what adjunct advocates are calling the most comprehensive study of one institution’s adjunct faculty working conditions ever. Their report, called “Indispensable but Invisible,” is based on an online survey completed by 241 adjuncts at George Mason.

The vast majority of respondents (85 percent) say that they are motivated to teach by their passion for education and their respective disciplines, but only 26 percent believe the uncompensated time they devote to the job – about five hours per class per week, on average – will be recognized by the university. Some 40 percent say they aspire to tenure-track jobs, but many express concern that they will not be considered for such positions due to their adjunct status. About a quarter of respondents (23 percent) have an annual household income of less than $30,000. One-third are also graduate students, and 51 percent of those respondents say that teaching responsibilities slow down their progress to graduation.

“Significant minorities” of respondents didn’t receive course resources such as curriculum guidelines (29 percent) and sample syllabuses (19). Some 40 percent said they didn’t have access to a computer and 21 percent said they didn’t have access to copying services. Most are using their own computers (77 percent) and office space (56 percent). Most (79 percent) say they have not received training to accommodate students with unique or special needs.

Marisa Allison, report's lead author, said it’s significant because it captures such a rich picture of adjunct faculty working conditions at a single institution. (At the same time, the report acknowledges that a minority of those invited to respond did, which could have skewed to reflect the positions of those most motivated to respond.) Allison said it was the group’s “genuine hope” that the survey tool could be used elsewhere  to gather data on adjunct faculty working conditions.

Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said the new survey is a "model of how local contingent activists can identify and hopefully take concrete steps in improving working and learning conditions, as part of beginning to reduce the structural" issues surrounding non-tenure-track faculty employment. Local activists, faculty unions and academic administrators on other campuses "should be following their lead," he added.

Via email, S. David Wu, provost, said: “We are concerned about our faculty members and are committed to their professional growth, wellness, and well-being. We are also pleased to see our students pursuing research that is of critical importance to our community. While we would agree that there is a need for more research and dialogue around the issues raised, the study’s findings are not consistent with the environment here or the services we provide.”

Ad keywords: 

Is Putin's Favorite Professor Imaginary?

Lorenz Haag is frequently quoted in Russian media as a professor in Germany who defends the Kremlin and urges Western countries to be more open to the Russian leadership. But Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty have reported that Haag does not exist, nor does his research institute. The report credited Dmitry Khmelnitsky, a Russian architectural historian in Berlin, for being the first to report that Haag could not be located. He wrote on Facebook: "Professor Lorenz Haag, the head of the Agency for Global Communications, exists only in the imagination of ITAR-TASS correspondents who have interviewed him regularly and for many years in the capacity of 'German expert'.... There is no such professor in Germany. And no such agency."

 

Ad keywords: 

Academic Minute: Hair Sample Forensics

In today's Academic Minute, Diane Beauchemin, a chemist at Queen’s University in Canada, discusses how she is furthering forensic hair identification techniques. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

Ad keywords: 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - faculty
Back to Top