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Who Defines the Debate?

It was only last fall that I heard of the Edwin Mellen Press. I was sent a book to review for Choice, which presents very short descriptive and generally positive reviews for the use of librarians. By Jason Mosser, The Participatory Journalism of Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion: Creating New Reporting Styles proved interesting and enlightening–enough so that I reference it in my own forthcoming book. Though I did briefly look into the press (I found nothing particularly objectionable), I was more interested in the content of the particular volume. I am wary of those who take the imprint (or any venue) as strong an indication of the value of the work and I don’t want to fall into that trap myself.

Edwin Mellen Press is the child of Herbert Richardson, follower of his own different drummer. He is the subject of an article in this week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education. His situation raises difficult and disturbing questions about academic freedom and even shared governance. The hub of the problem is this:

Over the years, Mr. Richardson set up an alternate academic universe,one where he sets the rules. It started with his scholarly press and grew to include his own university.

The spokes are lawsuits and threats of lawsuits by Richardson against academic blogs and bloggers, in particular, that threaten (by implication) the wheel of academic discourse.

Forgive my unwieldy metaphor. My point is not to give undue importance to Richardson but make clear that “outliers” may be closer to the center of what we need to discuss than many of us think. Take his Edwin Mellen University, for example:

The new institution was, in many ways, an extension of the press. Like the press, it eschewed the traditional model and drew a fair share of criticism for it. While some scholars described the university as a not-so-cleverly disguised diploma mill, Mr. Richardson calls it valid and altruistic.

One inspiration for the institution was a dissertation his press received from a young man whose epilepsy had prevented him from completing his Ph.D. Yet Mr. Richardson felt the student deserved a doctorate. Couldn’t there be a way for people like this author to earn a degree despite his circumstances?

“There’s something unfair about this university system, if a person in Europe can get a degree for a dissertation only, but someone in the States has to do coursework,” says Mr. Richardson.

Like the rise of online universities, both Richardson’s attitude and his school challenge our very definition of “academic doctorate.” If we had stopped to seriously consider what Richardson was saying and doing twenty years ago, we’d probably be in a better position today to deal with all sorts of issues, including the rise of MOOCs and other possibilities outside of the traditional credit-based and classroom-bound structures of our universities.

Richardson lost his tenured position at St. Michael’s in Canada, ostensibly for abusing medical leave and putting in too much time on his press at the expense of university duties. He had also been charged with unfairly firing an assistant and favoring certain students. The university, clearly, wanted him gone, so threw as much at him as it could, hoping something would stick–and enough did. Though, especially after reading the Chronicle article, I am no fan of Richardson, what happened to him leaves me feeling slightly queasy. Unspoken in the process (from what I can tell) was the fact that he, a Protestant, had refused to sign a statement of adherence to Roman Catholic principles.

What happened to him reminds me of what happened to Ward Churchill, who was fired for what was claimed to be academic malfeasance of a sort–when the underlying cause was his referring to some of the dead of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns.” In both cases, the professor may have acted inappropriately in the instances used to oust them–but the reasons these were brought to light and used were others completely. And that makes me uncomfortable, to say the least. I am suspicious of both Richardson and Churchill, but I doubt that their firings were done for legitimate reasons–at least not for the ones used against them.

Richardson claims:

his case is a textbook example of a phenomenon known as academic, or workplace, mobbing, a type of bullying in which members of a department or university “mob” a colleague through isolation or embarrassment.

Churchill could make the same claim.

Richardson, however, is not entirely a victim (nor is Churchill, but that’s another story). He is using financial penalty as a means of stopping his critics, filing lawsuits that he can afford but that the defendants, for the most part, cannot–even if the suits end up being dropped or dismissed. One:

lawsuit complains not just about the post, but about what one of the commenters wrote in response. The commenter stated that he had heard that Mr. Richardson was fired from St. Michael’s for trying “to convert his students to Scientology.” A blog comment calling him a “fascist Scientologist” has no place in a civil academic debate about a publisher’s quality, Mr. Richardson says.

As in his claims about his university, Richardson makes his own rules about “academic debate”–now trying to enforce them through the law.

A lot of people–many of them from far outside of academia–are trying to create new rules for education today. If we cannot deal intelligently even with the Richardsons and the Churchills, we are never going to be able to deal with these others.

About Aaron Barlow

English faculty, New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and Faculty Editor, "Academe."

2 comments on “Who Defines the Debate?

  1. John Konopak
    April 17, 2013

    “Unspoken in the process (from what I can tell) was the fact that he, a Protestant, had refused to sign a statement of adherence to Roman Catholic principles.”

    Applicants to many such fundie/fuckturd “universities” as Liberty, ORU, Shorter U, Trinity Western, and (afaik, when my ex applied there) Westmont, and others require faculty to sign a “life-style-statement” and pledge sincere commitment to “Jesus.”

  2. martinkich
    April 17, 2013

    This post is a very fine piece of very thoughtful and very carefully crafted writing.

    It seems ironic and yet inescapable that two marginalized academics so determined to be iconoclasts should continue to figure so centrally in discussions about the core principles of academia.

    Likewise, although I do not believe that the following argument would be upheld in a court of law, it seems to me that one cannot argue both that there is a ethical imperative to defend free speech even when that speech is as controversial as many of the statements made by Herbert Richardson and Ward Churchill have been and that a blogger who “approves” a comment on a post is actually expressing approval of the content of that comment.

    I suspect, by the way, that John Konopak’s comment on the post may end up stirring more controversy than the post itself, ironically echoing the legal case that has provided the impetus for the post.

    I wish neither to condone nor to condemn Konopak’s characterization of certain universities. But as a lover of inventive profanity, I wish to echo the phrase “art for art’s sake” and simply express my admiration for the profanity, wholly apart from its context and its targets. And I hope that the preceding tortured sentence and tortured reasoning will provide me with sufficient legal protections from those who are probably lining up, even as I am typing this, to sue John Konopak’s ass.

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This entry was posted on April 17, 2013 by in faculty.
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