2014 Through the Academe Blog: December

Early in the month, we reprinted a letter from University of Illinois department heads to incoming president Timothy Killeen about the Salaita case. It included this:

The recent words and actions of senior officials in connection with the decision to revoke an offer of a tenured position in American Indian Studies to Dr. Steven Salaita have done genuine damage to the university, and especially to the Urbana-Champaign campus, that remains largely unrecognized outside of the affected units. The program in American Indian Studies has itself obviously suffered the most as the result of the administration’s actions, but the harm to other units is also significant and ongoing.

Brian C. Mitchell considered life after college:

In the rising pressure to translate college degrees into jobs, families should appreciate one aspect of the gift that a college education makes possible for their son or daughter. It is their first, and arguably their last, sane moment when they get to think and reflect about how they want to live out their life. We may quibble about whether these are adult thoughts, but their arrival at college signals that they have entered into adulthood.

Martin Kich commented on a walkout by graduate students at the University of Oregon:

First, as one of the leaders of the graduate students’ union has ironically observed, the university administration is attempting to classify the teaching fellows as students, rather than as workers, even as they are bargaining with them. This paradoxical posture would seem to be an indicator of what might occur if and when college athletes begin to unionize and to exercise collective-bargaining rights.

Second, the university administration is clearly reluctant to grant any medical or other rather basic employee benefits to the graduate teaching fellows because doing so will lead inevitably to a much more public discussion of why adjunct faculty, who already have earned the credentials that the graduate students are working to earn, do not receive any of those benefits.

John K. Wilson responded to a charge of hypocrisy against the AAUP:

According to [Walter] Olson, “You might start to wonder whether the AAUP is going to hold to any consistent position at all beyond the convenience of the moment.” Actually, the AAUP does seem to have a consistent position: There is a huge difference between fishing expeditions aimed at finding offensive opinions expressed in personal emails, and examining whether donors have illegitimate influence over universities. The AAUP’s statement on Electronic Communications does not regard all FOIA requests in academia as illegitimate, for a very good reason. If the AAUP adopted an absolute rule against FOIA requests in academia, then it would make it more difficult to show violations of academic freedom and academic standards by administrators.

I wrote about what I see as a process of reducing American universities to “knowledge factories”:

When the factory model is imposed, articles and graduates are but widgets and the workers are much the same, identical and easily replaceable. If part of the problem with magazines today is reliance on freelance writers, the same holds true for universities–where up to three-quarters of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent (basically freelance) instructors.

Wilson weighed in on Salaita and civility:

Since Salaita was not threatening anyone or calling for the censorship of views that he disliked, the issue of the rights of other people only comes up with regard to the classroom: that is, if Salaita had told his students, if you disagree with me, you’re a terrible human being, it would be disturbing because it would tend to silence those who might disagree with him. But Salaita never said that to his students, and the standards of good classroom teaching do not apply to every waking moment of a professor’s life (that is, a professor who yells at someone in traffic cannot be assumed to yell at students who express ideas he doesn’t like). And, of course, the standards of good classroom teaching are based on the evaluation of a professor’s complete teaching record, not one controversial comment.

Ulf Kirchdorfer looked at why torture is American:

Torture is American in just about every secular way you can think of, as we live in this great nation.  A small amount, or even showers of water boarding is no worse than thousands of farmers and their families inhaling and eating dust and suffering the vagaries-by-design of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  Any viewing of a PBS documentary showing either form of torture will confirm this assertion.  And as Americans, most of us understand the need to swallow and eat that which we do not like on occasion in order to survive.  It is our duty to do so.  And if this means for some swallowing that our countries tortures the enemy, so be it.  Americans have suffered greatly in our young history.

Peter N. Kirstein discussed AAUP founders and the outrageous treatment of Eugene V. Debs during the World War I period:

The A.A.U.P., in only its third year, released in 1918 a Report of Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime. The report was chilling in its nationalistic deference to the U.S. government’s suppression of antiwar activism and protest. In particular the A.A.U.P. displayed an ethnocentric xenophobia when it proclaimed it “probable” that German or Austro-Hungarian born professors “desire the victory…and by implication the defeat of the United States and its allies.” It ordered them “to refrain from public discussion of the war,” and not to discuss with students or colleagues any “hostile or offensive expressions concerning the United States or its government.” It is a disgrace that the A.A.U.P. would so cravenly assault the academic freedom of academicians on the basis of national origin.

No group acts boldly and well in every instance. Let’s hope we in today’s AAUP keep the lesson of past failure always in mind.

Kirstein also raised concerns over a report on the Salaita case:

The report fails to confront definitively the violation of academic freedom and viewpoint cleansing on the UIUC campus that has appropriately aroused the conscience of the academy. The report makes an unconvincing and bizarre distinction between professional and political speech in determining whether the persecuted professor, Steven Salaita, was justifiably subjected to a contract revocation from a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program.

Once more, there was much more than could be recapped here. 2014 was an important year for the Academe blog. Once again, we more than doubled our readership and expanded the number of bloggers. We hope we can continue to grow in 2015. In fact, anyone interested in contributing, either as a one-off “guest blogger” or a regular, should contact me to discuss possibilities.

Happy New Year to all–and we at this blog all hope that the massive ship that is American higher education is finally starting to turn away from the icebergs.

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