Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Political correctness continues to threaten academic freedom. But if it's a martyr you want, don't look at me.

When my daughter was a high school senior, she and my wife visited Sarah Lawrence College in New York.  My wife and I are keen on liberal-arts education, so we might have pushed Sarah Lawrence a bit as an option—even while I might have dropped the offhand reference to flower power and love beads.  Founded in 1926, Sarah Lawrence is famous for its left-wing political activism.  It has McCarthyist accusations of communist loyalties to its historical credit.

Siegel Student Center at Sarah Lawrence College (CC BY 3.0 by SaidieLou)
In the end, our daughter did not care for Sarah Lawrence.  A testament to her maturity, I think, she found that the school's method of individualized courses of study and its loose, seminar-like classroom experiences, modeled on the British tutorial style, did not suit her learning style and needs at age 18.  We agreed, and she is now happy elsewhere.  That's not to deny that Sarah Lawrence is pedagogically innovative in a way that beautifully complements the needs of many young adults and fosters creative genius.  After all, one Sarah Lawrence alumnus turned into J.J. Abrams.

However, from what I heard at the New England Political Science Association annual meeting's lunch program on Saturday, April 27, the flower power and love beads that I teased about might in fact be in desperately short supply at the Sarah Lawrence College of today.  After joking about being uncomfortable, as a Sarah Lawrence professor, standing at a lectern on a podium, Samuel Abrams shared his experience and research into ideologically driven, doctrinaire oversight of faculty and classrooms at Sarah Lawrence and elsewhere.

You can read more about Abrams's experience in recent coverage at the National Review, in Inside Higher Ed, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and in his own words in The New York Times in October 2018.  Abrams is an AEI scholar, which I guess makes him a radical conservative relative to famously lefty Sarah Lawrence, though plenty of partisan right wingers I'm sure would beg to differ over the sufficiency of his conservative fervor.

"We have a problem in higher education," Abrams said to NEPSA in Portland, Maine.  We, academics, need to ensure that the university remains free of viewpoint discrimination and a forum hospitable to robust "dialog and discourse," he said.

It's not exactly news that the ivory tower in America has been captured by a dogmatic partisan ideology that is oddly blind to classical liberal values such as freedom of thought and speech.  But to see and hear Abrams telling of his experiences live was chilling.  He collects Quechua art, he said, because he appreciates it, but multiple deans challenged the display of works in his office as cultural misappropriation.  For his encouragement of viewpoint diversity in the classroom, he has been called "racist," "bigoted," "homophobic," and, ironically, "anti-Semitic," he said.  His young son has been threatened.  Now deans are asking to review his class content in advance.

This is not hateful rhetoric derived from right-wing demagoguery.  To be sure, there's plenty of that to go around.  But on this occasion, these are the words and tactics of the left, the purportedly hate speech-loathing, ideological font of the civil rights movement.  I have no patience for this rhetoric, wherever, whatever it comes from.

Especially those of us with tenure must resist this suppressive, oppressive group-think, from right or left, Abrams declared.

How?  For a good while now, tenure has been exposed as a largely symbolic and legally insignificant barrier to adverse job action.*  The tenure contract is only as good as the lawyer you can afford whilst unemployed.  Then where the rubber meets the road, courts defer to universities to construe "cause" for termination in the tenure contract, absent any clear constitutional backing for the notion of academic freedom.  My work with the faculty union at UMass Dartmouth has shown me beyond a shadow of a doubt (even pre-Janus) that the union lacks any real bargaining strength.  When push comes to shove, the vast majority of faculty are not really willing to make any personal sacrifice for better working conditions, much less to stand on principle.  And the university knows it.

Maybe I'm no better.  Knowing the score, knowing that academia already has ceded the battle for intellectual freedom, I discourage classroom dialog over hot-button issues. I admire Abrams.  But I have a daughter who's trying to pay her way through American higher ed.  Her economic security—and the paycheck that makes it possible—has got to be my top priority.

*For collateral misgivings about the scope of tenure protection, see also my writing in JC&UL in 2010, which I presented at an AAUP conference.  Stanley Fish's more recent ruminations in Versions of Academic Freedom (2014) also ponder the scope of academic freedom relative to the professor's job—though he doesn't cite me.  JS.

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