“Who Is Aaron Barlow?”

“Who is Aaron Barlow?” wrote Robin Kaler, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in an email to colleagues last October. She asked this in one of the emails relating to Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Steven Salaita case that were “dumped” last week in response to a FOIA request, emails that had not been on university servers or accounts so not previously released. The question came as part of a discussion sparked by a “reblog” I did of a Retraction Watch post on a retraction relating to Wise’s scholarship. Only peripherally did it have much to do with me.

It sent a chill down my spine anyhow, and I did not feel any better when a friend on Facebook mentioned it—I didn’t know anyone but me was bothering to read the emails.

Kaler, of course, meant nothing malicious. She was simply trying to get a handle on a situation that was threatening to get out of control (it has, since; Chancellor Wise has now resigned). But this happened within the context of the Steven Salaita/UIUC imbroglio, where Salaita lost a tenured (though that is disputed) position because of a series of Twitter tweets. And this in a time when Twitter and other social media sites are being used more and more frequently in bullying fashion. The bullying or related actions with similar impact even go beyond social media: Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, was brought up on a Title IX complaint for having published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, it was claimed, might suppress student willingness to speak out. She was exonerated, but the damage was done.

No one, it seems, is able to speak freely any longer. Even speaking freely is seen as stifling speaking freely.

When I first started participating in internet-based discussion well more than a decade ago, I quickly decided that anonymity online was something I wanted to avoid. It could lead someone to say or write something without first having to consider what it might do to their own reputation—a valuable filter. The Lee Siegel “sockpuppet” to-do in 2006, among other similar embarrassments, convinced me that I was right.

For myself, as time passed, I began to construct a few rules. Most important, I would not attack anyone online who was not a secure public figure. I’ll happily tear into David Brooks, but I will not go after someone just for saying something stupid in a public context. After all, I haven’t the clout to harm Brooks; someone with a lower public profile and the sort of hand-to-mouth job most of us have, on the other hand, can be damaged by what almost anyone says about them online. Salaita, until the whole situation blew up, would have been in this second category—it has certainly been proven that he could be hurt. Perhaps I might have disagreed with him, and done so publicly, but I would not have torn into him personally. And I do not think he should have been punished for his tweets.

Sometimes I have made mistakes online, though they have not had anything near the consequences of what Salaita tweeted. In a Salon piece on Brooks, I unfairly characterized an African writer as having abandoned his home continent for the US. He’s a writer I admire greatly, one I have quoted in my own books and articles, but I did not take the time I should have to confirm what I believed. As a result of my error, I was attacked on Twitter by his supporters, and sometimes quite viciously—even after I had apologized. Some of them deliberately inflated my mistake, agitating for an online “piling on” that, fortunately, did not happen, as it did happen to Justine Sacco.

Those of us who have an online presence but who have not the level of security of a Brooks or a Donald Trump (and that is most of us, these days) are being forced into positions of self-censorship. One of the reasons for Trump’s popularity, I believe, is that he is one of the very few who is not self-censoring—and who doesn’t have to be. Most of the rest of us, from politicians and pundits (including Brooks) on down, try to be at least a little bit circumspect. And many of us, today, are feeling that we are unable to express ourselves, be it due to “political correctness” or fear of retaliation up to the level Salaita experienced or Kipnis’s. Or worse. Trump’s allure is that he is willing to do what we can’t—whether we agree with him or not.

This is where the protections provided both by the First Amendment and the concept of Academic Freedom become so important, and where we (as the American culture) are letting both fail. We are letting “anti-Semitism” or “civility” or some other concept trump freedom of expression. ‘Falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater’ has been expanded to the point where it muzzles too many—and we have become participants in mobs attacking those we don’t like, and way too easily. Between these two, Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom become endangered. That Salaita lost his job and Kipnis’s was threatened for written words far from the pristine groves of academe shows that, today, we cannot divorce public expression of any sort from Academic Freedom, for their voices have both been compromised, now, within academia. The two can both still express themselves, but no longer without looking over their shoulders, so to speak, constantly worried that they will be blindsided once again.

I shouldn’t be concerned by a question about me sparked by a public comment in an email far away. In most respects, I am not. Clearly, as I said, Kaler was not writing with any malicious intent. But the concern is there. It’s the same concern that I have every time I get an email telling me I’ve been mentioned on Twitter. In too many cases, we’ve crossed the lines created by the First Amendment and by Academic Freedom. And we’re creating too many excuses for doing so. In too many cases, people are being injured—and not just by the mob mentality of social media but by people in academic administrations, people who should know better.

15 thoughts on ““Who Is Aaron Barlow?”

  1. I know you wouldn’t say this, but I will–

    Who is Aaron Barlow? Nobody that 10 seconds of Google searching couldn’t have explained exactly why you reposted the Retraction Watch post. The bewildered, learned-helpless tone of that whole exchange troubles me very much.

    Based on the emails (I read them too), there’s a case to be made that the Chancellor is taking the fall for a whole bunch of people who botched their decisions. But I can’t feel bad for her. Part of what her comfortable six-figure salary pays for is precisely that risk; she gets paid a lot of money to gamble that other people won’t throw her under the bus.

    • Yeah. What I hummed as I read was a Bob Dylan song with the lines “I’m not that hard to find/Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.”

      You are so right, that “bewildered, learned-helpless tone” bothered me, too. And, like you, I have little sympathy for Wise.

  2. You have NO idea of the extent of UIUC’s smear campaigns, I know only too well; after all, I’m the one Wise referred to as “crazy” and who should have real work to do instead of filing FOIAs (that at the time I was involved in a > 50M deal).

    I have three years worth of bad news about UIUC which I plan to begin releasing. A lot of it is already up on my website — e.g., Laura Frerichs and Jed Taylor, but I also have attacks on my law license by university counsel Laura Clower, shakedowns of Daily Illini reporters, and on and on.

    What it goes to show is that housecleaning needs to be more than Wise — a person who on the whole I respect, and who I never wished to see removed. Frerichs, Taylor, Clower, Peter Fox, there’s a really long list of problematic individuals, I have bits and pieces, now if only the Illinois Attorney General’s office would cease colluding with UIUC FOIA and actually act in the public interest …

    Andrew Scheinman

    • When “they” want to use social media to destroy someone, they can do it. Another reason ‘we” have to be careful and another reason we have to be so protective of our protections, weak though they may be in the current climate.

  3. One wonders — perhaps the blog host can tell from the context of the sentence “Who is Aaron Barlow?” in the FOIL-ed email itself — but is it possible that the question is not, as is being assumed, a naive request for information but rather a condescending remark in the tone of, say, the paraphrase “Who does this guy think he is?”

    Many of us in the blogosphere adopt the same very high standards for online commenting which the editor and blog host espouses in the posting above, but choose nevertheless to use a pseudonym. In the past, such uses of pseudonyms have not been clearly understood by the professoriate as a statement about the condition of academic freedom and free speech both in the AAUP and in our universities and American society at large — when that is clearly the case.

    Who is “professor_at_large”? is not the intended focus of the communications proffered by those of us who use such pseudonyms — we seek instead the consideration of the content of our speech and not the analysis of our gender, our ethnicity or race, or our status, either as target or as praise.

    We seek the truth and we speak the truth. It is not simply because a posting is signed with an IRL name that the veracity of the statements is assured — it is only in the willed focus on the complexities and the simplicities of the communications themselves that we are able to search for the truth. It is this search for the truth that is the goal of academic freedom but its detractors are not only administrators like those apparently at UIUC, but often the very colleagues and organizations like the AAUP who/which profess to cherish and protect academic freedom — but only for those persons of whom they approve.

    Thus, the UIUC drama plays out on campuses all over this nation and in the blogosphere as well. Sadly, it is not only administrators who seek to silence our signed or pseudonymous voices — sometimes it is faculty themselves as well.

    Thus, in this centennial year, “The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!”

    • I very much wish for a situation where no one will feel the need for a pseudonym. That time is not now. And I hope you are wrong, that no one champions academic freedom for the few alone (though I know that mine is a naive belief and one that is also incorrect). Again, I hope, though I know there are those who do see it as pertaining only to certain classes of academics… I hope, at least, that those are not in the AAUP.

      • Regretfully, I must point out that a search of the responses to professor_at_large’s postings on the AcademeBlog will reveal snide remarks from AAUP members, indeed, even a national officer, if memory serves correctly, targeting this commenter’s choice of pseudonymity.

        Indeed, professor_at_large was born in response to the experience and witnessing of censorship by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and even the AAUP hierarchy on the former AAUP-General listserv.

        So, no — the AAUP hierarchy has been and in some things remains right up there with the worst of them. Some of the AAUP’s highest-ranking officials have acted in a manner that rivals the statements and actions of Chancellor Wise. Indeed, some of the tactics used by the current National Council and national officers to suppress dissent and deflect election challenges are ignominious anti-democratic displays of the exercise of raw power within the organization, in flagrant violation of the AAUP Constitution. I don’t need to repeat them here; many of the facts and circumstances have been detailed by professor_at_large in other AcademeBlog comment sections, most notably in response to postings by the AAUP Vice-President and by John K. Wilson.

        “The AAUP is dead! Long live the AAUP!”

  4. “No one is able to speak freely any longer.” Try being a long-term adjunct with something to say. Before you know it you are accused of “undermining” and your work is threatened. This happened to me as soon as I started trying to organize contingent faculty at my institution. I went to my AAUP chapter and was sent on to the national office. What I was told was that, without tenure, I was extremely vulnerable, and that I needed to do exactly what I was told by my minders in order to keep my position. AAUP could not/would not help me and those like me. So 75% of the professoriate is potentially being gagged. And the tenured few are clearly at risk as well. Has American higher ed been taken over by the “speech police?”

    • Tenure should not be the only protection for academic freedom, but it does seem to be so. Furthermore, we as a profession have allowed academic freedom to erode by not fighting the “adjunctivisation” of the faculty. One of our biggest challenges right now is to fight for full protection for adjuncts and contingent hires… and to fight for academic freedom within the new digital environment. Things are grim right now, the neoliberal, corporate university getting stronger every day. But we CAN fight and CAN win.

    • Yes, that is correct. AAUP leaders are happy to have the membership dollars from contingent faculty but they rarely go to bat for them in National Committee A.

      AAUP leaders talk the talk but rarely walk the walk to defend adjuncts.

      Even when presented with cases that are at institutions already on the censure list, the AAUP treads very lightly, careful not to upset any affiliated unions with AFT whose monies help support AAUP/AFT joint organizing efforts.

      AAUP leaders gutted the Assembly of State Conferences budget to use more money for organizing with AFT a year or two ago; the then Chair of the ASC resigned in protest and that was hushed up. When these joint AFT/AAUP unions come into power, the AAUP principles take a back seat to the AFT field staff, most of whom come from the schools and have no idea that academic freedom K-12 is more restrictive than that in colleges and universities. But the agency fees support the AAUP national leaders in the conference and travel style that they have become accustomed to — when they aren’t charging chapters directly for their assistance, that is. Why do you think that the AAUP leadership got so upset one year when their listserv got a posting of the URL for the US Department of Labor Website where members could read the _real_ AAUP financial report — not the one “cooked” for the annual meeting?

      Thus, adjunct rights are squashed in the very unions that AAUP’s past reputation helped to organize for the full-time faculty, while AAUP leaders self-perpetuate and create “policy documents” written by small groups of “insiders” which undermine some of the most basic tenets of the AAUP principles (e.g. the re-definition of financial exigency to placate university administrations).

      “The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!”

  5. I long ago stopped responding — “snidely” or otherwise — to professor-at-large’s inaccurate and misleading attacks on the AAUP and its elected leadership, but I cannot let this person’s latest repetition of demonstrably false charges pass without rebuttal. To be sure, professor-at-large has every right to comment on this blog and to do so anonymously, and to my knowledge no one at AAUP has ever tried to abridge those rights. Nor did we ever “gut” the budget of the Assembly of State Conferences in order to fund organizing with the AFT. What happened is that a small portion of a budget line allocated to state conferences — and not to the ASC itself — was directed by the executive committee to a specific state conference under the terms of a contract under which that conference would be subsidized on a pilot basis (but not for organizing with the AFT) by both the AAUP and the AAUP-CBC. And the chair of the ASC did not resign in protest. He declined to offer any reason for his resignation, although the fact that he had never previously held any leadership position in the association, even in his own chapter, may have played a role.

    In 2014 the annual membership meeting, voting on a proposal by the membership committee endorsed by the Council, decided to increase dues by roughly $9/year in order to provide direct funding to state conferences. Half the money raised is divided proportionally by conference membership, but the other half is distributed through a grant program run by the ASC. One such grant, of $1,000, went this year to the Colorado Conference to organize a mini-Summer Institute focusing on organizing community college adjuncts, which was attended by AAUP-CBC Chair Howard Bunsis and me and was reported on this blog here: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/28/colorado-community-college-faculty-fight-for-equity/. Hardly evidence that we squash adjunct rights. In fact, we have embraced fully the fight for those rights, not least by launching the One Faculty campaign, which the good professor can learn about here: http://aaup.org/get-involved/issue-campaigns/one-faculty

    Moreover, the charge that Committee A ignores adjunct issues can be shown to be false. It was the LSU administration’s refusal to provide due process rights to full-time non-tenure-track faculty that led Committee A to refuse to remove them from the censure list. Investigations conducted by the Committee and censure resolutions approved by the membership meeting with regard to MD Anderson Cancer Center, Felician College, and the University of Southern Maine this year all concerned the rights of faculty members without protection of tenure. I could go on and on, but what’s the point?

    Finally, there is the absurd suggestion that AAUP leaders and staff are gallivanting about the country living high off the hog of the fee payers dues. What hogwash! I invite professor-at-large to travel with me on cheap and crowded Southwest Airlines flights, to stay in the modest hotels I sleep in, when I attend meetings, visit chapters, or speak at events (all without honoraria). I won’t ask the professor to share my meals, because in most cases I don’t bother to ask the AAUP to reimburse me for them. I’m hardly atypical. Maybe professor-at-large might actually want to find out in person how AAUP functions by doing as our members, staff and leaders do each summer: staying several nights in a plain student dormitory (oh, the luxury!) to attend Summer Institute. (To be sure, some, including me, stayed this summer at a nearby Courtyard Marriott — but we paid the difference ourselves.)

    In its century of existence the AAUP has made its mistakes and had its failures, most notably perhaps during WW1 when, under the leadership of Dewey and Lovejoy, who the professor continues to envision “spinning in their graves,” the Association all but abandoned its principles and caved to the fanaticism of wartime “patriotism.” No doubt the current leaders also have and will make our own mistakes, although hopefully not of that dimension. But I am still proud of our century of work and prouder still of the Association’s current revival, with membership again on the rise, finances strong, and enthusiasm growing.

    In conclusion, let me quote from a communication that several AAUP staff, leaders, and members received just yesterday from a first-time attendee at Summer Institute: “I was inspired by your commitment, your kindness, your intelligence and your optimism about what we can yet do about the future of higher education. . . . I have not felt this charged up in a long time. This is where I should have been waging the fight all along and I have all of you to thank for restoring my faith and my activism in higher education and its role in improving the human condition.” What a contrast with professor-at-large’s nasty and ill-informed cynicism!

    • Thank you, Hank. Though I can understand that some people can see things in different ways, my experience with AAUP is much more in line with yours. Ours is not a perfect organization but it is, I find, an honest one. In my three years of involvement, I have yet to find anyone not striving for the best for all of the faculty–even when they heatedly disagree with each other. I am proud to be a part of this organization and I only wish even professor_at_large could see the organization at its meetings and from among its members, as you do even more than I do.

  6. Having been personally trained in the classroom by some of the leading literary deconstructionists (Derrida, de Man, Lyotard, Todorov, et al.), professor_at_large does so enjoy the demonstration when an AAUP officer provides such a wonderfully self-deconstructing diatribe (cf. above). And for the record, professor_at_large’s membership in the AAUP dates from 1988, not just the three years of the AcademeBlog editor — some of us have had decades of experience to draw upon in our critiques.

    First of all, professor_at_large has indeed been attacked on this blog by AAUP leaders, including the current AAUP VP, and even explicitly for choosing pseudonymity — so this recent rendition of deconstructible AAUP doublespeak is added to the litany, again, enjoyably so: quod erat demonstrandum.

    The current editor of AcademeBlog has not censored professor_at_large, but the AAUP leadership has censored this same professor’s contributions to the predecessor AAUP-General, taken off that list-serv as retaliation for posting the DOL link to the AAUP’s financial report. Of course, it’s understandable that the leadership was upset — Council members and conference officers emailed me with thanks because at last they knew who was paid what and where the money really was going. Note that the AAUP VP skipped those facts. Oh, professor_at_large was finally reinstated to that list just before the AAUP leadership killed the entire list — but had to file a formal grievance within the Association to get basic free speech rights back. This is the AAUP of the past decade, dear readers — not of World War I.

    Professor_at_large did apparently jump to one erroneous conclusion — and hesitated when writing that the monies that were reported to belong to the ASC were instead given over to joint AFT organizing — when the accurate statement would be simply “to union organizing.”

    The problem is that the AAUP VP doesn’t “get it” that the state conferences are what the faculty in private institutions have and need for the advocacy chapters to succeed because their right to unionization has been stymied by the Yeshiva decision. So rather than address the issue of the AAUP leadership’s neglect of the advocacy chapters and their diminished support to the conferences and the ASC, the AAUP VP prefers to harp on the AFT error. Nice dodge. We’ve seen a version of it before, of course. And the snide remark about the ASC Chair who resigned well, I guess we’ve come to expect that from AAUP leaders. To quote Jean Anouilh’s Becket: “One always hates what one wrongs” — so the former ASC Chair must have his reputation in AAUP attacked as retaliation for his protest of the wrong done to the advocacy chapters and conferences.

    Yes, the number of members has grown, but note that the AAUP VP does not indicate what has been reported elsewhere in AAUP publications: the growth in membership is in the union ranks and the finances are growing from agency fees; the advocacy chapter ranks are declining, in response to the lack of support from the AAUP leadership. Who knows? This leadership might decide to do away with advocacy chapters altogether given their thirst for union agency fee sources of income which are a higher source of income than advocacy chapter dues.

    Now let’s get back to that famous AAUP support for adjuncts: Where was the support for renowned Kosciuszko Fellow, Dr. Grabowski when he was summarily non-renewed (despite a contractual agreement with the Foundation) for his teaching methods in the classroom at SUNY University at Buffalo? Nowhere to be found, of course, because the President of the SUNY faculty and professional staff union, UUP, had allowed the Chancellor to deny his grievance solely on the basis that he was technically an adjunct. The UUP President intentionally and deliberately failed to appeal the grievance to the next step provided for in the contract. And AAUP was silent — leaving Prof. Grabowski to return to Poland — because the UUP was threatening to drop its “relationship” to AAUP whereby AAUP received six figures in support of its treasury for a limited number of memberships for SUNY faculty who were leaders in UUP. “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Irony: the UUP dropped the AAUP relationship anyway and SUNY faculty lost all respect for the AAUP because of its waffling on faculty rights and its pandering for union monies.

    In short, for “thirty pieces of silver” the AAUP leadership has and will betray adjunct academic freedom. Just Google professor_at_large and Grabowksi and AAUP and the name of a UUP professor named Paul Zarembka and you can read the very letter that was sent by the then General Secretary to decline supporting adjunct freedom in SUNY — a system already on the AAUP censure list. Professor_at_large also wrote to Committee A about this case — and got nowhere

    This is not to deny that an adjunct here and there may feel recharged by the AAUP leaders who talk the talk of adjunct rights — and no one should deny adjuncts any comfort wherever it may be found. Nevertheless, the track record of AAUP leaders’ walking the walk is by no means consistent, especially when union affiliate dollars are at stake. Just pick up the phone and call the National staff and they will tell you, as they have told professors for decades now, that AAUP has a “noli me tangere” policy with affiliate unions and with Ivy League institutions — AAUP will not “interfere” with how they handle adjunct or other faculty rights. So all those monies from the AAUP coffers used, for example, to jointly organize with AFT bring in monies for those Southwest Airlines flights but they simultaneously cut off the membership from AAUP support for their cases if the “other” union in their lives doesn’t live up to the AAUP principles.

    So, in closing, I invite those who would enjoy further deconstruction of the AAUP leadership’s actions and writings to Google these blog pages because there you will find the links to the DOL Website for the financial reports, the links to the AAUP leadership’s statements of betrayal of adjunct rights to academic freedom posted by Prof. Zarembka on his blog, the links to the unconstitutional AAUP Election Bylaws where the National Council has intentionally made election challenges under the LMRDA a costly certified mail to all on the ballot affair — in the age of the Internet where even the US government accepts electronic filings.

    When all is said and done, the failings of Dewey and Lovejoy are counterbalanced, at least with respect to AAUP, by their ground-breaking positive achievements. That is the problem with the AAUP leadership of the past two decades — their achievements are paltry when compared to the preceding eighty years, and it is their failings — including their lack of commitment to democracy, free speech and the freedom to dissent within the Association — failings which ultimately tip the scale for a neutral third-party observer.

    But this is the year of the AAUP centennial and hope springs eternal…

    “The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!”

    • A long-time AAUP member sent the following comment, off-list:

      “The AAUP in my estimation (and of course the information is not easily ascertained) is still suffering from its basic change to allow officers to succeed themselves. For many years, decisions were based on a one-year term with a concentration of power that one would not accord to a multi-term officer. Those were the halcyon days; they became dim at the turn of the century and remain such in my view.”

      The reader should know that, in addition, the AAUP leadership recently took the necessary steps to change the terms of national office once again — to enable themselves not only to succeed themselves but to have unprecedented three-year terms of office.

      This additional power-grab reduced the frequency of elections — the only opportunity for the rank-and-file membership to express their individual and collective will — and thereby also effectively significantly reduces the number and frequency of the infusion of new national officers and Council members into the organization.

      “The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!”

  7. This extremely thoughtful post (I am referring to Aaron’s initial post) raises an issue that goes well beyond academic freedom. Ironically, as social media platforms let people easily communicate with so many more people than in the past, Internet speech vigilantism means the risk of participating in public discourse is so much greater and many thoughtful people with something to say will be unwilling to take that risk. If one poorly phrased remark can cost you your career, why participate at all? The safeguard against the government punishing you for specific speech is irrelevant if your employer can freely do so. That is not just an issue for the academy. It effects everybody.

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