New book argues that students involved in campus protests over controversial speakers or ideas should instead support a marketplace of ideas in which all notions are heard and the best rise to the top.
I am not an academic anymore, although I taught, either as a graduate student or a faculty member, for about 15 years. I married an academic, and we struggled with “the two-body problem” for a number of years before deciding that we would rather live in the same town than both have full-time academic careers. Since my wife’s career was going better than mine was at that point -- her position was tenure track, and she had good reason to think that she would soon be tapped to take on significant administrative responsibilities -- we decided that I would pursue work outside of academe in the town where she had been living for the past couple of years.
Though I loved the research and writing and most of all the teaching, I have to say that sometimes I think I got out just in time. Powerful forces are working against higher education in America these days, and nowhere is that power more obvious right now than in Columbia, Mo., where Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication, was recently fired by the Board of Curators at the University of Missouri.
Before I continue, I should tell you that I have loved the University of Missouri and Columbia in general. I did my Ph.D. work there from 2002 until 2006. That academic I married? We met in a Shakespeare class there. My friends and I discussed literary theory, marriage, Jorge Luis Borges, politics and everything else you can imagine in the classrooms in Tate Hall or the many bars located nearby on 9th Street. It was a great place to learn and grow.
And I should also tell you that I don’t know if Melissa Click deserves to lose her academic appointment or not. For those of you who don’t know the story, Click was caught on video last November demanding that a student journalist leave a public area that had been occupied by students protesting incidents of racism on campus and the university’s failure to address racism within its culture. If you haven’t seen the video, well, she doesn’t come across well. She shouts. She calls for “muscle” to block the reporter’s access. She grabs a student’s camera. It was a serious error in judgment -- as she acknowledged almost immediately after the incident
“I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice,” she wrote in a public statement.
I’m usually inclined to say that an admission of wrongdoing and an apology should usually entitle one to forgiveness in cases where nobody is hurt, but I understand that other people might disagree with me. It’s entirely possible that students, faculty members and administrators might feel that Click’s actions were so far out of line, she should not be employed by the university. Even if I disagree with that assessment, I would be inclined to support the institution’s right to police itself.
But that isn’t what happened in the case of Melissa Click, is it?
In firing Melissa Click, the board caved in to demands from Republican lawmakers in Missouri, 100 of whom in January signed a letter demanding Click’s termination. To show the university that they were serious, in February lawmakers passed a budget amendment excluding the university from an increase in next year’s state appropriations. Explaining the lawmakers' decision, Representative Donna Lichtenegger said that University of Missouri students “are there to learn, not to protest all day long” (not the hearty endorsement of First Amendment rights one expects to hear when someone comes to the defense of student journalists). About two weeks later, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Flanigan proposed a budget that would deprive the university of more than $400,000, specifically targeting the salaries of Click, her department chair and her dean.
Two days later, in a session closed to the public, the board voted 4 to 2 to terminate Click.
You don’t need to think that Click deserves to be forgiven to see that this sets a very frightening precedent that endangers the very mission of the university. If politicians are now allowed to dictate an institution’s personnel decisions, what is to stop them from abusing this power even further? Will scientists researching climate change be safe in such an environment? How about a religious studies professor whose scholarship isn’t dogmatic enough for some politician’s tastes? Can the theater department still perform Lysistrata, or is Aristophanes’ antiwar sentiment and frank discussions of carnal matters unsuitable for the commissars of the new political correctness? God help the political scientists, the sociologists and the artists if we decide to allow politicians this kind of power to meddle in academic affairs.
The board insists, of course, that its action was not related to the political grandstanding and budgetary chicanery on display in the state’s capital, but this is hard to believe for a number of reasons. Consider the timing. Had the board moved to fire Click immediately following the incident, they might have reasonably claimed they were doing so to protect students. According to the university’s human resources website, they do have the authority to fire an employee without notice if the employee’s transgression is “so serious as to justify immediate summary discharge.” They didn’t do this, though, I suspect because nobody really felt like this incident was that serious at that point. Click made a mistake that, frankly, probably hurt her cause more than it hurt any student journalist. I suspect the board felt they had every reason to believe that this would all blow over in time.
It seems to me, though, that the board seriously underestimated the lawmakers’ ire.
Consider also the fact that the board made its decision two days after the lawmakers’ most recent attempt at budgetary blackmail. They can insist that their decision was unrelated to legislative threats, though that strikes me as highly doubtful. What’s more, if they weren’t firing her under pressure to do so, why was this done in secret, without giving Click and her supporters an opportunity to discuss the board’s concerns?
As Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors’ department of tenure, wrote, “Beyond its evident lack of conformity with the regulations of the University of Missouri, an action to dismiss a faculty member with indefinite tenure or a probationary faculty member within the term of appointment absent demonstration of cause in an adjudicative hearing before an elected faculty body is an action fundamentally at odds with basic standards of academic due process.”
Perhaps most important, the board actually had the opportunity to let its own tenure and promotion system work but chose to contravene that process instead. Had the board been confident that Melissa Click was truly unfit to teach at the University of Missouri, it could have stepped back and let the faculty members and administrators in charge of Click’s case do their job and come to that conclusion on their own. Shared governance may be slow, but it is effective, despite what proponents of “disruption” and critics of the professoriate tend to believe. If Click needed to go, then that would be the appropriate way to get rid of her. That the board could not wait for others in the campus community to come to the same conclusion it had come to suggests that the board is not as confident in its assessment as its members have publicly said they are.
When I started graduate school, I thought that being a university professor would be the coolest job in the world. And in some ways, it was and still is. I mean, you get paid to read and write and think. You get to work with idealistic young people excited to make a difference in the world. You get to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s awesome.
Unfortunately, though, there are forces in our culture that resent academics, and intellectual pursuits in general. We hear it in the voices of governors who insist that college is about the acquisition of job skills and that a pursuit of anything artistic or literary is a luxury that young people can’t afford and don’t really need. We read it in “trollish” online comments that say that people who have dedicated their lives to teaching and research live in “ivory towers,” untouched by the concerns of the “real world.” We witness it when a presidential candidate sneers about the discussions going on over brie and chardonnay in the faculty lounge.
And yes, we’ve seen it on display in the way Missouri’s Legislature treated Melissa Click. You don’t need to agree with her or support her to know that their behavior was deplorable -- bad for our higher education institutions, and bad for our culture as a whole. If politicians are allowed to dictate who works in our colleges and universities, and thus whose voices get heard when we discuss the world and its inhabitants, we cannot expect the results to be positive.
In fact, in Missouri, the Click incident may be just the beginning. Just two days ago, news media outlets in Missouri began reporting that State Senator Kurt Schaefer filed Senate Concurrent Resolution 66 to create the University of Missouri System Review Commission. According to a press release published in The Missouri Times, “The new commission’s task is to review the University of Missouri System’s collected rules and regulations, administrative structure, campus structure, auxiliary enterprise structure, degree programs, research activities, and diversity programs to detail recommendations or changes needed with the system.” The task force is to consist of eight political appointees nominated by the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House. Not a word about what role, if any, the students, faculty and administration at the university -- the actual stakeholders most impacted by the commission -- will play. The release goes on to say that “MU’s adoption, or failure to adopt, the commission’s recommendations will be considered by the General Assembly in next year’s appropriation process.”
I may not be in the classroom anymore, but honestly, you don’t need a Ph.D. to know that these are perilous times for academe.
William Bradley in an essayist and former English professor who now lives in north central Ohio. His book Fractals was recently released by Lavender Ink.