In this issue, we look at tenure as a mechanism for preventing administrators from shooting their feet.
Panicking in a Crisis
Social media have aggravated an ancient problem: what should an administrator do when bigwigs are outraged by what a faculty member said or wrote? In particular, what if the bigwigs demand that said faculty be fired? An administrator with nerves of steel who can see where that road leads will commiserate but report that alas the lawyers won't permit retaliation. That lets everyone blame the lawyers - and the university doesn't get splattered across the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Two recent cases of administrators with vision or nerve problems - actually, one not so recent but instead a soap opera entering a second season, and the other now ricocheting around the globe - remind us that when bigwigs go after faculty, the safest place for an administrator may be under the general counsel's desk. This being the Twenty-first century, both cases are being driven substantially by social media.
The old news is from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Last year, their Program of American Indian Studies persuaded Steven Salaita, a tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, to come to UIUC as a tenured associate professor. By July, 2014, all the usual arrangements - including Salaita's resignation from Virginia - had been made, except for the Illinois' boards' approval. That late in the game, the approval would be a formality.
But Salaita also tweets. He has accumulated 10.7 kilobytes (!) of tweets, currently distributed to over 15,100 followers, and posted online. He tweeted frequently on Israel, and like many people beguiled by the web, he occasionally wrote some pretty ferocious stuff. When UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise got wind of Salaita's extracurricular activities, she unhired him, a move ultimately confirmed by the board.
Now, half a century ago, USF (yes, that's us!) was censured by the American Association of University (AAUP) Professors for unhiring Denna Frank Fleming for being a "pro-Soviet apologist." Fleming had turned down an offer from another institution and purchased a house in Tampa before USF President John Allen rescinded USF's offer. Allen was in a pickle: a legislative committee was investigating USF for communistic activities involving the civil rights movement and homosexuality (!), so perhaps this looked like the easy way out. It wasn't: it took years of negotiations to get USF out of the doghouse.
With that ancient history in mind, UIUC should have known what it was in for. During the last academic year, Salaita sued and subpoenaed documents in pursuit of evidence Chancellor Wise was pressured by local bigwigs. And the AAUP has just censured UIUC.
Then there's the more recent case. Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate and Fellow of the Royal Society, goes way over the top at a luncheon at the World Conference of Science Journalists with comments about girls crying in the lab. Of course, someone tweeted his comments. Of course, the web went into orbit: one week later, Google reported about 1.9 million hits for "tim hunt girls lab."
Academia has problems attracting young women to science and engineering, and the Royal Society denounced Hunt's remarks. Newspapers ran
articles on what women experienced in the lab and even articles reporting that men cry more at work than women do. And of course, the blogosphere was merciless.
All this Hunt deserved, and the University College London (UCL) might have been better off just condemning Hunt and letting him twist in the web. Instead,
UCL forced him to resign. It is early days yet, but if UCL is seen as having gone too far, sympathy for Hunt may confuse the issue. And considering the British government's recent treatment of academia, it does not help a university to look like it panicked in an Onionesque crisis.
Many people believe that someone should draw the line somewhere, but where? Consider two colder cases. Two decades ago, FSU Professor Glayde Whitney wrote a laudatory forward to a book by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke - and FSU's reaction was to pack him off on a sabbatical. More recently, anti-torture activists called for firing UC Berkeley Professor John Woo for writing legal memos supporting many of the Bush Administration's interrogation practices - and he is now Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law. It would be difficult to argue that what Salaita tweeted and Hunt said was worse.
(And for some perspective, compare the above to the caustic responses President Obama got when he started tweeting. In the web, hate groups and terrorist organizations all have web-pages, competing with porn sites for attention. Attention is the currency of the web, something to remember the next time the social media erupts.)
Of course, FSU and UCB had their reasons for their reactions, just as UIUC and ULC had theirs. But the comparison is interesting. The advantage to not firing - or unhiring - a troublemaking faculty member is that an administrator does not have to be partisan to defend academic freedom. But a violation of academic freedom tends to be partisan, and however it reduces tensions in the short run, it only complicates things in the long run.