Communication / design / media

Essay on Florida Atlantic University and academic freedom

It seems that whenever a university administration issues a statement undermining academic freedom it begins by reaffirming its undying commitment to exactly the principle it is about to damage. While such doublespeak, as Orwell famously demonstrated, is common to bureaucracies, that does not much help the cause of higher education when our own administrations once again prove his point. The administrative conundrum — how to appease angry stakeholders with contempt for academic freedom, while covering yourself with a ritual incantation supporting that very principle — was very much in evidence in Florida Atlantic University’s public statements about its "Step on Jesus" controversy. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the kind of disingenuous rhetoric the university used is to disable a principle by turning it into a hollow piety.

The context, for those who may not have read earlier stories, is that an FAU student was about to be investigated for allegedly threatening a faculty member who followed a textbook exercise to teach the power of symbols. A class was asked to write "Jesus" on a sheet of paper, then step on it. When students hesitated, they were given the opportunity to explain why, and the instructor pointed out that a symbol — the word "Jesus" — can be so identified with the idea of Jesus that stepping on it is offensive. In a viral frenzy, bloggers and press stories echoed the student’s inflammatory change of diction from "step" to "stomp," and petitions calling for faculty member Deandre Poole to be fired began to circulate. Florida’s Republican governor chimed in with calls for a state investigation of the incident and with a demand that the classroom exercise never be repeated.

Here, then, is FAU’s effort to eat its cake and have it too: "Florida Atlantic University is deeply sorry for any hurt that this incident may have caused the community and beyond. As an institution of higher learning, we embrace open discourse in our classrooms. Based upon the emotions brought about by this exercise it will not be used in the future and no students will be disciplined in any way related to the exercise, either inside or
outside the classroom. The university supports its faculty members in their efforts to develop [a] curriculum that will bring about learning and enhance students’ experience at FAU."

It’s hard to see how FAU could have waffled more often in a few sentences. Its leaders support academic freedom but apologize for its exercise. Academic freedom will not be permitted to be exercised in this way again. Anything that arouses strong emotions may be barred from classrooms. And, of course, if people protest your assignments — even assignments taken from a popular published textbook — FAU will not get your back. And finally, as subsequent events have shown, if fanatics phone in death threats, you will be removed from campus to protect your own safety and that of others. That most recent step is eerily reminiscent of the University of South Florida’s 2001 decision to exile engineering professor Sami Al-Arian from campus after death threats were received. Some of us wondered at the time whether phone-in threats would prove a popular way to remove faculty from campus.

FAU went still further in undermining academic freedom and the First Amendment by subjecting Poole to a gag order, making it impossible for him to defend himself. The student meanwhile was free to claim his religious beliefs had been "desecrated,"  and the conservative blogosphere could promote the story as part of a long-running project of discrediting godless universities.

The United Faculty of Florida did a very good job of coming to Poole’s defense, but a faculty member identified as an appropriate commentator by the National Communication Association did not do much better than the university, affirming that "a momentary feeling of discomfort or hurt by a student could contribute to a positive learning experience through discussion.” If ideas offend a student, be sure to relieve the discomfort immediately. Extended intellectual distress apparently has no place in higher education.

Devout students who cannot tolerate fundamental and continuing challenges to their beliefs may well find a campus devoted to open discussion and debate to be a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons religiously affiliated colleges and universities exist — to provide a more comfortable place to study for those preferring a more constrained speech environment. Secular universities exist in part to challenge received beliefs. That includes confronting the rather less than sympathetic statements various religions have historically made against one another. That includes confronting scientific evidence that calls religious beliefs into question or effectively demolishes them.

Indeed, religious conviction cannot be separated from all the other beliefs a university education may challenge. That is one reason why any general resolution or law passed by the Florida legislature on this incident is likely to do broader damage than politicians may realize in the opportunistic heat of the moment. We cannot confront the brutal facts of 20th-century history — from enforced mass starvation to total war to genocide --
without doubting that human nature is any better, more consistent, or reliable, than cultural pressures make it. We cannot study the history of science without learning to tolerate and understand the variable interplay between doubt and certainty in science. Students may not all enjoy discovering that their assumptions about human nature are unfounded. They may not like learning that scientific certainty is not always unshakeable.

And they may not like realizing that religious faith is not grounded in anything more than faith itself, but these are some of the challenges to pre-existing values a university must entertain. And instructors need the freedom to invent classroom assignments that test the limits of student beliefs and put them under sustained --- not just temporary — pressure. However expedient it may appear to be, universities risk doing themselves long-term damage if they cave into fear and appease those on the left or the right would limit academic freedom. We are better off standing politically and culturally where we must if we are to remain institutions devoted to open debate and free inquiry. That is where our responsibilities to a democracy lie. However the facts about the Poole case may be revised in time — and they may well be — the assignment he reports giving was well within his academic freedom rights, and the FAU administration should not have weaseled its way out of giving it an unqualified defense.

 

Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Titles are everything (and nothing) in higher education (essay)

Higher ed, as the casual observer might divine, is awash in titles. We have directors and managers, assistants and associates, fulls and interims. We’re well-versed in vice. Titles mean everything, which is another way of saying they mean nothing.

I’m reminded of that “Cheers” episode in which Rebecca, the bar manager, gives Carla and Woody, barmaid and barkeep, respectively, contrived, bombastic titles because the establishment can’t afford to award raises. They’re thrilled beyond comprehension, sporting their titles like badges of honor and quickly forgetting the corresponding lack of pay.

Back here in collegeland, titles work much the same way. I once went from assistant to associate director of nail clipping, or some such activity, with no raise or change in duties. Nor did I suddenly outrank colleagues and demand they do my laundry. I did, however, have to get new business cards and amend my email signature. For that, I gather, I was supposed to feel professionally elevated and compelled to clip more nails.

Some titles are more self-evident than others. Presidents, we intuit, preside, just as chancellors chancel. An associate vice president is an aide to someone who aids the president. That individual is, technically, an administrative assistant, known in previous generations as a secretary. We don’t use that term anymore because it’s demeaning. Plans are under way in Washington, in fact, to create an “administrative assistant of state” cabinet position.

Provost also is a peculiar title. On most campuses, it denotes the chief academic officer. The equivalent abroad is pro-vice-chancellor, not to be confused with the anti-vice-chancellor, normally the faculty senate president. Some institutions add “academic vice president” to “provost” just to belabor the issue.

Using that logic, we could have a “president and august chief toastmaster” to head up the joint. Did you know that the University of Pennsylvania didn’t have a president until 1930? The campus was led by a provost, owing, ostensibly, to the university’s Scottish heritage. Actually, the phenomenon was the result of 72 failed searches over the span of 190 years.

Endowed positions provide yet another level of titledom. You can be the Ethan Allen Professor of the Ottoman Empire, certainly a distinguished chair, or perhaps the Anna Graham Professor of English Syntax or the Ben E. Drill Professor of Immunology. Some endowed designations have fallen out of favor, such as chairs tied to Enron, Big Tobacco, Arthur Andersen (not the accounting firm but the unfortunate chap who happens to share its name) and Pee Wee Herman. Nonetheless, endowed chairs provide incumbents incalculable prestige in the academy, enviable salaries, and slush funds for research, conference presentations and similarly frivolous junkets.

The longer the faculty title, the more clout it conveys. Having the Dr. Edmund and Ms. Fanny Fitzgerald Exalted Professorship in Midwestern Maritime Studies is clearly superior to the mundane associate professor moniker. Yet among administrators, the opposite holds true: president beats vice president, which in turn beats assistant vice president, which thoroughly trounces assistant to the assistant vice president. More modifiers equate to lower status on the admin org chart.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Thanks to enterprising fund raisers, some non-teaching roles now carry fancy titles of their own. Donors can attach their names to deans, band leaders, coaches and, coming soon to a university near you, their favorite student-athletes. Imagine the country club bragging rights when you announce you’ve established the Duncan Dervish Endowed Power Forward Position, the proceeds of which, naturally, do not attend to the player himself. Naturally.

To manage these ever-elongating titles, the academy has come up with a series of initialisms. We have the CEO (borrowed from private industry, along with the salaries), the CFO, the COO (bloodless, usually), the CIO (which, somewhere along the way, lost its AFL), the CAO (which can be either the chief academic or advancement officer) and the CDO (relating to development or diversity, and never the twain shall meet). Lots of chiefs inhabit our universities, which is chiefly the reason why tuition continues to outpace inflation.

Titles even trickle down to students, beginning with freshmen, who are, for the sake of gender clarity, no longer known as freshmen. “Freshperson” never caught on, likely because of the suggestion of social impropriety, and “freshpeople” sounds like the latest boy band. So we went with “first-year student,” newbies who are subjected to freshman orientation and freshman seminars.

Each institution has its own titular culture, which can be confusing to those outside its gates. When a visitor comes to campus — say, a job candidate interviewing for a title of his own  — we introduce ourselves by stating our titles and expect that person to know exactly what we do. “I’m assistant director of procurement operations,” you announce confidently, only to discover a flummoxed gaze in return. “I buy stuff,” you add. He’ll catch on.

We’ve grown entitled to our titles, forever chasing shiny new ones that bring luster to our resumes and fill us with a sense of pride and purpose. We look askance at those whose title pursuits seem downwardly mobile, even though they might have had good reasons — such as more money or better working conditions or a shorter commute — for their descent.

After we retire, we cling to our titles, often adding “emeritus,” Latin for “no longer on the payroll,” as a suffix. In an age when “personal branding” has become all the rage, we covet things that easily identify and position us. Titles confer worth, or perhaps validate it. They have become a form of currency.  They define our existence.

And yet, they don’t. Titles come and go; intrinsic value persists. Case in point: I tried giving my dog Brady a new title, executive canine, to see if he would stop stealing dirty underwear from the laundry pile. We emblazoned his new title on his bowl and fastened a sign on his crate.

I even wrote a press release for the family newsletter touting his appointment. He did strut about with a more dignified air, but, alas, his malfeasance continued. Stripped of his title and standing, Brady has found legitimacy on his own terms.

He’s a consultant.

Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the second installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.

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