Academic freedom

Georgetown student denied visa to study at university's Qatar campus

Section: 
Smart Title: 

Georgetown graduate student who studies migrant labor issues is denied visa to study at university's campus in Qatar, raising academic freedom concerns.

A tenured professor asks: Are you scared of your students? (essay)

You might prefer not to think about this … but are your students a source of anxiety for you?

Like me, you've chosen your life's vocation largely because you care for students and their betterment; but if we're being really candid, isn't it true that you now feel somewhat wary of them on account of their power to inflict serious damage -- even sudden catastrophic injury -- to your career, with all the grim consequences that this would entail?

That you find yourself catering to them, or at least feeling tempted to do so, lest they suddenly turn against you and make your life miserable?

That you feel little confidence that the administrators at your institution will defend you zealously if you are unfairly criticized, and you think it inevitable that they will care less about guaranteeing fairness to you than about avoiding negative publicity, managing their personal images before the vocal constituencies whose ideological self-identifications and simplistic moral certitudes enable them to issue instant and unerring judgments, and otherwise successfully covering their backsides?

Have you already recognized that, in the current cultural climate, if a single disgruntled student were to issue an entirely phony accusation against you -- maybe sexually harassing words or acts in a private meeting that did or did not ever occur -- you could be effectively defenseless?

That, even for an incident that exists only in one student's fevered or diabolical imagination, you would be immediately relieved of your teaching duties and subjected to an investigation by people who might have their own axes to grind, or lack the humility to recognize the narrow compass of their knowledge, or simply not like you or your views or what they now start characterizing as your “weirdness” or “questionable judgment”?

And that, after all the massive undeserved stress that would ensue, the outcome would very likely be that your academic prerogatives and position would be seriously compromised or even terminated?

Maybe you have never have been troubled by such a seemingly far-fetched scenario, but do you find yourself squirming when you see the fervor with which some students, and the activists with whom they identify, call out and demand "justice" (i.e., harsh punishments) for what they regard as racist, sexist, cissexist and other "microaggressions"?

Do you worry that you must watch your words extremely carefully around students, and even then an entirely innocent and defensible utterance might still earn for itself, and for you, irreversible public condemnation and institutional penalties -- penalties against which you are powerless because of your already insecure adjunct or untenured status, or even against which your tenure would provide no great protection?

Are you fearful because you can't find any protective clear lines that distinguish the intellectually challenging from the culpably "offensive," that distinguish the mere reference to a bigoted claim or term from the embracing assertion or use of it, that distinguish a willingness to inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of a broadly despised position from advocacy for that position?

Have you felt pressure, when hoping to engage with students on a topic that is important to their lives or to society, simply to “not go there” in order to avoid risking an intellectual interaction that is later described as an assault, insult or “invalidation” of a student's perspective? Are you in any danger of becoming, in the words of Mill's On Liberty, one of those "timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral"?

When you read calls for making the classroom a "safe space" for students, do you ever wonder whether it has become an unsafe space for faculty?

Do you sometimes pull your punches when giving feedback on demonstrated weaknesses in students' course work submissions, classroom performance or intellectual character, due to apprehension that frank, direct criticisms, corrections and suggestions might be characterized later as having been "unprofessionally" hostile, demeaning or disrespectful?

Or do you perhaps refrain from giving students appropriately constructive but deeply critical advice due to the more prosaic fear of receiving poor teaching evaluations, given their potential adverse consequences for your pay, promotion and freedom to teach what and as you choose? Do you suspect that unfavorable recommendations are sometimes the results of personal dislike or distaste on students' parts, and accordingly compromise your own standards for dress, humor and other aspects of personal style and presentation in order to avoid striking your students as odd or unattractive?

When you provoke an unjustified hostile comment on a student evaluation form, do you immediately think of showing it to your colleagues to share the amusing absurdity of it, only to back away from this later, as you're not quite sure you entirely trust them to react sensibly?

Do you agree that if you were to submit an essay like this for publication, you, too, would insist upon anonymity, for fear that if your students were to get wind of it, it might give some of them ideas? Does it occur to you occasionally how lucky it is that the vast majority of your students are unaware of the power they have to injure you at will -- and do you find yourself wondering just how long this tenuous situation can hold?

Have you spent any time contemplating other lines of work, or early retirement, or emergency backup plans in the event that you were to be suspended or fired?

If you have answered some of these questions in the affirmative, have you taken any steps at all to ameliorate your predicament?

Have you attempted to get your Faculty Senate to address the threats facing you and your colleagues? Have you given a careful read to your institution's regulations governing complaints and disciplinary proceedings against faculty? If you have, have you sought to have their shortcomings repaired, or even merely pointed out the flaws to the appropriate parties? Have you, at the very least, complained to colleagues about the perilous situation you all face?

Or are you afraid of your colleagues, too, and judge it likely that raising these issues will only mark you for suspicion, and maybe make you even less likely to receive a sympathetic and open-minded hearing if some student(s) should ever turn on you?

What is to be done?

Anonymous is a tenured philosophy professor on the East Coast.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Getty Images
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

MLA Delegate Assembly set to debate resolution endorsing boycott of Israeli universities

Smart Title: 

Members of the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly are set to debate a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities.

D.C. appeals court says climate scientist may sue over blog posts questioning his integrity

Smart Title: 

D.C. appeals court rules that bloggers who compared professor to Jerry Sandusky may be sued for defamation.

Drexel condemns professor's tweet about white genocide

Smart Title: 

University issues statement on Christmas Day over post that said, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Update: Professor criticizes response to "satirical" comment.

Barnard explores new divestment option over climate change concerns

Smart Title: 

Barnard focuses on companies that deny science as it seeks to balance concern over climate change with financial responsibility and its own values.

Alamo Colleges drop required 7 Habits course with reaccreditation at risk

Smart Title: 

With reaccreditation at risk, Alamo Colleges drop course based on the 7 Habits self-help book that board had approved to replace a humanities requirement.

Salem State reopens exhibit closed due to criticism of art about KKK, with drapes around the piece

Smart Title: 

Salem State reopens exhibit that was shuttered based on student criticisms but places most controversial piece behind drapes. Maryland Institute College of Art involves students in displaying piece on the KKK.

At meeting of state university leaders, varying opinions on free speech in contentious times

Section: 
Smart Title: 

Leaders of state universities hear differing views on how to uphold academic values at a time when many students feel under siege and misunderstood.

The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of life in academe (essay)

It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to -- like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.

From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.

Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.

Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.

Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.

Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.

The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life -- with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements -- be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole -- can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming rates in disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt -- whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.

Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.

When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive -- about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.

That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.

It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.

What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.

The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.

We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past. Follow him on Twitter @mroth78.

Section: 
Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Getty Images

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Academic freedom
Back to Top