Skip to main content

Academic Freedom on the Rock(s): The Failures of Faculty in Tough Times - Part I

Robert Jensen
Original Publication Date

Faculty responses to the watch list: Chicken Little

Rather than focus on the threats posed by administrator condemnations or student campaigns aimed at left/liberal biases, I want to focus on the responses I have seen and heard from faculty members on my campus. Again, I don't pretend that the University of Texas is representative. Rather than claim this is the way most faculty in the United States act, I want to highlight what I consider to be the problems in some faculty members' reactions where I work. I'll begin with the watch list.

In informal conversations as these political campaigns have gained prominence, I have heard far too many of what I believed to be overly dramatic responses, including references to these student efforts as McCarthyism or a suppression of academic freedom. Yes, these student initiatives are part of a broader goal of shutting down some of the remaining institutional spaces left for critical, independent inquiry. But it is inaccurate and counterproductive to compare a student-initiated endeavor (even if the inspiration for it comes from right-wing political operatives) to the use of state power to fire professors and destroy people's lives on a large scale. Could we someday return to the suppression of the two major Red Scares of the 20th century? Of course it's possible, but it's not happening now. And to talk in those terms is to invite being labeled by the public as over-reactive, whiny, self-indulgent intellectuals who are cut off from the day-to-day reality of most people's struggles in the employment world, where job protection on the order of academic tenure is the stuff of dreams. The public is quick to label us that way, in part because it is so often an apt description of so many faculty members. Professorial rhetoric that bolsters the perception is not strategically helpful.

For example, one of my UT colleagues said in a television news story about the watch list: "I feel like they [students observing his class for potential inclusion on the watch list] were put there to watch me. And this watch list or my position on this watch list is a result of that. So, do I feel like I'm under surveillance? I am under surveillance."

First, is it accurate and/or strategic to describe the presence of a student in your class, even one there to keep tabs on any hint of professional failure, as being under surveillance, given that the term carries a connotation of being shadowed by law enforcement? Second, why is it a bad thing for students to be paying close attention to our teaching? In my large classes, where there is physical space available for visitors and their presence would not disrupt the flow of the class, I invite anyone to sit in. In fact, I would be happy to have a team of right-wing ideologues sit through my classes, for two simple reasons. One is that knowing they were present likely would make me strive to be more precise in my use of language; knowing someone from a dissenting position is in the audience tends to make me more conscious of what I'm saying, which is good. Another is that I am confident that I can defend the content of my course and my teaching methods, and I would invite a debate in which I could defend myself.

In short: The sky is not falling because of a student-generated professor watch list. Yes, we are in a period of backlash and reactionary right-wing domination of all the society's major institutions. Yes, we struggle to cope with how to handle students in a modern liberal university who are often resistant to considering any critique that goes against their preconceived notions of the political and moral order. There are more than enough serious issues to grapple with, and taken together these concerns suggest this society is on a dangerous course. But we should talk about the danger in that context, not episodically and overly dramatically. The sky is clouding but it is not falling.

Faculty responses to administration condemnations: little chickens

After 15 years in academic life, I have concluded that the vast majority of faculty members are like the vast majority of any comfortable professionals in a corporate capitalist empire: Morally lazy, usually cowardly, and unwilling and/or unable to engage with critics. I say that with no sense of superiority; I can look at my own life and see examples of such laziness and cowardice.

Let me offer an anecdote to illustrate. During fall semester 2005, I was leaving a meeting of the University of Texas's faculty Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility. By some fluke, I had been elected to this university-wide committee, which is charged by the Faculty Council with the task of monitoring these issues on campus. (All of this is window-dressing; at the University of Texas, there is no faculty governance and all committees are merely consultative.15

As a fellow committee member and I walked back to our offices, he asked what action this committee took in 2001, after Faulkner had condemned me. (That's an indication of the importance of the committee and its pronouncements; virtually no one remembers what it says, or even that it exists.) I told him that the committee had passed a weak resolution that reasserted the basics of academic freedom and asked people to be nice to each other, but made no reference to the controversy and rendered no judgment about the UT president's actions:

RESOLUTION FROM THE COMMITTEE OF COUNSEL ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY Given current national and global events and the importance of members of the University community discussing these matters on campus and extramurally, the Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility submits the following Resolution. Resolved:

1) That all members of the University community -- students, faculty, staff, and administrators -- be reminded of the principles involving Academic Freedom and Responsibility as stated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, including:
  a) "The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition."
  b) "College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak and write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."
2) That these principles of Academic Freedom and Responsibility be widely disseminated to the University community via e-mail and in the Daily Texan [campus student newspaper] so that all students, faculty, staff, and administrators have these statements as guiding principles for discourse on campus and extramurally.
3) That the members of the academic community treat one another with dignity in both their words and actions during the days ahead. 16

Shortly after that resolution was passed, I asked the chair of that committee why something more forceful wasn't presented to the faculty council -- something that at least raised the actual question instead of reproducing boilerplate. The chair explained that any resolution of that kind would not have received support from the committee. The implication was that there was no significant support for me, my political position, or the notion that a faculty member with such positions should be defended on principle.

I reported this to my faculty colleague on the current committee, and he expressed outrage. How could the committee not have taken a more forceful position? Whatever the disagreements with my politics, didn't they see the issue about creating a supportive climate for free expression and scholarship? he asked.

I offered no judgment of the committee, but instead asked this colleague what action he had taken at the time if he felt so strongly about the principle? He hesitated. I pressed: We are faculty members in the same department. Did anyone in our department circulate a letter of support? Did anyone on the faculty generate a petition critical of the president? He froze and didn't respond, but the answer is, no. I know of only one UT professor who, in a letter to the campus paper, publicly criticized the president's actions. On a progressive listserv there was discussion of a petition drive that never materialized. I was busy in those weeks and may have missed it, but to the best of my knowledge there was no public faculty action to rebuke a university president who had singled out a faculty member for ridicule in the largest newspaper in the state. Some professors told me later that they weighed in privately with the president, but such private interventions clearly were not going to result in any change in the president's public stance and, hence, were politically irrelevant. Beyond that, such private action did nothing to resist the narrowing of discussion in public.

So, on one of the largest university campus in the United States with about 2,500 faculty members, the committee charged with protecting academic freedom was silent on the most prominent attack on a faculty member for political reasons in recent memory. But, more striking, a faculty member who had done nothing to support academic freedom in that crucial moment seemed to have rewritten history in his own mind to forget that he, like virtually all the others, had remained silent in public.

It is one thing for members of a privileged class to decide they will avoid confrontations with power in order to protect their privilege. Depending on the context, we may deem that to be cowardly or expedient. But for such people to then twist reality to allow them to valorize themselves is, in any context, pathetic. It shows, I think, the degree to which some (perhaps a majority) of faculty are ill-equipped to assess threats to academic freedom or present an effective defense.

The corporate challenge to academic freedom

Meanwhile, as direct attacks on faculty members for their intellectual and/or political positions continue to pose a threat to academic freedom, other institutional rules and procedures can also compromise that freedom in ways that are quieter and slower. These concern the rules for tenure and promotion and the distribution of resources, and in my experience the majority of faculty members are timid in confronting these issues as well.

An example: A few years ago the dean of my college informed us during a faculty meeting that from that point forward, a record of securing grant funding would be expected for tenure and promotion cases. The ability to raise money, up to that point, had never been explicitly listed as a requirement, and many of us who had been tenured in past years had not been expected to raise money. But as public universities have been increasingly pushed to find more private funding, the pressure to raise money has filtered down to the faculty level. In some fields, especially the natural sciences, the expectation that faculty members would attract grant funding has long been in place, as have funding agencies for those disciplines, such as the National Science Foundation. And, although there are political forces that shape the funding in the sciences, there is money available for research that is not overtly tied to ideological positions.

In other fields, especially certain disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, funding is harder to come by and more overtly ideological in character. In my field, journalism, the major funders are connected to the industry, either in the form of the media corporations themselves or the non-profit foundations they sometimes establish. These entities have never funded critical research that might lead to conclusions in conflict with their interests. In short, in a field such as journalism, grant funding flows to those researchers who do not challenge the fundamental structure of the commercial media system.

When the dean announced this shift, it was put forth as a neutral rule: Everyone who goes up for tenure or promotion faces the same expectations. One might dispute whether or not the change in policy was wise, but on the surface it appeared to be applied fairly across the board. But such an analysis at the surface is predictably superficial. I raised my hand to offer a different perspective.

Given that the sources of funding for scholars doing critical research are considerably fewer than for those doing research that accepts the existing system, isn't this demand on faculty, in fact, going to result in less critical research? I asked. I pointed out that I had pursued such critical work during my own tenure period and had never even applied for a grant. Luckily for me, I had been granted tenure based on my scholarly work, not my contribution to the university balance sheet. Did this new rule mean, in essence, that if I were going up for tenure today I would be denied? If that's the case, it seems likely that faculty members with similar interests can choose to either (1) pursue critical research interests and take the risk of being denied permanent employment, or (2) abandon such work and take up topics that are safely within the parameters acceptable to the industry. No matter what an individual professor chooses, the result is that there will be fewer professors pursuing critical ideas and, therefore, far less critical research. So, in fact, this allegedly neutral rule could have a dramatic effect on the intellectual content of our program, given that curriculum is largely faculty driven.

At that point, the dean gave me a look that seemed to contain about equal amounts of amusement and exasperation, and said, simply, "I'm just telling you about the policy from the Tower (central administration)." So, the lead administrator from the college, who is in charge of the academic programs of five departments, admitted she would not defend the principle of free and open inquiry and would do what she was told. Perhaps that's not surprising -- deans are not known for bucking the system, which tends to slow career advancement. What was more disturbing was the reaction of my faculty colleagues, which was no reaction. Not a single faculty member joined my critique, nor offered any comment. I can certainly understand why the junior faculty, those still not secure in their positions, might have chosen to remain quiet in front of the administrator who would have considerable power in their tenure case. But even senior faculty -- full professors, some with endowed chairs and professorships -- chose to remain silent.

That's a well-disciplined intellectual class. The members of it who have risen to administrative positions and are charged with formulating and executing policy know which master they serve. The more secure members keep quiet to make sure their privilege is not disturbed. And the less secure members shut up in the hope that they will be allowed to move up a notch. In such a setting, elites cannot guarantee complete conformity from intellectuals, but the system works well enough to keep things running relatively smoothly these days. It is a system that is increasingly corporate in internal organization and character, and more corporate-friendly in its external relations.