BY AARON BARLOW
The first ‘bigly’ Twitter and academic freedom case was that of Associate Professor Steven Salaita just two-and-a-half years ago (there were others earlier, including that in 2013 of Professor David Guth that resulted in a policy instituted by the Kansas Board of Regents that “faculty members and other employees can be fired for “improper use of social media,’” but the Salaita case caused more of a stir). Now, two other social-media cases are in the news. The first is Oberlin College’s decision to dismiss Assistant Professor Joy Karega for “anti-Semitic and abhorrent” postings (using the AAUP Statement of Professional Ethics as part of its attempted justification). The second concerns Rutgers University Adjunct Lecturer Kevin Allred. After failing to contact Allred themselves, Rutgers campus police, according to the NYPD (Allred lives in Brooklyn), “asked them to conduct ‘a wellness check … on the professor based on comments he made in the classroom and on Twitter about killing white people.’”
This last is reminiscent of the recent case of Professor Jacqueline Stevens at Northwestern University. She “was forced to undergo a psychological examination to determine if she were a threat to others.”
Individually, these cases could elicit simple shrugs—and some of the actions may even be justified (though I question that, in these cases). There are loose cannons everywhere and sometimes they need to be tied down. Taken together, however (especially when cases like that of Melissa Click at the University of Missouri are added to the mix), these incidents present a troubling—if not Orwellian—picture.
Put all of this within an increasingly rancorous national political environment now dominated by forces not repulsed by repression (to say the least), and we have quite a troubling situation before us. One that will likely get worse. Using the pretense of “protecting” students, institutions are finding new ways of removing troublesome priests—I mean, professors. This isn’t happening just at the college level. Though now back in the classroom, high-school history teacher Frank Navarro was placed on ‘administrative leave’ in Mountain View, CA last week for noting parallels between the rises of Hitler and Trump.
Over the past generation, we (as a nation) have lost faith in the professoriate (and in teachers in general) through a concentrated campaign spearheaded by the likes of David Horowitz and Anne Neal, both of whom wish (though for different reasons) to limit the academic freedom of professors (the focus of Horowitz) and shared governance (that of Neal). The best way to do this, both have found, is to attack the credibility of The Professors. They have created a situation where, today, many in our society—and in higher-ed administration—feel that students need to be protected from their instructors, who are often seen (with very little real reason) as predatory or manipulative.
Our best counter, as faculty, to all of this is to stop being defensive, fighting in slow retreat against forces that have proven, so far, to be better organized and better managed than ours. The classic tendency, within academia, is to squabble amongst ourselves while our real enemies demolish the now-empty battlements we have so long believed are protecting us. We need to move out from our towers and engage the enemy on their own turf.
We even need to abandon the metaphors of struggle. Of ‘us against them.’
The ‘public intellectual’ can only be re-established as a force in our communities if we who aspire to that classification make it so. Sure, we need to continue to talk to each other and write to each other and blog to each other, but we also need to step into the wider community and engage in the discussions there, “gently” asserting our expertise when germane to the topic at hand.
At the same time, we need to be gathering together, taking advantage of strength in numbers. Reaction to the numerous outrages against faculty should be swift and sure, but they will not be so if we are not organized. Saying, “Oh, the AAUP will take care of it” only means something when we are all members—and too few of us are.
Each of us on faculties across the nation needs to join the AAUP, making our collective voice strong and heard. Otherwise, more and more of us will be hauled off campus on one excuse or another. Only collectively can we stop this.