On Becoming the Enemy We Fight

A supplementary Report on the AAUP-Censured Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge appeared today. It deals with the dismissal of Teresa Buchanan:

Buchanan, a specialist in early childhood education with an unblemished eighteen-year performance record, was being evaluated for promotion to full professorship when a district school superintendent and an LSU student filed complaints against her, alleging sexual harassment as defined by LSU. Her dean immediately suspended her from teaching, and eventually, despite a faculty hearing committee’s unanimous recommendation against dismissal, the LSU board of supervisors accepted the administration’s recommendation that she be dismissed.

A faculty hearing committee:

found unanimously that “removal with cause” should not be contemplated, though it also faulted Buchanan for having violated LSU’s policies on sexual harassment by “her use of profanity, poorly worded jokes, and sometimes sexually explicit ‘jokes’ in her methodologies.” The committee found no evidence that this behavior was “systematically directed at any particular individual,” however, only that “some individuals observing the behaviors were disturbed.”

That made me think of John Wilson’s excellent essay on this blog a few days ago about students and coddling. I agree with him completely: Administrators have taken to using accusations, especially those concerning sexual harassment, as a means of battering faculty and even administrators somehow on the outs with those higher up. What happened to Laura Kipnis is perhaps the most famous recent example, but it is not the only one. Wilson claims, correctly, I believe, that “Today, students frame… complaints in the language of harassment and emotional harm because that’s how administrators train them to do it.” He goes on, “any idea that becomes a trend on campus is dangerous in the hands of meddling administrators who think they are there to serve students by punishing people who upset them.” This seems to be what has happened in the Buchanan case.

Unfortunately, it is not only administrators who are guilty of this sort of overreach. It is sometimes also we teachers who do it. Even in our own desire to empower the powerless, we can end up becoming in our classrooms just what we fight against, when it happens in the college more generally.

The goals we reach for, for the most part, are good ones: equality, respect and cooperation. But these cannot be achieved by diktat. All attempts to impose them from above fail—even in that small universe, the classroom. The only way to change people is by example, and if the primary example we set is authoritarian, we change people into that.

A friend (not in academia) sent me links to a number of troubling stories that have shown up in the media recently concerning teacher attempts to overly regulate student classroom verbal behavior. In a couple of cases, lists of types of words whose use is unacceptable in class are presented—with removal from class or reduction in grade the threat. While I agree that these words should be avoided, making an explicit ban—even if in a friendly manner—is troubling. For one thing, it smacks of the tactics administrators use against faculty.

If we are going to fight for our own freedom of speech, we have to fight for it even for our students—even when we don’t like the speech or feel it impinges on other student needs. Other means than suppression of speech need to be found for reaching our goals, and they can be—and often are. It may be easier to turn to the simple ban, but it serves no one’s purpose in the longer run. No one’s, that is, aside from the authoritarian’s.

4 thoughts on “On Becoming the Enemy We Fight

  1. LSU claims, “The AAUP continues to diminish its relevance by violating its own Statement of Principles, which holds that: ‘University faculty, as scholars and educational officers … should remember that the public may judge their professional institution by their utterances. Hence, they [faculty] should at all times exercise appropriate restraint, [and] should show respect for the opinions of others.’”

    While I deeply appreciate LSU’s concern trolling for the AAUP’s “relevance,” it is simply untrue that the AAUP is violating its own Statement of Principles. The statement that faculty “should” exercise restraint and “should” show respect for other opinions is not a blank check to fire every professor deemed disrespectful. LSU also embraces the heckler’s veto, asserting that a principal who banned the professor from one school thereby “damaged” her ability to carry out her duties, which is actually an example of how unprofessional the principal was, and not grounds for punishing a professor.

    It’s interesting that some people have (mistakenly) claimed the profanities are unprofessional. But it’s not sexual harassment merely because most education students are “young, primarily female students.” This paternalism toward protecting women from bad language isn’t an enforcement of Title IX, it’s a violation of it. LSU is discriminating against a female professor because she talks the wrong way for a woman, and they want to prevent young women from hearing such language.

    • Yes, right on! “LSU is discriminating against a female professor because she talks the wrong way for a woman, and they want to prevent young women from hearing such language.”

      Call it what it is.

  2. Pingback: LSU, F. King Alexander, Profanity, and Harassment | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.