IN THIS ISSUE
There never was a golden past when kings and cardinals never meddled in academic affairs. The powers that be repeatedly intervened directly, or the administrators that they appointed made the decisions. Some recent decisions remind us that these powers that be do not have the authority because they know better.
Kings, cardinals, and their administrators often complain that the democratic academic decision-making process is slow and inefficient, and obstructs leaders who need to act quickly when danger or opportunity appears. But in reality, this argument merely justifies the haste that often results in waste.
- What Tenure is For. The FAU administration's panicky reactions to an instructor who actually didn't tell students to stomp on Jesus, and a professor who actually did make nebulous claims about the Newtown shooting, remind us that tenure was originally intended for teachers. For more, see below.
- Invading Politicians. During the past decade or so, the federal and state governments have passed laws on academic issues - laws serving ideological needs or parochial interests, not the public good. For more, see below.
What Tenure is For
During the past few decades, as research universities restricted tenure to researchers, many academics forgot that tenure was originally intended to protect teachers from community leaders outraged by lessons in evolution or extracurricular speeches about economics. And from administrators in full appeasement mode. We got a recent reminder of this from Florida Atlantic University.
One of the more eccentric reactions to the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December appeared on FAU Professor James Tracy's blog Memory Hole. Tracy's posts regarding the "contradictions" in accounts of the shooting started appearing within days of the tragedy, and includes a $ 1,000 challenge to anyone who demonstrates (in a forensic debate) "that Adam Lanza was the sole perpetrator of the incident."
(Full disclosure: Professor Tracy was once the president of the UFF chapter at FAU.)
Conspiracy theories are sometimes offensive, but Tracy has tenure, and the blog is his own, so FAU's initial reaction was the sensible one: "James Tracy does not speak for the university. The website on which his post appeared is not affiliated with FAU in any way." There is not much more the administration could or should do, especially considering that his area is media, including conspiracy theories. But as American Association of University Professors academic freedom expert Gregory Scholtz told the Sun-Sentinel, "We see more and more professors getting into trouble for what they're posting on Facebook, or Tweeting ... And administrations are sensitive to bad publicity; they don't like things that public might find obnoxious or reprehensible. But most reputable administrations stay above the fray and give latitude."
FAU's administration did not stay above the fray. According to Inside Higher Education, the FAU administration quietly pressured Tracy, claiming that Tracy was not making clear that he was speaking only for himself, not for FAU. This despite Tracy's disclaimer that FAU was not responsible for the blog. (This raises the question of whether the administration would have been satisfied by anything other than Tracy shutting up.) Ultimately, the dean of Arts and Sciences issued a reprimand warning that "you must stop dragging FAU into your personal endeavors. Your actions continue to adversely affect the legitimate interests of the university and constitute misconduct."
Of course, the reprimand got into the national news, and may ultimately do more damage to FAU's reputation than any of Tracy's postings. Especially as another story was breaking.
FAU Instructor Deandre Poole taught a course using the text Intercultural Communication : A Contextual Approach by St. Norbert College Professor Jim Neuliep. Inside Higher Ed describes one of the exercises as having the students write the word "Jesus" on a piece of paper, asking them to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them and then "after a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture." Neuliep has been using this exercise for three decades and the text is in its fifth edition.
It isn't clear what went wrong this semester, but one of the students might have been investigated for threatening Poole. That student got a lawyer, FOX News reported that Professor Makes Students "Stomp on Jesus", Governor Scott asked for a probe, the student was apparently not suspended, the instructor was put on administrative leave (officially for his own protection) and his classes handed over to other teachers, and the FAU administration apologized and announced that the exercise would not be used again and no students would be disciplined.
Former American Association of University Professors president Cary Nelson observed that FAU's actions were not consistent with academic freedom. Turning from ideals to cold realities, the FAU administration seemed to be responding to the news cycle rather than to a possible problem in a classroom. Was there a threat? Was there a misunderstanding? What actually happened? Is this how the FAU administration will deal with the next report of a threat or misunderstanding?
There are two issues here.
These are not the only examples of an administration unwilling or unable to take a deep breath and count to ten. FAU was going to name their football stadium after the GEO Group, a Wackenhut spin-off specializing in private prisons. The GEO Group has a bad public image, students protested, and one student got a small bruise when she was clipped by FAU President Mary Jane Saunders' car. The student complained about a hit and run and the administration responded by launching a very public investigation of the student and six of her buddies – resulting in even more bad publicity. Ultimately the investigation was dropped and stadium will not be named for the GEO Group after all. Meanwhile, students are protesting in front of TV cameras and we can all guess what parents make of all this.
- Tenure is ultimately a form of job protection, and it was intended to protect teachers. Tracy is a teacher, but he is also a tenured professor, and FAU will find it extremely difficult to do much about him (but not impossible, if we remember that Ward Churchill was ultimately fired). But Poole is an instructor and instructors have less protection. And this case reminds us that a teacher can get into trouble for things that have worked for decades – or even things outside of the teacher's control.
- It is not clear what happened in that classroom, but it is clear that the FAU administration publicly and hastily embraced and acted on the FOX version. It is not clear why they chose this route, but reflecting on how the administration dealt with other crises that semester, it seems likely that the administration is just moving from crisis to crisis, trying to resolve each one within the current 24-hour news cycle, and making a spectacle of FAU in the process.
Sometimes the wisest thing is to buy time. That's one thing investigations do, and investigations give an administration an excuse for declining comment. (Even more important, a good investigation will find out what really happened.) Three months from now, what the governor said, what the bloggers wrote, what FOX News yapped, is not going to be as memorable to the FAU community, and to the academic community, as the spectacle of an administration in a panic.
And that is one reason why unions like UFF, and faculty organizations like the faculty senates, employ established procedures. We deliberate, investigate, get to the bottom of things, and work things calmly. It may look less efficient, but it is more efficient than regrets for trainwrecks arising from haste.
One common way that politicians invade universities is by leaning on administrators. But sometimes, they take more direct action.
In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control spent $ 2.6 million on gun violence research. The CDC is concerned with public health issues, and gun violence appeared to be a public health issue. But the results of that research were politically inconvenient, and in 1996, Congress cut CDC funding and barred the CDC from advocating or promoting gun control (Congress's verbs), and since then the CDC steered clear of the subject.
This happens to teachers as well. In 2010, Arizona passed a law to defund K-12 programs "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" or advocating "ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals." This law prompted the Tucson school board to shut down a prized Mexican American Studies program in order to save $ 14 million in state funding.
Whatever one's views of the CDC's gun violence research, or Mexican American Studies in high school, the point is that the decision was not made by the scholars and academics who oversaw the institutions. It was imposed on the institutions by politicians. And it continues: last spring, Congress barred the NSF from funding political science research; considering that some Congressmen would like to cut research in climate change, paleontology, and sexually transmitted diseases, this was an ominous step.
Of course, it's happening here. In fact, our legislature just passed a sweeping bill reversing previous sweeping legislation, part of its efforts to clean up after past "reforms". That has not discouraged the legislature from new reforms, like a bill to create "Florida accreditation" for unaccredited institutions, particularly those offering distance learning.
In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, President Obama signed an executive order encouraging the CDC to revive gun violence research. Meanwhile, Arizona's anti-ethnic studies law remains on the books.
If we are to prevent these invasions, we are going to have to do a better job of educating the voters, and the politicians that we vote for.
Being academics, we would prefer that politicians act rationally and in the public interest. But these examples reflect a political reality: we are not being picked on for any good reason, but because powerful people don't see a downside to picking on us. If we want to protect the mission of higher education, we will need to organize to defend it. One of those organizations is the United Faculty of Florida, and you can join today by downloading, filling in, and mailing the membership form.