By AARON BARLOW
Some years ago, the chair of a department, after a college-wide committee had denied promotion to a couple of his faculty, was asked by the chair of that committee (an old friend) how he felt about it.
“I guess I’m OK with it,” he joked, “but I suspect there are people in my department who would like to kill you.”
He was brought up on charges before college administrators and, ultimately, retired.
Granted, that was a dumb thing to say in any circumstance, but he felt that, given his relationship with that other senior faculty member, his words would be understood as conveying emotion, not threat. Also, he did not understand the extra-judicial system that has grown up on campus, under cover of lawyers and overly broad interpretations of law and institutional responsibility, both for keeping order and for ferreting out members of the community no longer deemed worthy.
We’ve seen this often, these past few years. Melissa Click, late of the University of Missouri (and now of Gonzaga University), being only one of myriad examples. Another is Jacqueline Stevens, who Northwestern University has banned from campus while awaiting a fitness report from a psychiatrist. Her crime? Her associate chair, apparently, has concerns she might kill him.
Stevens, not surprisingly, according to Robin Wilson in The Chronicle of Higher Education, claims “the university is retaliating against her for her outspoken criticism of both the institution and her colleagues”:
“I have never been diagnosed with a mental illness, nor prescribed psychotropic medications, nor even had this suggested to me,” Ms. Stevens wrote this week in a post about her case. “I also have never physically threatened much less assaulted anyone, anywhere.” In an interview with The Chronicle, she added: “It’s not like I’m an unknown quantity and you can just run around and say that I’m a crazy person.”
Yet Northwestern has taken the opportunity and has run with it, removing her from campus.
On many campuses, administrators—and their lawyers—have developed a hazy new framework of justification for doing, essentially, whatever they please in relation to faculty. Not wanting to challenge tenure directly (and Stevens is tenured), they turn to broad interpretations of laws that themselves have difficulty standing up in real courts of law—but that fact, often, is seen as irrelevant, trumped by a ‘clear and present danger.’ Administrators claim they are duty bound to protect their campus communities, braving retribution through the legal system for the safety of students, administrators and even faculty. In their own eyes, they are heroes, champions of those threatening the stability of their institutions.
Of course, this extreme (and ethically dubious) “concern” can be taken to even further extremes—as is happening at Long Island University (see Deborah Mutnick’s most recent post here). On Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik writes:
The university released a statement Monday that said it was trying to protect students. “LIU’s first priority is our students,” the statement said. “We maintain an unwavering commitment to ensure that students continue their studies without interruption….”
The university says it is acting to ensure that classes flow smoothly, that it had to act to lock out the faculty and hire replacements because of the threat of a strike that might disrupt the semester.
Wait a minute: Things might happen? This is exactly the kind of reasoning used against that department chair, against Click (who, though she spoke inappropriately, apologized and posed no threat) and Stevens, and against so many others who have been hounded out of academia by what I can only see as a new McCarthyism operating under the guises of safety and continuity. We can’t let things get out of control; there might be communists in the state department! Shades of Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” where people can be arrested for crimes not yet committed.
All of this is made possible, at least in part, by the growing idea that faculty aren’t professionals at the very hearts of their institutions but are replaceable drones, tools for the real centers of modern-day colleges and universities, the administrators. Respect for faculty, thanks to a generation of bashing in the broader culture (attacks that faculty have not adequately responded to, I must admit), is at an all-time low—and administrators are taking advantage of this.
All of us on faculties across the nation need to be working to change our image and strengthen our position in American culture, but that is going to take years. In the meantime, those of us in the New York region can join the LIU faculty tomorrow in protest of the lockout.
What is happening at LIU (and to individual faculty members across the country) should be seen as our own clear and present danger, no matter where we teach.