Rudy Fichtenbaum, President
American Association of University Professors
First I want to thank the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association for inviting me to attend your Academic Freedom Event. I do not consider myself to be an expert on academic freedom. Thus, I am all the more so truly honored that you have asked me to give the keynote address this evening.
I want to begin with the proposition that the overarching threat to academic freedom today stems from the corporatization of higher education. In some respects there is nothing new about corporate control of universities. Upton Sinclair in his self published book The Goose-Step that appeared in 1922 starts by quoting James McKeen Cattell as saying:
That a professor’s salary should depend on the favor of a president, or that he should be dismissed without a hearing by a president with the consent of an absentee board of trustees, is a state of affairs not conceivable in an English or a German university.
Cattell was a psychologist who was fired from Columbia University for his opposition to the draft during World War I and unfortunately was also an early proponent of the eugenics movement.
Sinclair then goes on to write:
The reason for this anomaly is that the American college has not been organized on the principles of American government, but on those of American business; the college is not a state, but a factory. I have compared Columbia and Minnesota to department-stores and Clark and Johns Hopkins to Ford factories; and in so doing I was not merely calling names, but making a diagnosis. They are organized upon that basis, and run upon that basis, and the problem of changing them is simply one of the problems of Americanization. The college must become a democratic- republic, run by its citizens and workers.
That brings us to the second demand of the college professor; not merely must he have security in his job, he must have collective control of that job, he must say how the college shall be conducted, and what higher education shall be. That means that he must take from the trustees, and from their hired man, the president, the greater part of their present functions.
What I think is new about corporatization is they way in which it has transformed public higher education.
I understand that you have had a number of important battles over academic freedom at the University of Saskatchewan. First let me congratulate you on your contract victory ending the Presidential veto of tenure decisions. As all of us know the primary purpose for tenure is the protection of academic freedom. Tenure is granted after a probationary period and is based on peer review of the performance of colleagues. Increasingly, presidents of institutions, at least in the U.S., have no academic experience and are brought in representing corporate or political interests. The corporatization of higher education means even when Presidents have academic credentials they spend most of their careers as professional administrators divorced from the day-to-day life of faculty. With cuts in public support to higher education, Presidents often spend most of their time fund raising. Thus it is clear that they are largely unqualified to make academic decisions such as the granting of tenure. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that in most institutions of higher education both in Canada and certainly in the U.S. Presidents or corporate dominated boards of trustees retain the right to veto tenure decisions. Fortunately, the norms at most institutions, enforced in Canada by the CAUT and in the U.S. by the AAUP, mean that Presidents only exercise this right on rare occasion. In fact the AAUP just placed the a university on its censure list in response to a presidential veto of a tenure decision that in our judgment was based on political factors clearly constituting a violation of academic freedom. So winning contractual protection against this veto is clearly a great victory in protecting academic freedom.
I also want to commend the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association and the CAUT for responding to the firing of Dr. Robert Buckingham who was dismissed after criticizing the University for its TransformUS project. This “project” designed to save $25 million at the University, was based on Robert Dickeson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services. I have read the excellent critique of Dickeson’s methodology published in your USFA newsletter and will not revisit the particulars on this occasion. Suffice it to say that the main motivation driving prioritization is to cut programs at a time when higher education is being starved for resources and being transformed from being a public good into a private good whose sole purpose is to promote “economic development.” So again, the fact that you were successful in getting the decision to fire Dr. Buckingham reversed was a great victory for academic freedom.
When we think of threats to academic freedom in the U.S. the first thing that comes to mind are legislative threats. For example, bills threaten to withhold funds from institutions that are members of certain associations or simply run programs that teach about unions. We might also think of faculty who have been threatened with being fired for their use of social media or faculty removed from the classroom for teaching about controversial subjects, or faculty having their access to computer networks revoked because they have the temerity to protest budget cuts that will result in firing of faculty.
In New York and Maryland, legislatures are considering bills that would prohibit colleges and universities from using state aid to fund academic groups or associations that have passed resolutions or taken official actions to promote boycotts against higher education institutions in other countries. In Michigan, the legislature is considering language that would prohibit any class, course, conference or program that encourages union organizing and threatens to withhold funding from Michigan State University for engaging in these subversive activities.
Another example that comes to mind is the recent decision of the Kansas Board of Regents to pass a social media policy that would allow top administrators “to suspend, dismiss or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.” And the improper use is defined roughly in the same way that the U.S. Supreme Court defined pornography i.e., administrators will know it when they see it. It is believed that this policy was issued in response to a Tweet from a faculty member at the University of Kansas that was critical of the National Rifle Association.
In Colorado, there was the case of Patti Adler, a professor at the University of Colorado, who was allegedly offered a choice of early retirement or staying on at the University, but being prohibited from teaching a course on “Deviance in U.S. Society.” This controversy erupted in response to the use of a skit on the topic of prostitution that had been used in the class for 20 years. Apparently a complaint led the University to declare that the skit potentially violated the University’s sexual harassment policy.
Also in Colorado is the case of Tim McGettigan, a professor at Colorado State University–Pueblo, who in response to a threatened layoff of both tenure track and non-track faculty sent an email with the subject line “The Children of Ludlow” to a University listserv, comparing the proposed mass firing to the Ludlow Massacre. In response the University cut off his access to his computer by revoking his right to login to the University’s network.
Of course I could not give a talk about academic freedom without also addressing the issue of civility. Civility, it appears, is the watchword of the day and seems to taking universities in the U.S. by storm. Unfortunately, in their newfound quest for civility in higher education, some administrators and boards of trustees seem prepared to trample on freedom of speech or limit academic freedom. Within the last few weeks Chancellor Dirks at Berkeley, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the “Free Speech Movement,” issued a statement on civility that was widely criticized for attempting to set limits on the right to free speech by invoking civility. In his letter Chancellor Dirks wrote: “Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas.”
That calls for civility represent a challenge to free speech and academic freedom is nowhere more apparent than at the University of Illinois in Urban-Champaign (UIUC). There, just recently, the University fired Dr. Steven Salaita based on a series of Tweets that he made concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many of you are probably familiar with this case but for those of you who are not let me briefly summarize the case. Steven Salaita was hired (given a signed offer letter) as a tenured faculty member in the American Indian Studies Program in the College of Arts and Science at UIUC. The faculty in the program, the College and the Office of the Provost, approved the offer. Dr. Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech, sold his house, discussed assignments with his new department, ordered textbooks and started looking for a place to live in Illinois. Just before the start of the semester Chancellor Wise informed Dr. Salaita that she would not be submitting his hire to the Board of Trustees for approval and therefore he no longer had a job at UIUC. Submissions for approval of new hires and for tenure of new hires are ordinarily a formality as evidenced by the fact that they take place in mid-September nearly a month after classes start.
After the Tweets, which were clearly provocative with some containing vulgar language, were posted in the summer, groups of students, parents and alumni as well as some staff in the development office began urging the Chancellor Wise to terminate the appointment. Documents released pursuant to a public information request show that a number of large donors had threated to cut of donations to the University over this case and that Chancellor Wise was eager to meet with at least one donor who had endowed a chair in the business school over this matter.
Chancellor Wise denies that the reason she terminated the appointment had to do with pressure from donors and potential donors. Her justification for terminating the appointment was that Dr. Salaita’s Tweets were uncivil in their tone. She wrote:
What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and is respectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. … A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful, and mutually respectful manner.
I think there is some good evidence that some of the Tweets were in fact taken out of context. But even if they were not, and even if many if not most would find them to be vulgar or offensive, that is still not a reason to dismiss a faculty member.
In an open letter written to Provost Wise, President Easter and the Board of Trustees, the faculty at the University of Illinois state:
This makes it all the more troubling that the Chancellor and Board have described this decision as a victory for civility, academic excellence, and “robust debate.” Their statements leave us to ponder how one upholds civility by overriding the decision-making of faculty members and deans without consultation or due process. How, we must ask, does one foster academic excellence by making academic decisions without the advice of scholars in the field? Can it really be that debate is best served by secretive decision-making that silences dissent? Recent reporting on this issue suggests that particular donors may have had an impact on this decision and that a task force will soon be charged to “develop a new process” for situations in which the chancellor “does not agree with a hiring decision.” This seems to represent a radical departure from principles of shared governance which have been the bedrock of academic excellence on this campus.
A letter defending the decision of Chancellor Wise, signed by Trustees and other top administrators at the University, wrote: “our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights.” Free speech “tempered in respect for human rights” is not free speech.
Clearly there are limits to free speech, when that speech represents a clear and immediate danger to others, such as yelling fire in a crowded theater. Statements by Dr. Salaita, no matter what one thinks of them, certainly do not rise to that level. Nor do any of his statements indicate disciplinary incompetence, which might be a reason for terminating his appointment. And of course in either of these two cases, such a decision should not be made secretly and without due process.
Clearly, there can be no precondition for free speech or academic freedom. Debate is often times rancorous and it seems ridiculous to ask people to respect ideas that they believe are clearly wrong, outrageously wrong, or worse. Moreover, as critics have pointed out, enforcing standards of civility would also prohibit the use of satire, mockery and a variety of polemics, all of which have long established traditions in debate in a free society.
If civility becomes the new standard for employment in higher education, we will have paid a dear price and will be less able to serve the common good. How can we expect a vibrant democracy, which requires that all be able to speak their views (regardless of the proximity of ivy), if students or faculty fear expulsion or firing when they tell it like they see it on the quad, in the classroom, in their research, or on Facebook or Twitter?