On Academic Freedom and Sitting Ducks

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While the mass media and social media are busy discussing whether or not fallout from the homophobic and racist comments of a millionaire duck call mogul/reality TV star constitutes a free speech issue, a political skeet shoot is taking place regarding academic freedom. The first shots were fired December 13th as reports indicated that University of Colorado-Boulder Sociology Professor Dr. Patricia Adler was being forced into retirement for a lecture in her Deviance course that included a skit on prostitution.[1] Students and colleagues flocked to support Dr. Adler, particularly through the use of social media where a Facebook group quickly gained over 1,000 members and a petition for her reinstatement on change.org received over 3,000 signatures (as of 9:47 pm Saturday, December 21, 2013). Jay Leno even alluded to the issue in a Tonight Show monologue,[2] and The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on teaching controversial subjects.[3]

On Wednesday the Kansas Board of Regents implemented new rules that allow for the firing of faculty due to “improper use of social media.” This was in response to a tweet from tenured journalism professor David Guth in reference to the Navy Yard shooting in September. His tweet, as follows, drew fire from pro-gun politicians and activists and he was suspended:

“#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

At the time, there was no policy related to social media and Guth’s suspension was eventually lifted and he retained his position. Were he to tweet such an opinion today and receive such a response, the results would likely be far different. One definition of the improper use of social media in the newly adopted policy is the posting of things that are “contrary to the best interests of the university.” This definition raises red flags and concerns for many. Steve Saideman writes “it seems to mean that the university can fire a prof or staff who blogs, tweets, facebooks or whatever any criticism of the university (since the university’s best interest is defined by itself to look wonderful and error-free) or their own political views.”[4]  Additionally, Henry Reichman, Chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, expressed how the policy “raises significant questions about academic freedom.”[5]

At first glance, the Adler incident at UC-Boulder and the new social media policy adopted in Kansas have very little in common with the controversy surrounding Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson and his comments to GQ Magazine. However, in the broader context of neoliberalism a common thread emerges. While supporters of Robertson have largely decried his suspension from the A&E reality show as an infringement on his Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech, critics have countered that this does not preclude his employer (A&E) from suspending (or terminating) his employment when his freedom and their interests collide. Henri Giroux, writing on the Neoliberal University and “how neoliberal ideology and policy has imposed on higher education an anti-democratic governing structure that mimics the broader authoritarian forces now threatening the United States,”[6] explains the way that this market-driven paradigm of higher education includes the elimination of tenure and the increasing subalternization of faculty.

While A&E television station produces profit for the coffers of private investors, owners and interests—public universities do not. Academic Freedom is an inherent component of not only a free society, but scientific progress as we understand it. This component was, and is paramount, for what history has deemed the “Age of Enlightenment.” Furthermore, “Academic Freedom” is crucial for an educated, freethinking and democratic model of self-governance. While a staggering amount of attention is paid to the moral entrepreneurship of reality shows and challenges to hegemonic society’s enshrined biases, real encroachment to free thought occurs behind the proverbial duck blind.

As the risk society and technology advances, critique and civil debate concerning what is at stake and where authority emerges remains critical. The university represents the heart of civil discourse. Without clear protection of dissent and critique, ideas become essentialized, less specific and vague. The new policy passed by the Kansas board of regents is draconian at worst. At best the policy is too ambiguous, autocratic and wrought with potential for misuse.

Ostensibly, the university is part of a public sphere crucial to a democratic society but increasingly this sphere is being pushed toward privatization, indeed corporatization. As such, lectures, research and social media posts that may offend and/or challenge either administrative orthodoxy or other politically active and motivated parties, could quickly create grounds for suspension, dismissal, etc. The very possibility of such a response undoubtedly has a chilling and silencing effect on the academic community. In practice, it could easily be wielded as a weapon against those sitting ducks that might foolishly believe that their academic freedom trumps the Neoliberal University’s “best interests.”

Carl Root
Eastern Kentucky University

Edward Green
Kansas State University

First they came for the Sociologists, 
And I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Sociologist.

Then, they came for the Geographers and the Anthropologists
But I was neither—
So I did not speak out.

Then they came for the adjuncts,
And I was not an adjunct—
So I did not speak out.

And when they came for me,
There was no one left to speak for me.

Sources:

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