What Are They So Afraid of?

I just had an email from a friend whose son is being sued. By the university he attends. The story was covered in Inside Higher Ed, and although I do not know the ins-and-outs of the episode, it reflects poorly on the state of higher education in this country. The student’s stepmother was dismissed from a chair in the Butler University Music Department and he blogged about it, feeling the dismissal was unfair. I am not privy to the details of the dismissal, but I am intimately acquainted with the ensuing scenario. When the student’s identity was learned, his father, my friend, did not have his contract as Dean renewed. The legal suit, claiming defamation, is still pending.

What saddens me perhaps the most, apart from the obvious social justice issues, is the breadth of such retaliation in institutions of higher education. Having once lost a position in higher education “without cause” shortly after making a principled stand against what I understood to be prejudice, I am particularly sensitive to how schools that have money to hire high-powered lawyers seem to have no difficulty in turning on anyone who criticizes or disagrees with official policy. Isn’t that what higher education is all about? I don’t agree with my colleagues on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean I want them fired! We hand out and we take in.

If it were simply coincidence that I found a single colleague who also faced punitive action from a school for a perceived slight, I might be persuaded that it was an accident of tragedies — two unlikely victims sharing a prison cell. But no, the evidence has been building for some time. During my last years at Nashotah House I taught as an adjunct instructor at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A faculty search had stalled in the Philosophy and Religion Department and I was local and willing. I was present to watch as two colleagues (the remainder of the small department) were dismissed (denied tenure and forced out) after having been critical of some administrative decisions. They were among four faculty so targeted, and I watched them go with worry increasing in my gut. “Gag orders all around!” No one was permitted to discuss what was really happening.

It was the next year that I was terminated. After moving to New Jersey, I attended a professional conference (SBL, for those of you in the loop) in San Diego. It was probably not unlikely that the person next to me on the plane was also headed to the same conference since it was a 6 a.m. economy flight. Sure enough, I saw the woman reading some theological tome and knew we were headed for the same place. As I struck up a conversation with her, I learned that she had also been dismissed from a college in the south for advocating equal racial representation on the student council. This was not in the 1960s, but a couple decades closer to our own time. No reason was given, but her contract was not renewed.

By this point in time a clear image is coming into focus in my mind. It is not a pretty picture. The scene shows a juggernaut called Higher Education, bloated, powerful, wearing a mortar board, with a killer football team yapping at its heels like wolfhounds, but terribly afraid of criticism. Those who lie crushed under its great feet, the general issue instructors, have earned their place in academia by taking the hard knocks and criticism that are anticipated and constantly delivered in higher education, but the juggernaut drowns out any criticism of itself with allegations of being molested by the critical thinkers it hired to give it respectability and who now lie supine in submission beneath it. Something has gone horribly awry. And instead of talking it over, human-to-human, lawyers are hired to frighten off the weak and silence discussion. “Anything you say can and will be used against you,” thank you Sergeant Friday!

Like a co-dependent spouse, I will always love higher education. It has cradled our most influential minds and taken us beyond our earth-bound dreams. The academy has brought us to the place where we stand today. But universities now also parrot the corporate model and intimidate those who do not take their inspiration from free-market economy. If you feel inclined to voice a vote for the rights of students, this link will take you to a petition for the dropping of legal charges against my colleague’s son. (You will be taken to a donation page after signing the petition, but donations are purely voluntary.) I understand it to be a vote for common sense and personal freedom of expression.

8 responses to “What Are They So Afraid of?

  1. they’re afraid of losing power.

  2. Did you ever read the InsideHigherEd (or was it Chronicle?) article by Ivan Tribble about how it is fatally detrimental to your academic career search to have a blog because of all the things your censorious would-be employers would find out about you? Chilling stuff; chilling enough (after Nashotah) to have caused me to stop blogging for awhile until I started to notice a great increase in the number of academic blogs and decided it was becoming much more mainstream.

    • This has been a concern for me too, but it is a form of censorship I simply can’t accept. The way things are going the future seems to belong to the world-wide-web rather than to fearful universities. Almost all my students’ research comes from online sources!

  3. This is an interesting story, but we don’t have many facts. A person whose son wrote a blog post is not renewed. Was that the only reason? Other people criticize the administration and don’t get tenure. Did they deserve it? When I was in college years ago two people I liked didn’t get tenure. One was critical of the administration, the other was gay at a place this was not yet OK. This seemed unfair to me. Years later I realize that the guy who criticized the college did a poor job teaching me, and the gay guy had almost no publications.

    • The people involved in the cases I cite are known to me personally and also received excellent reviews from students. They have all had the publications required of their individual situations (not all schools are created equal when it comes to teaching vs. publication, I’m afraid). Some will criticize me as just another case of “sour grapes,” and although I can taste the vinegar, there is a bigger problem here. Institutions should hire administrators who can accept criticism and who can deal with it without using intimidation to faculty. Despite the myths that pervade our culture, faculty are quite vulnerable to administrative whims. I have no problem with earned dismissals and I even have a few candidates I would suggest! When quality people are let go for political reasons we should all be afraid.

  4. Jim–here is a good summary of the facts with links:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/16/butler

  5. Pingback: Abuse of Power « Sects and Violence in the Ancient World

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