February 25, 2010

William McKeen and me

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times published a bizarre column by University of Florida journalism chair William McKeen, who started off by asserting that UAH killer Amy Bishop is somehow presenting a case against tenure and then headed off into the mythical nethersphere of a world where all professors are tenured sloths. 

My response will appear in tomorrow morning's paper, and my thanks to the Times editorial staff for printing the rebuttal.

Given the constraints of an op-ed column, some material was left out. For example, William McKeen's own department has 42 classes listed on the University of Florida course schedule for the spring, and of those classes, only 22 are being taught by full-time faculty. From spreadsheets colleagues at UF sent me, I know that as chair McKeen hired 12 adjuncts to teach classes in the fall and 15 adjuncts for the spring, generally paying each of them $3,000 per course. I guess that when he wrote the column he forgot about all the adjuncts he hires every semester.

And nowhere do I see McKeen (the chair of UF's Department of Grandstanding) volunteering to be the first to give up his tenure in Gainesville. Maybe that has to do with the layoff notices issued to faculty around the state and country?

What's particularly scurrilous in McKeen's column on Sunday is the attempt to link a singular incident with a pet cause: "Has tenure become so important that someone would kill when it was denied?" As many others from Margaret Soltan to "Dean Dad" have pointed out, Amy Bishop is not your typical disappointed academic. She's killed before, she was apparently a suspect in an attempted letter-bombing, and as far as I'm aware, she is the only faculty member known to have killed peers after being denied tenure.

In the anonymous Dean Dad's words, "Let's not use a deranged shooter to make points. The crime is awful enough as it is."

January 22, 2010

Collegiality: It's harder to separate ideas from people than you might think

As the president of the USF chapter of Florida's statewide faculty union, it's part of my job to defend the academic due process rights of That Guy.* If you've worked at a college or university, you've had to deal with That Guy, a generally prickly personality more commonly male than female who may have some good ideas (and in some cases, That Guy is usually correct on the merits) but tends to express them in ways that attack people rather than focus on the relevant issues. That Guy's standard mode is bullying in private and either high dudgeon or deliberate attempts to embarrass in public. That Guy's vocabulary can be littered with terms such as moron, idiot, and liar... usually in reference to people who disagree with That Guy. That Guy usually refers to high motives and ethics to justify That Guy's behavior, but from the outside, it looks like That Guy's model is more likely to be John Bolton than Martin Luther King, Jr.

It looks like Ohio University assistant professor Bill Reader may be a That Guy in the eyes of his colleagues, and his tenure case revolving around collegiality has now hit the news. The 1999 AAUP statement on "collegiality" as part of evaluation argues that there is a difference between evaluating collegiality as part of someone's job (that is, in teaching, research, and service), on the one hand, and having a free-floating collegiality criterion separate from the different parts of one's job, on the other. The more radical view of John Wilson is that even tucked inside teaching, research, or service, collegiality is an inappropriate expectation at a university. On the other end of the spectrum, I can probably find a number of administrators who will explain that if someone is truly destructive in a work environment, it's part of their job to deny tenure to prevent the problem from saddling an entire department or college with dysfunction for a person's whole career. The AAUP statement is still the best guide to navigating the issue of That Guy on any campus, but it takes a bit of guts on the part of those around That Guy to enforce reasonable norms of behavior.

Part of a university's job is to explore uncomfortable ideas. This will inevitably prompt outside Astroturf pressure groups to criticize a university on occasion, as happened this week with USF. That's why it is right for those concerned about collegiality criteria to warn that collegiality is not congeniality and that a free-floating collegiality criterion could chill speech. On occasion, we all make stupid mistakes in social settings, and we should still get a hearing for our ideas. If a perfect recitation of Judith Martin's Miss Manners books were a requirement for an academic job, I suspect few faculty would ever have our jobs. And if we kicked out faculty who occasionally lost their tempers, we'd be setting a poor model for students, whom we'd like to socialize into recognizing that good ideas come from all sorts of places and people. On occasion, people engaged in ideas act in ways that are uncomfortable. There has to be wiggle room in our ideal of a conversation that focuses on ideas rather than people, or we'd have sterile, passionless universities.

And yet, while that wiggle room should be broad, it should not be infinite. That Guy may entertain or amuse faculty with thick skins and who are not the targets of That Guy's tactics, but That Guy's tactics often push a good segment of faculty (either in a department or more broadly) to withdraw because they don't want to be targets or to say To hell with serving on this committee or task force; I'm going to go back to my office and work on what I know is valuable and not a waste of my time. That Guy's behavior shrinks the active public space at any college or university.

That's the core dilemma in the discussion over collegiality as a criterion used in evaluation. If universities can casually dismiss faculty because they're prickly, administrators can destroy that common space for debate in an a priori sense, because ideas are taking a lower priority than deviation from an arbitrarily set norm. But if That Guy can run rampant in a department, college, or university, the behavior effectively destroys common space for debate in a factual sense, as only a small handful are willing to be in the presence of That Guy, and you get a rump caucus masquerading as collegial governance. Obsess about personal behavior that is pricklier than your norm, and the ideal of paying attention to ideals is lost. Assume everyone has mental Kevlar, and the reality of a broad discussion is lost.

The AAUP statement is a practical and professional way to address the dilemma by forcing peers and administrators to be cautious in judging interpersonal prickliness: see where it affects the job. And the statement is explicit in warning that extreme behavior is not protected: "Professional misconduct or malfeasance should constitute an independently relevant matter for faculty evaluation. So, too, should efforts to obstruct the ability of colleagues to carry out their normal functions, to engage in personal attacks, or to violate ethical standards." The AAUP statement should not be much comfort to That Guys the world over, because it gives peers and administrators the ability to judge truly odious behavior as odious, if they choose.

Ah... it's the if they choose where the rub usually lies. Faculty have very little training in confronting colleagues about their behavior. It's a little too easy to avoid conflict, to avoid pointing out that lying and backstabbing is inappropriate, because that's a horrible conversation to have no matter what its outcome. And when it comes to annual reviews for tenure-track faculty, it's tempting to be encouraging and avoid telling colleagues that they're not doing enough in research or teaching... or in treating colleagues, staff, and students like human beings. I understand the temptation of administrators to have collegiality as a separate item for tenure reviews: in many departments, there will not be the guts to stand up to That Guy, and the separate item seems to be a reasonable alternative, or an alternative for desperate administrators. But then you're left with one end of the dilemma I've sketched above, and you've betrayed core academic values.

There is another problem with the separate collegiality criterion: you're failing to address the underlying problem in those cases, which is with peer evaluation that does not look at what's actually happening. If a tenure-track faculty member comes up for tenure and close to a majority or a majority of colleagues votes against tenure for reasons of collegiality but no one told her or him of the problem for five years, how much of the problem is with the candidate for tenure and how much of the problem is a dysfunctional pattern in peer review? And suppose you deny tenure in that case... there are always likely to be tenured jerks as well as untenured jerks, sometimes even jerks as deans or provosts. Don't you want faculty with integrity and savvy willing to stand up to the tenured and administrative jerks and thugs? Unless you foster an environment where everyone looks at problems with open eyes and talks about what's as plain as the nose on your face, the type of faculty member most likely to stand up to administrative thugs is ... That Guy. Congratulations: you've just created/maintained an internal audience for That Guy.

* A friend who is a very active defender of academic freedom used That Guy in an e-mail to me a few months ago as a generic term for department/campus jerk. The friend's department apparently has two That Guys, one male and one female.

Update (1/23): Bob Sutton has additional, very thoughtful comments, including the perfect reading recommendation (Gunsalus's book on academic administration).

October 27, 2009

Why unions need competent administrators on the other side

Dean Dad neatly explains why Southwestern College's leaders aren't even competent Machiavellian administrators. While I've occasionally heard from people that the best union recruiting tool is a horrid manager, life is more complicated. Yes, there are threshold effects of managerial incompetence and cruelty on organizing campaigns, but for an already-recognized union with plenty of duties, competence from most of management is far better, for a number of reasons:

  • Most union members--including most vigorous union members--do not want to spend their entire lives in conflict with coworkers (which most managers are, in terms of daily contact). Unions as advocates,  watchdogs, and the workplace equivalent of public defenders? That's a sustainable metaphor for what unions do. Us-Them metaphors can get people through a crisis, but not generally through an entire decade without some loss of integrity (see the great new book Staying with Conflict for more on the long game from a conflict-resolution expert's perspective). 
  • It's better to win grievances by persuading managers on most cases than be taking every issue to an arbitrator. In a large enough workplace, there will inevitably be contract violations, if for no other reason than because most managers don't understand collective bargaining agreements and there are many pressures to take short-cuts on process. Informal resolution of the vast majority of such situations is in the interest of union members, and you're much more likely to get that if the people on the other side of the table are sane and competent.
  • Competent and sane administrators are less likely to do extraordinary damage to your members. That's not a foolproof, money-back guarantee, since everyone makes mistakes (see the last point), but I'd rather save my resources and time for a handful of problems than try to address dozens of serious problems every year.
  • Competent and sane administrators can be engaged and taught how to improve relationships with the people you represent. Everyone has an ego, but I'd like to work with people where a solid majority can put aside their egos and ideas to learn how to work better. And where I might learn a thing or two in return.
  • Part of a union's job is to promote the careers of its members, and that may take them into management. Do you want managers who understand the needs of the people you represent? If you put a target on the back of every current manager, you discourage your coworkers from becoming sympathetic managers.

At this point in my career and union work, I am convinced that patience, a good ear, and large doses of self-deprecating humor are important tools of power for union leaders. Using them requires suspending a belief in the Force (which is required to believe in the Dark Side). As in all things automotive and judgmental, your mileage may vary.

September 29, 2009

St. Louis University

I am certainly not the first one to point this out, but St. Louis University has shot itself in the foot by apparently attempting to cancel a David Horowitz speech. Its only (non-saving) grace is that it explicitly has a "we get to decide if your desired speaker says what we want" policy. Too bad that the university's idea of being "consistent with the mission of Saint Louis University" does not include discourse about controversy.

August 24, 2009

John Yoo and academic freedom

On the Balkanization blog, Deborah Pearlstein copies a memo from Berkeley (Boalt Hall) Law School dean Christopher Edley regarding John Yoo, the tenured faculty member at Boalt who wrote the torture-justification memos for the Bush administration. In it, Edley makes clear his disdain for Yoo's reasoning and then argues that those who would want Yoo gone have a very high bar to pass over to make that argument. See an interview transcript with Edley here.

Brad DeLong disagrees. DeLong argues that Yoo's intellectual inconsistencies form the type of misconduct that justifies firing a tenured faculty member. DeLong is wrong, and Edley is correct. I have no more taste for Yoo's views than DeLong, but I value academic freedom and academic due-process more than I value my desire to see Yoo kicked out of his job for prevarication in the service of torture. 

If he is prosecuted by the Department of Justice, then that's a different matter, and we'll see what happens in court. But he hasn't been indicted, and the current arguments for his ouster strike me as very reminiscent of the calls in late 2001 for USF to immediately fire Sami Al-Arian.

July 8, 2009

Ward Churchill, part omega?

Yesterday's decision not to give Ward Churchill his job back (Denver Post, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times) suggests that we're probably close to the end of the Churchill legal saga. His lawyer will appeal, but my gut sense is that while the immunity question is a matter of some interest, the question of whether UC had to take Churchill back is the type of judgment call that an appeals court is going to find hard to reverse. That's generally what trial judges are for. That doesn't mean that the judge was always correct in his reasoning (and certainly not on the point that concerned Cary Nelson, the judge's implication that issues extraneous to the research misconduct charge were relevant). But this was a messy case from the beginning.

I've held off responding to the AAUP National Council statement released in April until after the judge's decision, but I want to explain why I think the National Council was incorrect. Here is the statement in its entirety:

We believe the disputes over Ward Churchill's publications should have been allowed to work themselves out in traditional scholarly venues, not referred to disciplinary hearings. We believe Churchill should be reinstated to his faculty position at the University of Colorado.

The gist of the statement is that most intellectual disputes should be addressed in a publication venue rather than discipline, and that's correct. But the allegations regarding Churchill were about research misconduct. I'm no expert on the history of research misconduct, but I strongly suspect that you'd find some claims of research misconduct first appear in scholarly venues and sometimes they appear outside scholarly venues. And at some point the allegations and evidence are sufficient to warrant discipline.

The critical question is not when that threshhold is crossed into potential misconduct but who should make that decision, and it is the AAUP's long tradition of upholding faculty judgments on their peers' work. Not "faculty judgment when it appears in a refereed journal" but faculty judgment, with a clear preference for judgment of peers at the institution where a scholar works. Not "faculty judgment in the AAUP National Council" but local faculty judgment. The AAUP National Council would have criticized any other national body for making that kind of judgment precisely because of the AAUP's longstanding positions, and in April the National Council was wrong when it substituted its own judgment for the judgment of the peer committee in Boulder of whether Churchill's errors justified disciplinary investigation and action.

June 19, 2009

Conversation often works ... where it's tried

Today, ACTA's Anne Neal thanked the AAUP and AACU for welcoming her outreach efforts.Towards the end of the blog entry, she writes,

ACTA also shares many faculty members' legitimate concern about administrative bloat and about trustees who lack a sensitive understanding of the special protocols and values that underwrite the unique enterprise of higher education. That said, we also believe that it is the professoriate's job to reach out to trustees. Faculty should understand that presidents and trustees are engaged in enormously complex, vital, and often urgent fiduciary endeavors. They should also understand that, going forward, trustees must be included among academia's primary stakeholders, alongside faculty and administrators.

I hope that's possible; that depends both on faculty and on trustees not accepting upper-level administrators as gatekeepers. My experience in Florida is that trustees often accept the role of administrators as gatekeepers of information, so that a president can essentially filter out quite a bit. I know of one UFF chapter at a community college that was able to meet with the chair of the trustees and establish a good working relationship, but that's rare. Far more common is a fairly uncomfortable and unproductive divide between trustees and most faculty, with a handful of administrators controlling the interaction.

I suspect that there's a pretty easy way to prevent greater access from becoming a vehicle for cranks and sophists (who will get their word in, anyway): err... asking faculty to provide the reality-check filter.

For those readers outside Florida, what is your experience with the extent of interaction between governing-board members and faculty?

June 16, 2009

Iran's university students and faculty under threat

According to a Chronicle of Higher Education report late today, as well as Twitter reports and images/videos from bloggers who have been able to post, Iran's universities are under attack, either physically (with property destroyed and some reports of student deaths) or political pressures. If the clerical authorities gave orders for the Revolutionary Guard or other forces to attack universities, they are willing to throw overboard civic institutions as well as electoral politics to preserve their power. I'm not surprised. I'm very saddened, but I'm not surprised.

June 9, 2009

"Manufactured Controversy" the paper

Last week, Free Exchange on Campus published the latest thing other than student work to go on my to-read list: Manufactured Controversy, on the lessons to be learned from the attempt to politicize universities by David Horowitz and his allies. 

No, I haven't read it yet. But that's good news: this is a chance for you to get ahead of me in yet one more thing!

May 14, 2009

Changing higher ed, from Mr. Obvious Man

Craig Smith tagged me in an AFT FACE entry asking about the future of/a better vision for higher education, and given the way that Mark Taylor's schizophrenic vision of higher ed prompted not only a flurry of comments but thoughtful comments by Dr. Crazy, Dean Dad, Marc Bousquet, Timothy Burke, H. Saussy, and Michael Berube, among many others, not to mention Andrew Delbanco's review essay, it's time for me to underwhelm the universe with ten obvious comments about the future of higher education.

  1. Marc Bousquet is wrong in some very significant ways, but he's absolutely right in many others, and if his creative ravings prompt a healthy discussion of higher ed in the long term, my hat is off to him.
  2. In addition to other criticisms of Mark Taylor's curricular utopia, an important purpose of a stable curriculum is to eliminate one huge potential (expletive) waste of time reinventing wheels. It's far more productive to improve the wheels we've got and maybe invent a few carbon-fiber ones than to figure out how to make wheels made of hemp, green beans, recycled computer parts, and spent nuclear fuel rods.
  3. The entire discussion of college "costs" and tuition is off the deep end even while there are interesting sub-arguments. The discussion of tuition almost always ignores opportunity costs and generally ignores non-tuition costs (such as books or the cost of living). The Delta Project's analysis is interesting but entirely ignores the definitional problems in IPEDS reporting and the division of labor in colleges and universities. (I'd love to wave my hands and say, "Yes, fire all the student-life administrators, plow the money into faculty, and don't ask me to advise students!" Somehow, I don't think that's a practical suggestion) The human-capital arguments in favor of debt ignore the fundamental way that college student loans privatize the risks of going to college. At the same time, we have the chance to make a substantial incremental improvement in helping students with a shift to entirely direct lending and the automatic indexing of Pell Grants. I'll take the incremental improvement (it's HUGELY necessary) and still wish for some better model-building. I have no grand theoretical synthesis, but anyone who wants to buy me a good whiskey some evening and talk this over is more than welcome to!
  4. The vocational rhetoric surrounding higher education benefits the liberal arts because it implies that college students are responsible for their own affairs and should not be babied. This is in tension with arguments that liberal-arts programs and either a core or general-education curriculum should be at the heart of undergraduate studies, but on balance the vocational rhetoric of higher education has drawn far more students to college than would otherwise have been the case. We liberal-arts folks should be happy to have the chance to evangelize rather than preach to the converted. Give me 100 enrollees in my classes for a requirement, and I will convert 90 of them into students.
  5. The only national organization right now with a productive agenda on higher-education accountability is the American Association of Colleges and Universities. I'll take that good with the other, mediocre attempts funded by Lumina, but this is not a healthy state of affairs in the long run. The Shopping Mall High School's thesis is as applicable to large universities as to high schools, and until we can clone Cliff Adelman, we need a group of people with intellectual depth discussing the curricular problems at universities. 
  6. Right now, discussions of student learning are largely isolated from the widespread reliance on contingent faculty. Half of the discussions I see blame tenured faculty for avoiding teaching (as if all tenured faculty work at the University of Chicago). Does anyone else see the problems with this?
  7. Academic freedom can survive with a core of tenured faculty at an institution with non-tenure-track faculty, but we don't know the minimum size of that critical mass. For a variety of reasons, while the aftermath of 9/11 threatened academic freedom, it has been far more robust in the past decade than the worst fears in late 2001, including at my campus. At the same time, there are continuing threats, both inside and outside colleges and universities. In many places, tenured faculty are the most active defenders of academic freedom because they are safe; that was a crucial rationale for tenure in the first half of the 20th century, and it remains a valid argument. I have yet to see anyone who simultaneously advocates the abolition of tenure and can also point to a place that survived a real threat to academic freedom without any tenured faculty.
  8. Faculty are fragmented into too many communities of interest to defend academic values in a robust way. All too often, two-year and four-year faculty fail to understand the worlds that the others work in, let alone teaching institutions vs. research institutions, or even primarily teaching faculty and primarily graduate or research faculty in the same institution. Unions and the AAUP provide national organizations to defend values, along with disciplinary organizations, but the barriers are significant.
  9. When administrators ignore faculty organizations or do their best to do end-runs around them, they are missing substantial opportunities to advance institutional interests and feeding the behavior they presumably hate. I winced when I read one book by Derek Bok advising university presidents to do their best to go around the faculty senate or equivalent, because they're largely dysfunctional. Let me see if I understand the reasoning: if faculty senates are full of deadwood, and you go around them, what faculty support can you claim for your initiatives, and what incentive do you give the faculty you think should be in the faculty senate to serve? Oh, yes, and any monolithic model of your university demonstrates an essentially anti-intellectual temperament.
  10. Conversely, faculty who think that all administrators are evil are doing a remarkably good job of undermining collegial governance. There are serious problems with the development of academic administration "tracks" in the past 50 years (see item above), but the fact is that colleges and universities have administrators, you want the administrators to understand faculty and work with them, and what incentive do you give your colleagues to be willing to serve as administrators if they know you'll be the first one putting a target on their backs? Oh, yes, and any monolithic model of your university demonstrates an essentially anti-intellectual temperament.

May 8, 2009

"My university administration has asked me not to speak to the press"

Fellow education policy blogger Sara Goldrick-Rab wrote a painful entry earlier this week about how her administration treats her speaking up on a policy issue in her area of expertise (in this case, her opposition to UW-Madison's tuition hike), and I'm sorry I haven't followed up before now, because if she is reporting correctly (see the comments attributed to her in the Madinson Capitol Times), the University of Wisconsin-Madison administration is infringing on her academic freedom.

I was contacted the night before the initiative was rolled out by vice provost for enrollment management Joanne Berg, who informed me of the news and told me to refer all press inquiries to the University Communications office.

I should note that while I am sympathetic to Goldrick-Rab's policy perspective, I think she's wrong about the policy (for reasons I'd rather explore in a different entry). But my disagreement with her on specific policy grounds is very different from my absolute support for any colleague who is speaking on a matter of public concern, including employers' actions, from her or his expertise. This is one of those cases where I'd prefer knowing more about what's going on at the ground level, but at a first glance, it looks like Berg was acting the bully. Even if there were a miscommunication involved, Berg owes Goldrick-Rab a blunt apology for not remembering that tenure-track assistant professors have a pretty rational paranoia and a finely-tuned power meter. Berg could even use the wording President Obama has to acknowledge error: "I screwed up." 

Anyone want to guess what the odds are that she'll do that?

April 27, 2009

PCAST, mostly very good except for Rensselauer's president

Today, the White House announced President Obama's picks for the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and with one exception, they look great to me.

The exception is Shirley Ann Jackson, whose scientific reputation is fine but whose administration of Rensselaur Polytechnic Institute is rife with signs of problems, from the close vote of no confidence in 2006 to the dismissal of the faculty senate in 2007, stripping a professor emeritus of e-mail privileges, and (just discovered a few months ago) the provision of a second home in the Adirondacks for her at a time when RPI was laying off dozens of staff members.

I don't think that PCAST's reputation is well-served by one of the poster children for administrative arrogance in higher ed.

April 5, 2009

Fish ferociously flubs

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the ground after reading Stanley Fish's latest piece, wherein he argues that because some substantive academic arguments are heated, we should see through the University of Colorado faculty committee's misreading of a typical scholarly debate as research misconduct. One can make a number of plausible arguments about the university's response to the committee report (e.g., that it ignored the majority's view that the appropriate punishment was a demotion and suspension, not firing), but to claim that the committee erred while passing off the sleight-of-mouth that he admitted being "not competent to judge Churchill's writings" is just astounding. If a peer committee with more expertise in the area than Fish is not competent to judge research misconduct in such a case, who should be allowed to pass judgment? 

There are other fallacies in the piece: Fish's defense of Churchill doesn't match the central argument the jury was exposed to (political bias and pressure motivating administrators), and I still don't understand why it should matter to the University of Colorado that Doris Kearns Goodwin is still making moolah after admitting plagiarism. Dick Cheney is still earning a pension after encouraging torture. Would that excuse my waterboarding a neighbor? Sheesh.

In protest of this illogic, I am going to exile myself from Florida for a week to Minnesota.

February 9, 2009

Easy prediction, the bad kind

When a university lays off a large proportion of its faculty (including those with tenure) when (a) the university has not declared financial exigency, (b) faculty representatives gave the administration options to address the financial problems without laying anyone off, and (c) faculty were not involved in deciding who would be laid off, it doesn't take a genius to expect an AAUP investigation.

The history of Atlanta University makes this particularly painful, and the larger context is a set of ugly circumstances around the country that will make for a lot of ugly scenes where administrators ignore faculty.

December 17, 2008

Stupid leadership at...

  1. Michigan State University
  2. Yeshiva University
My deepest sympathies to the faculty and students at both places. May the skies open up and give you something more than Schadenfreude.

October 19, 2008

The buttons we bear... or the crosses, or other things

In the last week I've been criticized by both Stanley Fish and Andy Rotherham, so I must be doing something halfway interesting. As Leo Casey notes, the legal problem in banning any and all campaign buttons from the classroom is the question of other forms of passive advertisement of individual commitments. How can one construe a school system's ability to ban campaign buttons without also prohibiting teachers from wearing a cross, a Star of David, or a head scarf? Fish's column this week has his answer, starting with the answer commenter Elizabeth Fuller gave:

"They signal a person's individual choice, not necessarily advocacy." That is [adds Fish], they don't ask you to do anything except recognize the self-identification of the person in front of you. A campaign button, on the other hand, is asking for your vote.
That argument presumes that one decoration is nothing more than a private declaration, while the other decoration is unhesitatingly a request for action. Doesn't that rather depend on the specifics: would a half-inch cross be acceptable but a cross that's five inches across be susceptible to banning because it's more of an advertisement? And if a 2-1/2" McCain button can be forbidden, what about the tiny half-inch Obama state lapel pins that are almost impossible to read? Those definitely strike me as a private declaration. In terms of the legal question, if the UFT wants to test this principle, they should find one teacher to wear a very large religious symbol and another teacher to wear an unreadable Obama lapel pin. Because UFT's case this month was making a facial challenge to the NYC DOE regulation, that sort of dilemma was not evident. But because I suspect the outcome of a real case would depend on the specifics of this type of contrast, I don't think you can make an abstract rule. (The federal district judge in the case denied a preliminary injunction about the buttons-in-the-classroom issue. because the standard for preliminary injunctions in First Amendment cases is whether the plaintiff is likely to win the case in the end.)

But even if a K-12 teacher or faculty member has the legal right to wear a campaign button, is it appropriate? Here we get to Fish's false dichotomy on professionalism: the behavior in question is either correct or forbidden. Nowhere is that fallacy more evident than in Fish's response to the "what if I'm asked explicitly?" hypothetical. Fish's ex cathedra answer rings false:

Should teachers avoid responding to students who ask them about their political preferences? If my students ask what candidate I favor, am I bound to refuse to answer? (Cary Nelson). First of all, if you're teaching a class and not leading a rally, there should be no opportunity for that question to arise. But if it does, yes, you should refuse to answer it, and perhaps throw in a little lesson about why it is irrelevant to any issue that might come up in an academic discussion.

Here, the faculty member is supposed to respond to an honest question with hectoring: stop asking such nonsense! Let me try to understand Fish's position: before answering each and every student question, I am supposed to parse it for tight connection to the course content, filtering out anything that doesn't clearly pertain. Faculty should be free to ignore obviously irrelevant questions, but this strikes me as a strained position designed to be consistent with Fish's prior position rather than be workable and sensible.

There is a further problem: if Fish is correct that anything is appropriate if only pinned by an academic lepidopterist*, then the student can turn any supposedly inappropriate question into an appropriate one by making it academic. So if the student is not really asking about the faculty member's persona politics (or family, or reading habits, etc.) but studying the response of faculty to nosy questions not directly related to a class, is it then appropriate? By Fish's rules, it must be. I can think of a few other ways for students to "academicize" the rudest and least relevant question. 

But that effort to Godelize Fish (or hoist Fish on his own petard) is a bit too esoteric. The fundamental point is that efforts to make clean distinctions between private actions and intruding statements is very difficult when you're interpreting what people wear. I've never worn a campaign button when on campus, but that restraint is because of my sense of what's appropriate, not because that judgment is something I can defend as an absolute. 

* Many years ago, Suzanne Bender gave me the metaphor of lepidoptery for all sorts of things, and it seems to be appropriate here.

Oh, good grief!

Apart from a few blog entries, I've been staying out of the fray on Ayers. I didn't sign the online petition because at the time it went up, it didn't appear as if Ayers' academic freedom was being directly threatened. In this regard, I agree with Erin O'Connor, that public criticism is not the same as a threat to academic freedom. The arguments about Ayers' connection to Obama are specious and many border on the disgusting, but using libel and slander during an election is an old tactic. For a reasoned explanation of why someone who disagrees with the petition's wording nonetheless signed it, see Deborah Meier's explanation on Wednesday. My view is very close to Meier's, except I decided not to sign the petition.

What has changed is the reversal of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's invitation to have Ayers speak on campus after the election. As John Wilson notes, the pretense of "safety concerns" is a naked excuse to bar Ayers because he is controversial or embarrassing. After the election, regardless of the outcome, Ayers will be an afterthought on the national scene. Would UNL bar any of the major-party candidates for president or vice president because of the costs of providing security or updating infrastructure? I didn't see any of the hosts for this year's presidential debates shy away from those costs. UNL's decision is a violation of academic freedom principles.

October 13, 2008

Stanley Fish and the false dichotomy

In his New York Times column, Stanley Fish argues that while higher-ed faculty and K-12 teachers have a right to political activity outside the classroom, that does not extend to wearing a button to class. In response to my argument last week (and thanks not only for the shout-out but for spelling my name correctly!), he writes,

But the issue is not whether the clothes or, for that matter, the buttons, belong to the teachers; the issue is what they're using them for; and if they're using them as political billboards--announcing their partisan identifications from their chests--the question of the intrusion of politics in the classroom cannot be avoided.

Fish makes the strong argument in favor of such a ban: it is an intrusion of inappropriate material into the classroom. But Fish is wrong, for a very important reason: not everything that is questionable is forbidden. And why that is true in this case, especially, is critical to academic freedom.

Fish's argument (and one that is the focus of his last book) is that one must exclude political material from the classroom environment, because it's not a faculty member's job. In response to Leo Casey's argument that teachers should be a role model for democratic participation, including in campaigns, Fish argues that one could easily model participation by an "I Vote" message as by a partisan button/sticker.

Fish's argument is inconsistent with his general claims that faculty (and K-12 teachers) should not be trying to save the world on the students' time. Why is it any less of an intrusion to encourage students to vote than to encourage students to vote for specific candidates? If Fish claims that politics should be excluded from a math classroom, then one would have to argue that one should exclude any mention of the democratic politics from algebra, whether partisan or not. I assume Fish would not want K-12 algebra teachers or college math professors talking about jury duty, unless there is some connection to the course material. At least for Fish (but not necessarily others), you either have to exclude all messages about democratic participation or acknowledge that there is a role for teachers to model democratic participation.

But not everyone is Stanley Fish, wanting there to be a firewall between the classroom and the rest of the world. Most of those concerned about campaign buttons worn into the classroom are worried about the potential for coercion and interference with learning. So let's think through the potential for coercion. First, consider the elementary and middle-school environment, where students do not and cannot vote. How is someone who wears an Obama or McCain button in a kindergarten class going to influence voting behavior by their students? Er... not going to happen. By the time students are old enough to vote (as juniors or seniors in high school or in college), we generally assume they have a certain level of independence (and teens under 18 argue for more independence all the time). The most vulnerable students are younger, the ones whose ineligibility to vote make the concern about indirect coercion moot. (And I don't think anyone is going to defend direct coercion by a teacher, of the "You must use an absentee ballot and show me your ballot to get a good grade" variety. You do that and you've lost a career, buddy.)

So if coercion is not a serious concern, then someone might argue that wearing a campaign button might be a barrier to learning in the classroom. I've been trying to figure this one out, and I am a little confused: does anyone seriously believe that wearing a campaign button is anywhere on the same level as a teacher who says that girls cannot learn math or who continuously spouts racist jokes? The latter behavior interferes with learning. But let's follow this possibility through a few situations to see where this argument leads us. Consider first a middle-school math teacher who wants to wear a McCain button to class. Her or his students do not vote, so the coercion argument is irrelevant. But could that button make it harder to learn math for liberal students, or students whose parents support Obama? I'm trying to figure out how there is a Republican version of math or a Democratic version of math, and I just can't figure that one out. To argue that a campaign button interferes with learning math, one would have to assume that there are distractors that teachers can present to students without action--that wearing a campaign button by itself is going to make students either distracted or uncomfortable in the learning environment itself. I am skeptical of this claim, but let's assume that there is some psychology literature to back this up. So why are passively-worn campaign buttons more likely to create this effect in a math class than other possibilities, such as a teacher's wearing a cross on a chain, or having a wedding band, or being visibly pregnant, or wearing garish green-and-yellow plaid? By all means, let's ban badly-coordinated outfits by teachers, because that might distract those with Obsessively Coordinated Clothing Disorder! Until someone can provide reasonable evidence that teachers' wearing of campaign buttons by itself is something that interferes with learning algebra, I think we can allow middle-school math teachers to wear the buttons.

Now let's consider someone who teaches government/civics in high school, to classes of seniors who are often 18 and eligible to vote. Ah, here is the case where one should be able to ban all campaign buttons, right? Not so fast: imagine a class where the subject material is the first amendment and relevant court cases. She comes to class wearing a McCain button and begins with the following question: "Do I have the right to wear this button in class?" If you think teachers have the academic freedom to pick material and instructional methods that are clearly relevant to the subject of the class, you have to admit that civics teachers or political-science or law professors would be well within their rights to be slightly provocative to gain student interest. So anyone teaching civics or political science can wear a button as long as they use that button to teach students.

So let's go back to the general claim that teachers can be banned from wearing campaign buttons to class. Wish away all of my arguments but the last one, and assume that the general ban is appropriate. Because of academic freedom in teaching, at the very least we have to carve out an exception for social-studies teachers (in K-12) and political science, history, and law faculty (in higher education), but this is an unusual exception. It says, "you can wear a campaign button if you use it in instruction, and the more you talk about it, the safer you are." If you're willing to say that K-12 civics teachers can wear campaign buttons to class but math teachers can't, you've got to live with that awkward inconsistency. I think it's a foolish stance to defend, but your mileage may vary.

These problems arise only if you think that teachers are either commanded to engage in or forbidden from certain behavior; if they're not supposed to do X, they can't do X. The Fish position is thus a false dichotomy. In reality, there are plenty of behaviors that are forbidden to teachers, and plenty of things teachers should do. There is also a huge range of behavior that is neither mandated nor forbidden. Because wearing a campaign button is a passive behavior--you generally wear a campaign button without shouting, "Look at my Chthulhu for President button!"--it falls most sensibly in the middle category, along with most questions about what teachers wear. I don't wear stiletto heels to class, and I'd be a little confused by colleagues who do, but unless there's a bona fide reason to ban them in specific situations (e.g., in a lab, for safety reasons), within reasonable bounds I think teachers should have the right to pick their own clothing. As I wrote before, I don't think I'd impress students by wearing a campaign button to class, but I'm going to defend the right of my colleagues and K-12 teachers to do so.

September 27, 2008

Both Fish and Bérubé are wrong

Some years ago, I ran across someone who was so firmly convinced that schools were heterosexist, he thought that K-12 teachers should be forbidden from mentioning anything about their private lives lest they reinforce heteronormative assumptions. I asked, "Okay, so that means you can't have a picture of your spouse or children on your desk?" "Of course not!" was the reply. That took my breath away, and I was thinking of asking whether we should just give up this parental childrearing idea entirely and have state-run creches. But I thought better of my time and his and just shook my head and walked away.

That type of foolishness has its parallel in higher education with the biennial arguments about Bumper Stickers and Buttons. Along with the foolishness this week in Illinois whereby faculty and staff were told they could not have political bumper stickers on cars they parked on campus (All faculty must leave their classes right now and scrape the "Harry Potter for President" stickers off their cars, or so I imagined), I received an e-mail from a colleague asking about candidate buttons worn on campus. I explained the usual distinction between public and private resources—you can't use public property to support candidates, but I assume faculty buy their own clothes, so they're festooning personal property—and the distinction between sense and propriety. Not everything that is unwise is unprofessional: you're not going to impress your students if you wear a huge McCain or Obama button, but telling a faculty member not to wear campaign buttons is a violation of a faculty member's rights. Yes, faculty and students have rights to do foolish things as well as brilliant things.

And, yes, I included both faculty and students in that statement. When he was on campus Tuesday, Michael Bérubé said that students do not have academic freedom and that he agrees with Stanley Fish's argument that academic freedom is a guild concept. Because I agree with Bérubé on a great deal in terms of academic politics, in some ways it is a relief to find something on which we disagree; otherwise, I'd worry that I was a figment of his imagination. (Please don't explain in comments that he could surely imagine someone with whom he disagrees and thus I am still a figment of his imagination. I know that argument, it ignores the ineffability of English professors, and I'm just holding onto this thin reed of intellectual autonomy as is, so will you stop with the Jesuitical reasoning already?)

More seriously, Fish's argument is an understandable but narrow view of academic freedom, and despite what he thinks, it is weak ground on which to make the case for academic freedom.

Fish asks, Is academic freedom a philosophical concept tied to larger concepts of individual dignity and autonomy, or is it a guild concept developed in an effort to insulate the enterprise from the threat of a hostile takeover? That's a great start, a combination of a false dichotomy and straw-man argument. Apart from the fact that there are arguments in favor of academic freedom that are not rooted in either a priori concepts of intellectual freedom or guild protections, though, using the term guild is not very specific. This is fairly typical of Fish's ex cathedra pronouncements of Academic Truth, full of elisions that make me want to tear my hair out.

Fortunately for my sanity, if nothing else, Michael Bérubé put flesh on Fish's frisson in his talk Tuesday. He argued that Fish's guild concept was rooted in the academic's search for truth, whose path is unpredictable. Because of that unpredictability, faculty could not be restricted in the direction their inquiries took. Faculty are confirmed in their expertise, so they get this freedom. Students are not, so they don't have academic freedom.

This sounds like a clean distinction until you poke below the surface. Do I have academic freedom because I engage in research but my colleagues who are just instructors do not have academic freedom because they don't publish? Wait: maybe we let teachers have academic freedom because you never know where class may go in a field like mine. So do instructors have academic freedom in the humanities but not in calculus, because intro calc is well defined? Or suppose you tie it to the stability of the job because you don't want some full-time faculty to be excluded or have there be arguments about which field has academic freedom. Then you have the question of whether full-time faculty have academic freedom but adjuncts don't. What about graduate students, who are learning but also teach and engage in research? Ah, but they're not yet confirmed experts. But in some fields doctoral students commonly publish before their dissertation, while in other departments new assistant professors sometimes are hired as ABDs without publications. So does the ABD and unpublished assistant professor have academic freedom at a university where the published advanced doctoral student doesn't? Or suppose you have a doctoral student at a university who also teaches and has tenure at a nearby community college. Does she have academic freedom or not? According to the guild concept, she might have it when at work at the community college (where she has tenure), but not at the university, even though her work at a university may contribute more to the body of knowledge in her field. If your brain is about to explode from these problems, follow my advice: don't root academic freedom in a guild concept.

The other problem with the guild notion of academic freedom is its political viability: today, not only is it dangerous to imply that faculty should have academic freedom while you don't because we're special, it fails a basic reality check. A high enough proportion of the general population has a college education that we just aren't that special. Maybe only one percent of the American population has a Ph.D., but we've done a pretty darn good job of educating our neighbors so that they can think for themselves. That's a good thing, on the whole. Maybe you're not a trained scientist, but some of you participate in the annual Christmas bird count, or you're an amateur astronomer, or you know Lilium columbianum when you see it. For me to claim that only I have the academic freedom to be protected when I talk about those things while you don't is guilding the lily (the Tiger lily, if you're curious, though I can't guarantee I could spot it in a field). When defenders of academic freedom use arguments that are as fallacious as they are pretentious, they are not helping defend the professoriate from political interference.

A far better route is to take part of Bérubé's commentary on Fish—that academic freedom is rooted in the job we do—and expand the way we look at the job of faculty and universities. Maybe Stanley Fish thinks the academic is interested in an abstract, decontextualized search for truth (see Steven Kellman's Chronicle column for a nice response to that claim), but many of the historical academic freedom controversies are rooted firmly in politics. I suspect that for those whose academic freedom was violated thanks to the economics of the dairy economy or the politics of the Cold War, Fish's defense of them as only in search of the (defenestrated, lifeless) truth would be cold comfort. We may academicize the world because that's the modus operandi of analysis, but we can be motivated by the same passions as our neighbors.

The search for truth isn't as ascetic as Fish would hope. It is emotional, personal, and often a matter of sensitive politics. As higher education has evolved in the U.S. and elsewhere, college and university faculty look for truth and are general social critics. The rhetoric and reality of academic freedom is a political construct, tied to our institutional role as social whistleblower. Sometimes that's "social" in an ascetic-truth sense, and sometimes it's social in a very political sense. To divorce faculty from the development of political rights in American history is to ignore the real history of academic freedom controversies and the growing recognition of general free-speech rights. Of course, Stanley Fish doesn't believe in free speech, either. But I do, I bet you do, and that means that we can and should talk about academic freedom in a political context.

To make that case means that we have to acknowledge that students have academic freedom in an institutional context (i.e., when they're at a public university). If we tell students that they have no academic freedom, we're inviting them to care less about the academic freedom of faculty once they leave us. If we invite them into the sphere of protection we'd like enlarged, they'll be far more likely to support academic freedom as older adults. So for all sorts of selfish and historical reasons, I hereby proclaim that college students have academic freedom, and it's a good thing, too.

July 29, 2008

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education jumps the shark

Twice this month I've agreed with National Association of Scholars head Peter Wood, but when NAS organizes what looks like a Horowitzian ideological witchhunt, they've lost my sympathy. I'm also at a loss to understand why the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's blog applauded NAS. There's a pretty large gulf between FIRE's support of and education around individual rights, on the one hand, and NAS's engaging in an ideologically one-sided hunt for people to complain about college campuses, on the other. (Hat tip.)

July 21, 2008

The higher-ed split among conservatives

One could probably have predicted today's Inside Higher Ed article describing how several conservative academics criticized the current push for quantitative assessment of higher ed. I didn't, but if you did, give yourself a pat on the back.

The article describes a panel on Friday sponsored by the American Academy of Distance Learning (more about that later) where the former head of Margaret Spellings's Office of Postsecondary Education and the executive director of the National Association of Scholars ripped Spellings and her allies for pushing standardized tests in higher ed to the detriment of liberal arts. According to the article, Diane Auer Jones was more diplomatic than Peter Wood, but both complained that the push for accountability was turning reductionist. In this regard, I think Wood's reported comments are on the money: today, the policy rhetoric on higher education is vocational, and that threatens to make the defense of a liberal-arts education more difficult. He ties it to the push for accountability in higher education, and I've had similar concerns about calls for standardized testing as the primary accountability mechanism for colleges.

The predictability comes in the split among conservatives, one that Wood ties back to a "practical"/"classical" distinction in the late 18th century. The Spellings Commission report ignored fundamental tensions in American higher education, and one interesting feature of the report is the invisibility of the curriculum. The report's rhetoric was tied closely to economics, and I suspect that Jones's resignation in May on a matter of principle was the result of a long-simmering frustration among some conservative academics, not an isolated event. No party or political coalition is monolithic, and I've heard several current and former Capitol Hill staffers from Democratic offices who were far closer to Spellings on higher-ed accountability than either Jones or Wood. And I'm closer to Jones and Wood at least on this issue, though I'm a Democrat.

And now the coda: The building frustration among some conservatives that I'm inferring here may explain why Jones and Wood were willing to use the sponsorship of a proprietary university's president's shadow accreditation office: I've tried to look for the "American Academy of Distance Learning," which seemed to be an odd outfit to sponsor a talk about standardized testing and the liberal arts. I found an American Academy of Distance Learning (or at least a reference to its tax-exempt status) headquartered in Denver, but Dick Bishirjian runs the proprietary Yorktown University, which is in Denver... at the same address as AADL, down to the same suite number. But the media advisory for the panel lists AADL with a Norfolk post office box. Bishirjian also appears to be the president of the American Academy of Privatization, a proponent of "privatization training for public officials." I'm not sure what that means, precisely, but the P.O. box for it is the same as that given in the media advisory for AADL. In other words, it looks like Bishirjian has a mail drop in Norfolk and office space in Denver. That's an amazingly slim infrastructure to run a university and two other organizations... or at least to claim so. A July 10 Denver Post article gives a little more information about Yorktown, at least in relationship to Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, who served on Yorktown's board of trustees for several years. Yorktown apparently has a single graduate program and only a few dozen students. Given the plaudits for Bishirjian by Paul Weyrich earlier this month on David Horowitz's website, it looks like Bishirjian had enormous difficulties gaining accreditation. So... is his sponsorship of the forum for Jones and Wood something that's tied to his proprietary institution's interests? I don't know if either Jones or Wood is aware of Bishirjian's background or the disconnect between his proprietary institution's curriculum and their arguments, but this is definitely one of the odder set of bedfellows I've seen in higher education.

July 1, 2008

No doubts

I don't think there is any reasonable doubt among the relevant historians that the killing of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. And now, it looks remarkably like a defunding threat from the government of Turkey pushed Donald Quataert out of the position of board chair at the Institute of Turkish Studies.

June 19, 2008

The missing points on the Milton Friedman Institute

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I think the collective faculty letter criticizing the creation of the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman Institute is both correct and beside the point. The faculty point out that the investment of $200 million in this new entity will privilege a certain view of markets associated with Friedman, a point that seems to be without too much controversy. But they talk about it in terms of "the interests of equity and balance" and ask the university "to provide roughly equivalent resources for critical scholarly work that seeks out alternatives to recent economic, social, and political developments."

The point could be sharpened by talking about the academic losses involved in the massive investment in a single perspective: Isn't behavioral economics one of the most exciting fields in economics and one that will be entirely ignored by the Milton Friedman Institute? To put the issue in standard neoclassical language, the opportunity cost of building the Milton Friedman Institute is the investment not going into building up the university's economics research in other areas, including behavioral economics, public economics, and so forth. To me, it seems like a deliberate institutional risk to put so much of one's resources into a single academic approach to any field.

June 4, 2008

Academic freedom threats, the real version

The vet who writes My cat ate my homework has a poignant list of scientists whose academic jobs and sometimes lives have been threatened because they taught evolutionary science. (Hat tip.)

May 29, 2008

A boycott call by another name smells as daft...

British academics are at it again, and Chris Goff is right: the call for faculty "to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions" is a back-door way to call for a boycott without calling for a boycott. The University and College Union has never asked its faculty to "consider the moral" anything with regard to its other comments on international affairs.

As with previous shenanigans of this order, the reliable commentary comes from Engage Online.

May 20, 2008

What to do with scoundrels

Since Mike Petrilli's May 12 blog post, arguing that AERA should not allow Bill Ayers to sit on its executive committee, there has been a host of responses, criticisms of Petrilli from Eduwonkette and Marc Dean Millot, and then rebuttals by Petrilli, Diane Ravitch, and Jeff Kuhner. And don't forget the last Gadfly podcast, when Petrilli and Rick Hess debated the issue.

There are several side issues mixed up in this, from the partisan attempts to use Ayers against Barack Obama (how Ayers became a news item) to the terminology and legal issues (which Millot addressed) and the questions of private association rights (what Rick Hess argued), but let me focus on what Petrilli is arguing at the core: Ayers is a scoundrel making his living in academe. Strip away questions about whether we can apply the label terrorism to Ayers, and the charge essentially is that academics (and education researchers specifically) are letting Ayers live without the consequences of being in the Weathermen.

Couched in that form, we can put the debate over Ayers in a broader context. There is a long tradition in American political culture of resuscitating scoundrels and wondering what to do after their lives are back on track and their past laundered through some patina of establishmentarian approval. While Petrilli is focusing on someone associated with the left side of the political spectrum, I can name a number on the right who are in equal or far better positions than Bill Ayers: John Yoo is now a tenured faculty member at Berkeley's Boalt Law School, G. Gordon Liddy is now a major talk-show host, and Oliver North hosts a Fox News show.

I know that legally, all of these individuals have rights, and you don't have be Mother Theresa to have those rights respected. Socially, I know what Miss Manners would say. On the other hand, neither of those answers the question that Petrilli asks, which is about public, professional recognition. My thoughts on the subject are usually along the lines of, "Okay, what do I do if I meet Scoundrel X in Situation Y, where I know of some pretty disreputable private or professional behavior, but where there is some work to do in that situation?" And my general answer is that if Yitzhak Rabin could shake hands with Yassir Arafat, I should be able to hold my nose and work with a lot people. (Don't tell me about the results of that handshake. I'm talking about ethics, not a strict parallel on consequences.)

But saying that I will work with almost anyone to accomplish some good end doesn't really address Petrilli's question. I will confess that I have no good answers to the question of what we should do publicly with scoundrels. But I'm not sure Petrilli is willing to follow his own advice, either, because what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Will Petrilli read the riot act to scoundrels on the right, publicly denounce them, and distance himself and the Fordham Foundation from them? And if so, what happens if he decides later that he needs to work with one of these individuals?

April 15, 2008

The difference between being wrong and being fired

Aaron Barlow has it on the nose when he discusses Academic Freedom and Yoo. Fundamentally, once UC Berkeley's law school hired John Yoo as a tenured faculty member, it owed him due process in any disciplinary proceeding, both substantive and procedural due process. The fact that his actions as a government lawyer are obnoxious and antidemocratic does not change that obligation.

One of the arguments against torture is that the United States needs to operate even a war on higher moral grounds, and torturing prisoners injures that national interest. So how would violating John Yoo's academic due process be gaining the higher moral ground by those of us who think he was wrong?

March 26, 2008

Turnitin.com, students' intellectual property, and fair use

Eric Goldman has the latest news and commentary on the high school students' lawsuit (and the suit's dismissal) against having to submit papers to Turnitin.com (hat tip). It's a fascinating and complicated issue, and Goldman's discussion explains at least some of the tangles involved (though I wouldn't be surprised if there were more).

January 14, 2008

Teaching about what humans do

I've been tagged by Craig Smith, who asks, Why Do You Teach and Why Does It Matter? after reading Dr. Crazy's explanation of why she teaches literature. This comes on the heels of Stanley Fish's boldly hedonistic Epistle to Philistines and the expansion on this, last night's Epistle to Dumb-Ass Colleagues. (Okay, the posts were properly called The Uses of the Humanities, parts 1 and 2, but I agree with Margaret Soltan's reading of Fish Epistles I.) Fish's essays are in his typical eliding style, with just enough of substance to frustrate me when he misses the obvious.

And here is one part of the obvious: an academic education requires the study of a variety of disciplines, including science, math, and also what humans do. Understanding "what humans do" requires behavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While the configuration of disciplines is not carved in stone, a student will get a pretty good education in the culture that humans produce within the humanities. One way to think about the value of any discipline or area is to think about the institutions that leave out the area.

Here is the other part of the obvious: you don't learn how to think in the abstract but in bumping up against ideas in specific contexts. That "bumping up against" phrase is important to me, because you don't learn anything if you are not challenged. Some subjects appear easier to you or me than others, but that perception is about subjects that are under a threshold of difficulty, not the absence of new ideas and challenges. Teachers can make learning easier, but that fact doesn't eliminate the need for challenge. And the specific context matters. As my favorite high school English teacher told us at the beginning of AP English, she taught writing, and she did it in the context of teaching about literature. She also taught us an enormous amount about literature in the course of that year. Even philosophers talk about topics. Care for a casual game of penny-ante Ontology?

In my case, I teach social-science and humanities perspectives on education, with a focus on history and sociology. The majority of my students come to me to fulfill exit requirements or in the midst of pre-professional training that reinforces psychological assumptions, and I have most of them for only one semester. I provide students with an additional set of views, humanities and social-science perspectives to examine schooling. When students leave my classroom, they should be able to explain how people fight over the purposes of schooling and the different models of how schools function as organizations (or don't).

In many ways, I am lucky to be in a field where I get paid for navel-gazing. My neighbors and fellow citizens should want me to teach students who want to teach that the world may not agree with their reasons for teaching or their view of the purpose of schooling; that the world's range of schools includes places that provide a very different education from their own experiences as they grew up; and that the job of teaching involves more than going into a room, shutting the door, and letting the gorgeous lesson plans unfold without interruption or difficulty. That's a fairly practical purpose. There is also the specific example of the argument above: Formal schooling is what humans do today, and studying the social context of formal schooling is a reasonable way to study what humans do.

In addition, when students are in my course, they have to write extensively and coherently about schooling. Over my career, I have taught over 2,000 students. I have taught most of those students at USF, where I have never written a multiple-choice final exam and where I have always required that students write papers. Before my colleagues and I agreed to craft a single paper assignment across all of the undergraduate social-foundations sections, I assigned a "perspectives" paper where I collected sources on two or three recent "hot topics" in education and told my students, "This is not a research paper. I've collected all of the background you should need. Your job is to apply the concepts you have learned in the course to these hot topics." (I gave students the ability to propose a topic of their own choosing, as long as I approved it in the first month of the course. Almost no students took me up on the offer, and as a result, I stopped having students propose topics that focused more on psychology than the topics in my course.) In most cases, the common readings for the course never directly addressed the hot topics, so they couldn't just regurgitate ideas. I was mean! (See the bit about challenges above.)

Some of these assignments were more successful than others. I am still aghast that a few years ago, the majority of students who wrote about the "intelligent-design" controversy in Dover supported teaching it alongside evolution in a science class. I graded them on the merits of the assignment (which is not synonymous with the question of what should be in the curriculum), and then explained my point of view in comments separate from the grading. But I challenge students' beliefs about education, no matter what they carried into the classroom, and I push students to  justify their conclusions with plausible arguments.

And to continue this meme, I tag...

January 11, 2008

One more for the distorted reading of course titles and descriptions

In 2006, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote a screed, How Many Ward Churchills?, based entirely on superficial catalog analysis and ripped to shreds in many places, including Timothy Burke's blog.

It looks like the let's try to suss what happens in a course from hundreds of miles away "method" is live and well in the hands of Jay Greene and Catherine Shock. See the straightforward explanation of why this is wrong in the blog entry of Eduwonkette's friend skoolboy.

Isn't this what Matt Drudge does for a living?

December 28, 2007

Students and Youtube

A Palm Beach County middle-school student has been expelled from a magnet school after recording her teacher in class with a digital camera and posting a satirized form of it on Youtube. In Palm Beach as in many other districts, students are not generally allowed to have electronic devices on during the school day, but according to the article she had been allowed to use it for the yearbook. So in almost all other cases, the issue would be cleaner-cut: the student violated the prohibition on electronic devices without clear cause for it (such as catching a crime in process).

Florida's laws on electronic privacy provide another wrinkle: under Florida Statutes (934.03 to be precise), it is illegal for private individuals to record someone else who has an expectation of privacy. (There are exceptions for law enforcement recordings and for public meetings, obviously.) I don't know whether a classroom provides that expectation of privacy for teachers (one Panhandle prosecutor dropped a case in 2001 against a student who had recorded her chemistry teacher's lecture), but I worry about the recording of other students.

The question of what is public behavior is also behind the question that Morse v. Frederick (aka the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case) left open: how much can schools respond to behavior that is off school grounds, especially when it concerns speech? Most analysis hinges on the question of disruption, arguing that schools can respond to student behavior off campus that disrupts the educational environment. Disruption is so vague, however, that it could cover all sorts of ground, and there is no bright-line standard for it. Like disrespect, the term is a conclusion rather than a description of concrete behavior.

We could begin to draw bright lines by defining disruption as behavior that either constitutes a "true threat" (see Virginia v. Black, 2003, for a definition: hat tip), encourages the breaking of bona fide school rules, or targets individuals as individuals in a context where they could expect some privacy. Spreading rumors about other students as individuals clearly falls in that definition, as does spreading rumors about teachers' or other school officials' private lives.

But in the public sphere, such protections start to fall away. If a student has the right to disagree with school policy or public conduct (something I think most courts would support), she or he also has the right to parody school officials' public conduct under the umbrella of such criticism, even if the parody is harsh. While I am not a lawyer, I suspect many cases of online behavior will hinge on whether the student is addressing such public behavior.

But what counts as public conduct? Behavior in a class of 25 or 30 isn't that private, and certainly not if you look at sites such as ratemyteacher.com. Teachers in elementary, secondary, and college classes are at a structural disadvantage because we cannot ethically discuss the behavior of individual students, and the inevitable response to public comments about classroom events has to be, "I cannot respond, because doing so would violate the confidentiality of individual students."

Here is the reasonable tradeoff: we know students will have the freedom to criticize what educators do, as long as it does not meet a fairly strict definition of disruptiveness, if teachers are insulated from outside pressures that could endanger academic freedom. My students are going to talk about my teaching, but as long as my institution avoids ad-hoc investigations and I have academic due process, I can live with the apparent paradox. Or, to put it in another way, if students can suddenly turn my work into a fishbowl environment, the right response is not to cover the fishbowl but to make the glass unbreakable.

December 1, 2007

Brandeis faculty defend academic freedom and common sense

Kudos to the Brandeis University Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, whose report on allegations of discrimination by Donald Hindley essentially ripped the administration from head to toe on procedural and substantive violations of academic freedom (hat tip). To wit:

  • Brandeis's investigation failed to engage in a bona fide investigation of how more than the complaining student responded to the alleged comments of Professor Hindley.
  • Brandeis's investigation failed the sniff test when it came to giving Professor Hindley a chance to respond to alelgations: Hindley was the last person interviewed in month-long process, he was not provided an opportunity to have a colleague present, and the report was submitted one day after his interview.
  • Brandeis's investigation failed to respect the 2003 guiding letter of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, a document that stipulates that discriminatory environment "must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive."

I think I'm going to repeat this until I retire and afterwards: Ad hoc investigations of teaching are inevitably flawed. Congratulations to the Brandeis faculty on standing up to the provost on this.

November 21, 2007

Being thankful for the Supreme Court's protection of free speech

As FIRE's William Creeley notes, not only can we be grateful for Supreme Court decisions protecting speech, such as the 64-year-old West Virginia v. Barnett case on the pledge of allegiance, but we also have an interesting retrospective on the case, including the two children (now much older, of course).

I need to finish editing and uploading an MP3 for an online class presentation, and then it's time for me to head home. If you're in the U.S., have a great holiday tomorrow!

November 11, 2007

Who will defend faculty on a non-ideological basis?

Erin O'Connor  has rightly criticized the assignment of an associate provost to watch a class in a blog entry titled How to destroy a teacher. She frames it as "a caricature of how the campus thought police destroy the learning environment for both students and teachers."

In a comment I left on the entry, I had asked her whether she would similarly criticize an administrative observer if the case had been a faculty accused by teachers of political indoctrination. She hasn't made my comment public, nor has she responded to the issue. Let me be clear: it's her blog, and she can follow a screening/moderating policy if she wishes. I just think it's a fair and relevant question: are we going to criticize administrative interventions based on the political issues of the day, or are we going to have some basic principles that we follow regardless of the issues du jour?

Update: In a comment, O'Connor notes that software sometimes eats comments. True enough, and I'll try posting the comment again.

November 9, 2007

Assistant provost, or ad hoc class observer

When I wrote a few weeks ago about the dangers of ad hoc investigations of student complaints, I didn't know that I would have a specific case from Brandeis to illustrate my concerns. Accordingto the IHE article, an assistant provost is sitting in on Donald Hindley's political science class (or maybe classes) after students complained that he had used the term wetback in a pejorative sense (rather than in the sense of describing historical racism, which is his claim). Hindley made the investigations and observations public, the faculty senate expressed its concern about procedures, and the department chair was clearly on the defensive when called by the reporter.

The lesson I take from this: folks, you have to talk about what to do before allegations surface, or you will be forced to invent investigation procedures that are inherently flawed because they are ad hoc.

November 4, 2007

A twofer on Delaware student program and social justice, or "Let's not confuse institutional prerogatives with students' propensity to make mistakes"

I normally don't waste bytes just to point to someone else's blog and say, "What (s)he said!" In this case, though, Timothy Burke's engagingly garrulous entry on the University of Delaware student orientation controversy serves double-duty to describe the obvious about the University of Delaware program and also help explain my discomfort with official statements by colleges of education that they want students to foster social justice:

... with the Delaware residential life program, there's nothing wrong per se with asking straights when they first realized their orientation or when they came out as straights. That is, nothing wrong if that's a sly or mischievious aside in a personal conversation about sexuality, or a subversive question directed at a public figure who is intensely anti-gay, or as a way in an intellectual discussion about the history of sexuality to illustrate what the ten-dollar word 'heteronormativity' actually means. Turning the question into a set part of a pseudo-mandatory workshop (there's some confusion at Delaware about how strongly students are encouraged to attend) takes everything valuable out of it. It turns something sly into dogma.

Burke is putting this observation in the context of a nuanced discussion of the institutional context of resident student activists and the role of college as a place where young adults learn by being bold and frequently making mistakes. What makes sense for student activists or activists engaged in civic life often becomes self-parody when oversolemnified in an institutional context.

Such oversolemnification is all too typical in the debate over dispositions and social justice in teacher education. In several contexts, I have heard colleagues in social foundations or my institution upset at the attack on the demand that students display a disposition towards social justice... a term now closely associated with the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Because NCATE referred to social justice in a glossary item that mentioned it as a potential disposition that colleges might assess students on, and because some colleges did some patently stupid things when students expressed dissenting political views, that term became a magnet for critics of college policies that appeared to infringe on students' rights to political expression. Respondents in education have sometimes interpreted that attack as a neoconservative attack on teacher education more broadly.

The truth is that the attack on social justice and dispositions is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. Some of those who have attacked teacher education's and NCATE's move towards dispositions have been social conservatives upset with the nature of teacher education. At a June 2006 hearing in front of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, critics of NCATE included the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. But that's not the entire picture. Critics also have included the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (see FIRE's statement on NCATE and dispositions). FIRE's staff and supporters have included conservatives, but they have also included people from across the political spectrum, a group of those who are reasonably described as academic libertarians.

Academic libertarians focus on campuses as a site of debate, where the job of a university is to encourage a discourse of disputation. In this environment, assessing the alignment of one's thoughts with any template with ideological overtones strikes academic libertarians as obnoxious, an affront to students' freedom of thought. While many defenders of assessing dispositions point to the evaluation of behavior rather than thought and the interplay of that behavior with professional expectations, critics are skeptical, especially when some places (such as LeMoyne College) have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar... or the brains of their students.

The vulnerability of teacher education to such criticism is not just the visibility of a few outrageous idiocies by specific teacher education programs. To some extent, the coalition between social conservatives and academic libertarians has focused criticism in a way that often dissipates when the criticism comes from just one quarter. But the internet is also partly responsible, because that copper or fiber-optic cable is a double-edged sword, bringing visibility in both good and bad measure. In addition, teacher education is more vulnerable because of the historical disrespect for teachers in general and for teacher education within colleges and universities.

But there are a few other issues to consider, issues that schools and colleges of education control. One issue under the control of teacher education programs is the way faculty and administrators address the inherent tensions of trying to stuff a professional preparation program into a relatively short period, at most three or four years in an undergraduate program. We'd like teachers to leave college with a fantastically well-rounded liberal-arts education, professional information about educational psychology, historical and social-science perspectives on education, professional ethics, assessment, teaching the methods of their field, content expertise in their field, something about the practical matters of running a classroom, field experiences while learning everything else, and a capstone experience with a final internship and structured feedback and reflection.

To put the problem bluntly, if you can do all that for all students in undergraduate teacher education, I also want a pony. The telling choice is what you give up in professional programs, more than in almost any other type of education. That's not even considering the newer demands in areas such as special education, where "highly qualified teachers" now have to demonstrate content expertise in every curriculum area. So the curriculum discussions in teacher education inevitably revolve around the desire to somehow stuff more into less. If someone could extract the essence of half of our curriculum and put it in a pill, I know a bunch of education deans who would be very happy.

In the midst of this perennial stretch, teacher education stakeholders and institutions talk about accountability as outcomes. Outcomes? Sure. We'll be responsible for what happens with our teachers. So what does that mean, in an era when tracking graduates is a bit tough? Well, we'll certainly be responsible for the passing rates for graduates on state exams, and their meeting our state standards, and ... hmmn... something else. Someone must have suggested dispositions (the history of that would be a great dissertation topic!), and the idea met multiple needs. Stakeholders in the NCATE orbit were reasonably satisfied that teacher education programs were at least addressing accountability. Within teacher education, dispositions met several needs, and it could be used both to justify keeping some things in and removing others out of the curriculum, depending on how one phrased one's goals and preferred dispositions.

Dispositions have also neatly coincided with a psychological approach to education. Kurt Danziger has explained how the history of psychology is intertwined with the bureaucratization of public schooling in the early 20th century U.S. That psychologization continues, far beyond the knowledge of educational psychology that is the bread and butter of my department colleagues. (As my fellow historian Erwin V. Johanningmeier has noted, there is some considerable irony in the fact that one of the most well-known educational psychologists, David Berliner, has written more about the social conditions of schools in the last 15 years than educational psychology.) I am not sure if any professional field outside education or social services would ever frame their competencies as anything close to dispositions -- do business, legal, medical, engineering, or architecture programs have anything similar? Part of the difference is the much shorter formal apprenticeships that teacher education has, but some is due to the role of psychology within education.

Both the University of Delaware residency program and the existence of dispositions border on a therapeutic approach to education, implying that part of the job of college is the reconstruction of behavior and personality. I am not one to believe in the fairy tale that education only touches the intellect; college is a life-changing experience, no matter the outcome. Yet there are reasons to be very cautious about how we engage in the deliberate process of social engineering that is inherent in education.

To some extent, I am sympathetic with part of the idea of dispositions: it is extraordinarily hard to assess the fit of a student with professional expectations, and at some level one has to find proxies for professional competence while people are still in the program. The notion of assessing dispositions is an attempt to find some proxy for that fit apart from course grades. And given the relative flexibility of dispositions, some colleges of education do a much better job of treating them reasonably than other teacher education programs. But there is a foundation of psychological assumptions behind them, and the same flexibility that allows reasonableness also allows LeMoyne and its ilk.

Given that set of psychological (and almost therapeutic) assumptions, a set of dispositions geared to social justice is an oxymoron. Any definition of social justice I have seen talks about the social context, the broader structures of society. To imagine that one can accomplish social justice by changing the personalities of teachers ignores the theoretical arguments involved in social justice. To change the broader structures of society, you have to change the broader structures of society, and teacher goodwill doesn't really enter into it (though teachers' acting ethically towards their students does matter, just in a different sense). Mandating that students demonstrate a disposition towards social justice is likely to be a sloppy description of an institutional mission at best and an effective generator of cynicism at worst.

There is some other stuff that needs to be said here, about how an ethic of teachers' being at the heart of social justice is a potential form of exploitation. (Brief form: those who think KIPP schools are the solution for education and those who want teacher education programs to revolve around social justice have the same assumption about the broader role of teachers.) But this entry is far too long as it is, and I should just finish with this: I desperately want the world to have more justice, and I work towards that end, but I am a better teacher if I model those beliefs than if I try to get my students to parrot them.

October 26, 2007

Horowitz at Emory

Inside Higher Ed's blurb about the heckling at David Horowitz's Emory University speech has a link to the Emory Wheel article. Thus far, that looks to be the best reporting on the event.

October 23, 2007

Poor teaching != indoctrination

The response to the AAUP's statement Freedom in the Classroom (released September 11) has been fascinating, from Peter Wood and Stephen Balch's tendentious attempt to fisk the report (thereby burying the legitimate criticisms) to Erin O'Connor's more focused criticism to Stanley Fish's column this Sunday, where he takes the statement (rightly) to task for an inane example. First, let me quote Fish's distinction between teaching with controversial subjects and indoctrination:

Any subject -- pornography, pedophilia, genocide, scatology -- can be introduced into an academic discussion so long as the perspective from which it is analyzed is academic and not political.

This is Fish's "academicizing" (see the end of an August 2006 article about Kevin Barrett), and apart from the suggestion that properly teaching a subject requires anaesthetizing the student, it is one reasonable slice at the definition of indoctrination.

The AAUP subcommittee made its largest mistake in choosing a horrible example of teaching that should be protected from political scrutiny:

Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville's novel?

In contrast with Fish, I think that this choice of examples should be protected from claims of indoctrination, because faculty should be allowed and even encouraged to insert passion into the classroom, even when an attempt fails. But a teacher using such an example should not be protected from claims that this is simply an awful instructional choice. One of my college teachers claimed that Dostoevsky's portraits of psychological imbalance predicted Hitler's rise and the Holocaust. I suspect that he was trying to enliven the class, not indoctrinate us (and what would he have been indoctrinating us into, the Cult of Heterodox Dostoevsky Social Criticism?). We stared at him, mouths agape, wondering what he had been smoking. Great books, mediocre class.

So, like Timothy Burke (both in talking about ACTA's "How Many Ward Churchills?" screed and in discussing teaching in general), I am more concerned with inept teaching than indoctrination, in part because I strongly suspect that most students read crass political didacticism as incompetence as well as or rather than indoctrination.

The practical question is what no one (including the AAUP) has addressed. Suppose that a student complains about the Ahab/Bush comparison. What do we do? I agree with Stanley Fish that the comparison is not professional. Does that mean we toss the professor out on his or her ear? The AAUP statement refers vaguely to academic due process:

When that [allegation of improper conduct] happens, sound professional standards of proper classroom conduct should be enforced in ways that are compatible with academic due process. Over the last century the profession has developed an understanding of the nature of these standards. It has also developed methods for enforcing these standards that allow for students to file complaints and that afford accused faculty members the right fully to be heard by a body of their peers.

That's all fine and pretty but while the statement seems to imply that universities have developed ways of addressing improper instruction, such a conclusion is simply unwarranted. We know how to handle allegations of research misconduct (or at least we think we do until politicians get involved), there are reasonable guidelines from the AAUP on extramural utterances and behavior, and I suspect most universities have formal academic grievance procedures (where a student can appeal an academic decision), but we professors don't have a clue how to handle allegations of teaching misconduct except where there are bright-line standards such as showing up to class and not hitting (on) students.

I don't mean that faculty always stand idly by when they observe or discover a peer's teaching behavior that they find troubling in a variety of ways. But in terms of formal investigations -- what warrants special attention apart from annual reviews and how to gather and evaluate evidence -- I suspect most institutions have absolutely no procedural guidelines. And therein lies the problem: without procedures set down somewhere, administrators under pressure will resort to ad-hoc decisions and processes, which will inevitably violate academic freedom and erode institutional integrity.

The first line of defense against ad-hoc-ism is some proactive evaluation of teaching, the type of thoughtful peer observation and probing that Timothy Burke advocates. Yes, that requires some time and resources. Many good things do, and in many places (such as my institution right now, under enormous budget pressures), that ideal is unlikely to evolve quickly. Most institutions have some annual evaluation, which has an indirect evaluation of teaching through student surveys and materials submitted by the faculty member. This is better than nothing from a variety of perspectives and much worse than the ideal.

The second line of defense is a procedure for screening and evaluating allegations of serious teaching misconduct and incompetence. Here is where most institutions are susceptible to pressures. While most institutions have established procedures when students gripe about a grade, no one has thought through all the other grievances and griping. Even the vaunted-by-ACTA University of Missouri-Columbia Ombudsman program has "Under Development" as the entire content for the Grievance Procedures of Academic Units page. The world will have to see if and how such procedures develop or if they remain largely ad-hoc.

The third line of defense is a system to coach students on reasonable assertiveness, how to raise issues in a course that expand discussion and educational opportunity. This coaching is necessary both for the shy and the brash student. I try to give students opportunities every semester to give me early feedback on a course in an anonymous way, and while I provide that structure and generally try not to bite students' heads off, some students will not tell me their concerns until long after they become worried about an issue (whether it is instruction or assignments or grades or something else). Other students are simply brusque, either with me or other students, and while (I hope) I'm fairly easygoing about criticism, some faculty are thin-skinned or may misinterpret student expressions of concern. There are right and wrong ways to point out that a class omitted an important perspective, and we do students a disservice in assuming that they come to college knowing the right way to criticize class.

This need for education starts with the usual front-line "ears" in a university: chairs and the secretarial staff of university presidents. My chairs have always tried to redirect the student back to me and also let me know when a student raised a concern with them. Presidents' secretaries don't often have the professional experience to tell students to go back to the professor, and when the presidential staff sends a "here's a heads-up" message down the line through a provost, dean, and chair back to the faculty member, sometimes carelessness with the wording and inevitable gaps in communication turn an intended "here's a heads-up" message into an assumption that the message is really "you better deal with this or else."

The fourth line of defense is a bright-line standard for when administrators should even be thinking about intervening in the middle of a term, in contrast to gathering evidence about an allegation at the end of a term. Starting an investigation in the middle of a class is a serious step that can interfere with the learning environment as much as many of the practices that students might complain about; think about what would happen if the Proper Instruction Police interview students in a class regularly, asking what they thought of the politics of the instructor and the assignment du jour. I don't think any administrator would ever imagine that could happen, but starting an investigation about classes in the middle of a class always carries the risk of educational iatrogenesis. Here are my suggested standards:

  • Investigate when the allegation is of behavior that is dangerous to students.
  • Investigate when a prudent and yet reasonably thick-skinned person would agree that a student's right to education is jeopardized by the alleged behavior (e.g., screaming at students, racial discrimination, etc.), if allegations come from several sources that are credible. Thus, if the majority of a class complains that the instructor is swearing a blue streak and failing to teach physiology when the course is a required part of the nursing sequence, someone needs to look into those allegations, but one student's complaint should not trigger a full-blown set of interviews with all students in a course.
  • Gather evidence passively during a term if the allegations are serious but the claims come from isolated sources. By passive data collection, I mean planning how to gather evidence at the end of the semester and waiting to see if there are other complaints from other credible sources.
  • Refuse to use evidence that is gathered illegally or without provenance. For example, Florida law prohibits audio recordings of people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy without the permission of recorded students--thus, I have been told that surreptitious video on Youtube of Florida classrooms would almost always be illegal unless the faculty member agreed to such guerrilla recording and the student used a shotgun microphone so no fellow student's voice was picked up.
  • In all cases, the faculty member must be told promptly of student concerns and, where the administrator has decided no immediate intervention is required, that should be specified (i.e., in the vast majority of cases).

Comments are most welcome on this sketch.

September 30, 2007

Duct tape and sand

From Stanley Fish's blog today, disapproval for Lee Bollinger's comments last week at the Ahmadinejad speech: 

The obligation of a senior administrator is to conduct himself or herself in such a way as always to bring honor and credit to the institution he or she serves. Just what this general imperative requires will vary with the particular situations an administrator encounters, but at the very least we could say that an administrator who brings attention of an unwelcome kind to a university is probably not focusing on the job.... as a general rule what an administrator should do when a controversial speaker comes to campus is lower the stakes and minimize the importance of the occasion. Not minimize the importance of the issues, but minimize the role of the university, which is not a player on the world stage but (at most) a location where questions of international significance can be raised in an academic manner.

Duct tape and sand: this is the essence of Stanley Fish's vision for a university administrator, to go around afraid to speak for fear of giving offense and to establish the university as the equivalent of a generic public facility, no greater or worse environment for a public speech than a beach (except that university lecture halls have better sound reinforcement and considerably worse views). If followed faithfully, Fish's principles would reinforce the unfortunate tendency for administrators to fear standing up for principle. If administrators and faculty are better off silent than making mistakes, then what use is a faculty? If the best environment for a controversial speaker is an anaesthetized audience, what use is a university as a forum for public speech?

Fortunately for the Duke University English Department and Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fish had no such external restrictions on his own actions as an administrator, frequently speaking about public discourse either in his debates with Dinesh D'Souza or in his columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish's outspokenness was an advantage for both institutions, even when he was being outlandish and even where many of us disagreed with him. He had a right to speak wrongly, and he still does!

A far healthier description of the key issues with administrators and academic freedom is in last Wednesday's blog entry from Dean Dad.

September 26, 2007

Academic freedom and administrators

Dean Dad has an important dissent from the oft-expressed views that administrators ain't got no academic freedom, as Stanley Fish might claim. DD points out the legitimate restrictions on what administrators can say:

  • Confidentiality: What the rumor mill paints as “the administration knows about this, but is covering it up” is often really “the administration knows this rumor is crap, but can't reveal why it's crap without violating confidentiality” (the best sentence of the post).
  • Institutional discretion: ...the 'ambassador' or 'public face' function of administrators...To the extent that there's an argument in there, I think, it's that it can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works..
Of those limits, the first is far clearer than the second. If something doesn't fall within the bounds of confidentiality imposed by one's role, an administrator should be free from that type of institutional restraint. The second question is trickier. I have a first slice at it, but not having been an administrator, this may not be realistic: if the issue concerns the welfare of the institution in a specific context, and if someone higher in the bureaucratic food chain has the authority to speak for the institution, then there is some obligation to refrain from speaking for the institution about an issue... and an implied obligation not to contradict the institution's position.

That first slice implies that institutional discretion requires a few components:

  • The question of a specific institutional interest: So while deans and chairs are bound not to contradict an institution's president when speaking publicly about things like state budget allocations for universities, someone is perfectly free to talk about all sorts of general issues with state budgeting.
  • The question of what constitutes "speaking for the institution." I suspect there are different methods to finesse a way out of saying, "I think my university president was bonkers to take this position," generally consisting of acknowledging internal debate and also ways of confirming the right of an institution's leadership to make decisions.

So what about whistleblowing? Regardless of legal issues (which vary by state and which I'm not competent to discuss), the following is my gut sense about institutions with even a modicum of shared governance: the administrator who resigns on a matter of deep principle will eventually return to administration, because institutions need people with conscience and because a critical mass of faculty will usually respect administrators who stand on principle even if individual decisions are matters of disagreement.


September 23, 2007

Icons and beacons

Eric Rauchway has the best short commentary on two recent University of California idiocies:

In the Chemerinsky case, UC threatened Chemerinsky's academic freedom; in the Summers case, UC threatened mine--and that of everyone else who teaches here.

Nice bon mot, but I wish Rauchway had explained it more clearly: UCI Chancellor Michael Drake was violating Chemerinsky's individual rights as the primary consequence of his attempt to un-hire Chemerinsky as the new law school's founding dean. There were certainly other consequences (chilling speech and doing inestimable damage to the reputation of the new law school), but the primary academic-freedom consequence was individual.

When the UC regents uninvited Larry Summers, they damaged the environment of the UC system as a forum for all sorts of ideas. By pressuring the regents to withdraw the invitation through a petition protesting the speaking engagement, some UC Davis faculty were violating the principle that a university welcomes a broad variety of voices. While you could argue that the regents damaged Summers's reputation in some way by the disinvitation, and they certainly damaged their own reputation, the greater violation is to the university environment writ large.

I am guessing that some commentators will jump on the actions over the last week as evidence of an institutional double standard. They are seeing Summers as some icon of academic rectitude from his battles at Harvard. I'm not sure it says anything other than the weak-willed nature of the UC regents as a body, something made evident by their inability to oversee the extravagance of two UC presidents. While they're not as incompetent and corrupt as Auburn's trustees, they're not exactly watching the store, and the UC system suffers in the meantime

September 22, 2007

Andrew Meyer, disruptions, and free speech

The news has been flying on the tasering of Andrew Meyer at a University of Florida speech of Senator John Kerry. The best serious commentary is from former Florida Alligator editor Ron Sachs:

Stephen Colbert has his own take on events:


August 14, 2007

ACTA'n up

It took four days for ACTA's blog to respond to the Center for Responsive Politics' report on political giving within higher education. And, true to form, the entry attempted to link contributions to classrooms:

Intellectual diversity is not, of course, reducible to party affiliation, and the professoriate's campaign contributions do not themselves tell us what happens inside college classrooms. Still, the numbers are suggestive, and they do indicate cause for concern.

I'm glad there was at least some caveat about the implications, but my prediction that someone would overgeneralize came true: there was no acknowledgment that the data is unrepresentative of faculty as a whole. When you do that, it's simply cherry-picking data to suit your preconceptions.

August 10, 2007

Political involvement, proxies of

new report on political giving by higher-education employees is sure to provoke more fallacious arguments about politics and academe. Some things to keep in mind:

  • The report includes data on all higher-ed employees, and is about all giving. Without more information (which the Center on Responsive Politics wouldn't have), we don't know how much of the giving was by faculty, how much by administrators who used to be faculty, and how much by adminsitrators who never were faculty. My guess (but it could easily be wrong) is that a slight majority of the giving was by current faculty but that administrators were more likely to give larger amounts.
  • Employees in the top 10 giving institutions account for about 20% of all giving. That's 10 out of hundreds... or 19, if you include the fact that the U.C. system has 10 campuses. Wow. The disproportionate giving suggests that at most colleges and institutions, a much lower proportion of employees contribute to political campaigns at all. (I.e., this data is not representative of most faculty across the country.) If you just count Harvard, U. of California, William and Mary, and Columbia, that's 11% of the total giving. More than 10% of all political contributions this cycle are coming from just 13 institutions. It's still an amazing statistic, and it's even more amazing that the other three individual places outdo the U.C. system.
  • The top 10 giving institutions are also disproportionately favoring Democrats, 87%-13%. The rest is closer to 73%-27%, which still favors Democrats, but there's a clear difference in patterns.
  • What political contributions say about teaching and research is ... very little. But watch for the giant gaps in reasoning that make such assumptions.

Update: And the first fallacy award goes to ... David French. As John Wilson notes, the key question on the size of contributions by industry is the contribution per employee.

July 25, 2007

Ward, not redux

So Colorado's Regents have fired Ward Churchill. I've written about this at other times, but let me summarize things briefly:

  • The beginning of the investigation was political.
  • There were legitimate challenges to Churchill's research record, some identified before and some sent to Colorado after the political furor began.
  • The charges tied to Churchill's speech rights were thrown out and were not part of the formal investigation of Churchill's research.
  • Faculty who looked at Churchill's record said he had engaged in a systematic pattern of research misconduct.
  • Churchill has neither acknowledged nor expressed regret for the serious problems the faculty panels identified.
  • Faculty panels have been fragmented on the appropriate response to Churchill's research misconduct. Some recommended suspension for various periods, some recommended dismissal.

I'm not a lawyer, but given the procedural due process, I'm guessing the only leg Churchill has to stand on is the question of whether dismissal is an appropriate sanction. That is, while several faculty committees have decided that he committed research misconduct, Churchill's lawyer might argue that dismissal was disproportionate punishment and was clearly motivated by politics, even if the factual findings weren't. (Let me be clear: Churchill's lawyer is sure to argue that the findings are wrong, too, but I don't think that claim has a chance of a snowball in West Palm Beach.)

The first question is whether there is a record of sanctions in previous cases in Colorado where there has been a finding of research misconduct. Local precedents can be powerful, and that will depend on the evidentiary record. If you're gazing from the peanut gallery, you might look for findings of research misconduct reported by the Department of Health and Human Services. I've found one, about Wei Jin from Colorado State University (2007), but Jin was a doctoral student, so that case does not provide a precedent. There may be others, but I'm not sure they would be available online. (That would be part of the discovery process for a lawsuit.) If there are multiple cases where tenured faculty members found guilty of serious research misconduct have been given multi-year sanctions but not fired, Churchill's lawyer will have a field day, arguing that firing Churchill is disproportionate to the factual record within the university or the state's public institutions.

If there is no such record, Churchill's lawyer could look at the national record of cases. Where there is evidence of multiple problems, in what proportion of cases is the result termination, resignation, or a lesser sanction? And is there any way to gauge what determines the sanction from the record?

The last resort of Churchill's lawyer would be to claim that Hank Brown and the Regents had specific intent to punish Churchill disproportionately. If someone can dig up a smoking-gun statement of intent, that might be persuasive, but if the claim in court is that circumstantial evidence points to an ideological intent, you'll know that Churchill's lawyer either is incompetent or couldn't find favorable evidence in the record of research-misconduct sanctions.

Update: Read the legal filing by Churchill's lawyers. Greg Lukianoff has more on Churchill's legal prospects.

July 23, 2007

Salute to Chris Perez

A Fishy View of Education neatly skewers the flawed reasoning of Stanley Fish, for Fish believes in a very narrow view of free speech and academic freedom. Bravo.

Wrong questions on Ward Churchill

Yesterday, Aaron Barlow asked the political questions about l'affaire Churchill at Free Exchange on Campus. To Barlow, the central issue is the public perception of higher education. In responding to "those on all sides who try to make Churchill and his presumed guilt or innocence an emblem for their greater argument about academia," So he cites ACTA's "How many Ward Churchills" screed and the ACLU letter released over the weekend. But Barlow then repeats the error:

If nothing else, the Churchill case points out the fact that we need to seriously consider the question of whether we academics are doing enough to police ourselves. The next time those attacking academia come up with a particular person to attack, will we be confident that our defense of that person will not open us up to further accusations of protecting the unqualified or dishonest?

Barlow is right that the symbolic politics are important in some ways. But the critical question in each individual case is academic due process, not public perception. Should we warp academic due process to match what we think should happen, or what those outside academe think should happen? I haven't seen that in the actions of faculty at Colorado, but Barlow appears more concerned with perception than due process. And that is worrisome.

July 12, 2007

Objectivists objected to?

FIRE's Tara Sweeney succinctly describes the problems with Ashland University's denial of tenure to classicist John Lewis.

Ashland University was perfectly happy to take a $100K gift from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. When institutional leaders are willing to take the money and run, claims that special institutional missions trump lay notions of academic freedom ring hollow. (This was only one of the problems with the tenure denial.)

Lewis eventually received tenure, contingent on the perverse condition that he resign. He's at Bowling Green State University for a fellowship next year.

June 25, 2007

Ward Churchill and the politicization of research misconduct

The procedural conflict in l'affair Churchill is between the need for any institution to investigate serious charges of research misconduct and the need for colleges and universities to be buffered from political pressures that interfere with academic freedom. In most cases, outside political pressures raise issues that are easily dismissed (at least by serious faculty) as inappropriate reasons to discipline or fire anyone. But in the case of Churchill, the internal processes stripped away the political charges and focused on serious, substantive charges of research misconduct. That fact doesn't completely satisfy the discomfort that many on and off the Boulder campus felt about the investigation, something that the investigating committee noted in its May 2006 report:

[T]he Committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation. The Committee's disquiet regarding the timing of these allegations is exacerbated by the fact that the formal complainant in the charges before us is the Interim Chancellor of the University, despite the express provision in the Laws of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado that faculty members' "efforts should not be subjected to direct or indirect pressures or interference from within the university, and the university will resist to the utmost such pressures or interference when exerted from without." Nevertheless, serious claims of academic misconduct have been lodged and they require full investigation and responsible and fair treatment. (p. 4)

The committee then chose a horrible analogy, a sloppy comparison that I hope its members now regret:

The Committee has attempted to provide that investigation, keeping the background and origins of this particular dispute out of our consideration of the particular allegations. To use an analogy, a motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker, and who otherwise would have been sent away with a warning, is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer's motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder's exercise of her right to free speech. No court would consider the improper motive of the police officer to constitute a defense to speeding, however protected by legal free speech guarantees the contents of the bumper sticker might be. (p. 4, immediately following the above excerpt)

This analogy has been repeated and discussed ad nauseam, from the University of Colorado Silver and Gold to The Rhetoric Garage blog and beyond. As Eugene Volokh noted at the time, the committee had the law wrong and the situation wrong. But I'm not going to attempt to correct the metaphor, since I agree with Howard Becker that metaphors are inherently dangerous in social science writing and other nonfiction. The committee made this mistake in an effort to cleanse its own work of the polluting allegation it knew would come with publication, claims that the investigation was only proceeding because of the political pressure from the outside.

The analogy failed to convince skeptics because it couldn't, even if it had been correct in the interpretation of the law. A university research-misconduct investigation is not a court proceeding, and even the most careful, scrupulously-clean procedure is still vulnerable to political interference. That is one of Ellen Schrecker's points in No Ivory Tower: The fact that universities often paid meticulous attention to procedural niceties when investigating allegations in the McCarthy era did not absolve them from having responded to outside pressure and having dismissed faculty for political reasons. Given our history, who could expect faculty to pass over the political context of the Churchill investigation?

At virtually every step, the faculty involved in Colorado have taken pains to acknowledge that context and say they did their best to address the substantive charges fairly. After racking my brains to find some way that the University of Colorado could have addressed the substantive charges without the political shadow over an investigation, I have failed; there is no way around the political context, no way to purify the process.

Having said that, I find the investigating committee's report persuasive in its argument that Churchill engaged in a long-term, unrepetant pattern of unprofessional research misconduct. Are the delay between the political pressures and the investigation, the faculty-centered fact-finding, and the processes enough to make the recommendation for firing Churchill reasonable? Unless someone can suggest another way, my answer is yes, or at least, this is the best that can be done.

That entirely ad-hoc answer doesn't mean that I am happy with the way that politics was deeply involved with setting the investigation in motion. It does mean that the university had the obligation to respond to the substantive charges, and unless Churchill's remaining defenders can suggest an alternative procedure that would have been better (and I haven't yet seen such a suggestion), the faculty-driven fact-finding process used was reasonable.

Having made that judgment, I am well aware that there could be politically-motivated allegations of research misconduct lodged regularly against faculty. Of course that's a possibility, but a few facts should put this concern in perspective. First, external, politically-motivated allegations against faculty are rarely about research integrity. Historically, they have been about extramural statements or activities (or teaching, more recently). Second, I would guess that there are politically-motivated allegations of research misconduct every year, but I would also hazard a claim that they are generally filed by other academics. Third, some argue that universities do not pay enough serious attention to legitimate allegations of research misconduct. None of these are salutary, but the larger point is that all investigations require attention to both procedural and substantive due process and the facts of a case. There is no magic formula for guaranteeing either integrity or academic freedom.

Update: Sometimes, I should look up what I've written before. In this case, it's useful to compare my entry today with one written May 18, 2006. I was more concise last spring. But no one has answered the question I raised then, as well as today: If the University of Colorado's process here was inappropriate, what would have been better?

June 20, 2007

Scimus quae legis, et non dicimus

There is now a t-shirt for the (thus far fictional?) Guild of Radical Militant Librarians.

Oh, I guess I'll have to translate: "We know what you read, and we're not telling."

May 30, 2007

Under scrutiny

In this morning's IHE article on Ward Churchill, we read one of the two serious arguments put forward by Churchill's defenders:

James Craven, a professor of economics at Clark College, in Washington State, said that Churchill was subjected to a level of scrutiny that few professors have ever faced or could withstand. "How many scholars could have their own work vetted as his was?" said Craven.

Without addressing motives and the horrible traffic-stop analogy that has been floating around the blogosphere in the last day or two, we can look at this as a separate issue, or rather two: as an empirical question of whether all scholars' work is as flawed as Churchill's and as a more general question of what type of scrutiny is appropriate when questions arise about any scholar's work.

First, to the empirical question: Could my work or that of most of my peers withstand the type of scrutiny that Churchill's had? I think the answer is easily. The problems that the peer reviews found at the University of Colorado were not matters of the occasional citation flub or typographical error, the missing acknowledgment of a peer or the "why don't you look at X's work?" question that is common in article manuscript reviews and in book reviews (if conjugated in the latter with the regretful past indicative instead of the suggestive imperative interrogatory). Churchill's errors were crucial to his intepretation, repeated, deliberate, and uncorrected.

Above all else, the last quality is what separates you and me and the birds from Mr. Churchill. If someone points out a mistake to me, or if I see it myself, I've tried to find some way to acknowledge and correct the error. If someone is truly after my hide, I will trust that my various attempts at errata will protect me from allegations of misdeeds if not criticism. And that's the difference between a legitimate investigation and a witch-hunt: a witch-hunt doesn't care about the evidence.

More generally, I'm not sure we can say what level of scrutiny is appropriate when conducting investigations, except to say that such an investigation is necessarily going to be broad-ranging and, er, um, usually will rely on published sources, material that we academics have written and sent out there to be read. Yes, boys and girls and grad students, the published work of academics is public. Despite some lingering doubts in the occasional subspecialty with 2-3 experts in the entire world, we generally write stuff that we want people to read, perhaps even understand. Under most circumstances, we would be highly flattered if someone read every one of our writings carefully.

The consequence of this small but important fact of academic life is that we have no complaints when our stuff is read closely. Apart from the occasional typographical error introduced by typesetting, the flaws in my writing are my fault, and I have no one to blame if someone actually reads it.

May 29, 2007

Ward, redux(ionist)

University of Colorado President has drafted a letter that would recommend that the university regents fire Ward Churchill. I'll admit that the comment on IHE's story by "Frizbane Manley" is hilarious, far better than any of Churchill's writings. I hereby recommend that Manley get tenure as a IHE commentator.

Oh, wait. You probably were expecting me to comment on the situation, right? Churchill fabricated, falsified, and plagiarized. Firing him wouldn't be awful, nor would a 5-year suspension without pay or a 2-year suspension without pay combined with stripping him of tenure and returning him to assistant professor status where he'd have to earn tenure just like he did origi— Oh, wait.  Right. End that last sentence after he'd have to earn tenure.

May 22, 2007

More on Haleh Esfandiari

The Iranian government's actions are getting far uglier in the case of Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American scholar who was detained after visiting her elderly mother. See more by Manan Ahmed and Engage, as well as the Free Haleh site (sponsored by the American Islamic Congress).

May 15, 2007

Iran arrests Haleh Esfandiari

Human Rights Watch is reporting the detention of the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars's Middle East program. She went to Iran to visit her mother and had her passports robbed shortly before she was to return, subjected to questioning when she asked for replacement travel documents, and then arrested a week ago.

As Jeff Weintraub notes, Esfandiari's arrest fits into a larger pattern of Iran's arresting intellectuals with dual citizenship in the West.

April 29, 2007

Corporate donors and universities

From the cutting-room floor: Adam Emerson and I talked for about half an hour last weekend while he was preparing today's article, Corporate U, and I think he did a nice job of putting the corporate sponsorship of one university program into a broader national contemporary perspective. I shouldn't be surprised that the historical perspective was left out (he quotes me far down in the story), but I thought I gave him the best statement on the history: "If you look just at the names of major universities like Leland Stanford University or Carnegie Mellon University, you'll understand that wealthy philanthropic influence on universities have a long history." I don't know if I said exactly those words, but it was close.

The other gripe is also minor: he quoted me on a general concern about the influence on the curriculum but not on the two questions I have in general:

  • Did a donor have substantive influence on the shape of the curriculum, or did the faculty sponsors determine the shape?
  • Did a program go through a university approval process controlled by faculty?

In talking with him, I said that there was no problem with professional programs having close relationships with the field, and many faculty have an obligation to keep close ties to practitioners, but that there was a difference between consulting with practitioners and turning your curriculum over to them. In this particular program, faculty seemed genuinely enthusiastic when they came to USF's undergraduate council, and I suspect they would have told Emerson that while they value Jordan Zimmerman's enthusiasm and support, they determine the curriculum. From what I understand, the program had existed for a number of years; this was a revision, not the creation of an entirely new entity.

Given that in the USF case, the program in question is advertising, I'm not surprised that the donor wants to claim far more influence than I suspect faculty would say he had.  After all, he wants to make a case for his own influence.

April 24, 2007

Nicholas Winset

An emerging academic freedom case at Emmanuel College is about a somewhat iconoclastic accounting adjunct who followed the college's advice to talk about Virginia Tech last week and then was fired for what happened in the classroom. At first glance, I wouldn't want to be an Emmanuel official defending their decision.

April 16, 2007

When is suspending a faculty member appropriate?

This morning's IHE story about Michael D'Andrea's paid suspension from the University of Hawaii Manoa (UHM) and ban from contacting colleagues raises tricky questions about the definition of discipline at a university and the appropriate treatment of faculty under investigation. From the apparent context of the case, it's clear that UHM is in the middle of attempting to document just cause to fire D'Andrea and that the administration faced what they considered a hard choice during the investigation. But the existence of hard choices does not justify any decision, and I'll explain below why this smells strongly of lawyering HR defensiveness more than an academic decision.

Technically, the UHM administration did not suspend D'Andrea but reassigned him to work from home. On the other hand, he was removed from classes; not given a substitute assignment; prohibited from coming to campus except to the university laboratory school for his child; prohibited from using his e-mail; asked to return his parking pass, office keys, all student work; and told not to contact anyone in his college except his significant other. All of this was apparently done without a hearing, though the IHE article is silent on whether there was an investigation that would satisfy the tests of just cause (University of Iowa HR version or the University of Missouri Labor Education version), in particular whether it gave D'Andrea a chance to respond to allegations.

The first concern I would have is the implications of the prohibition on using e-mail or access to the library for a faculty member's professional life. Access to library facilities and e-mail is critical to many faculty members' research. It's how we conduct research and communicate with our colleagues. There is no evidence of whether UHM is forwarding D'Andrea's e-mail to a private address or whether alternative arrangements are being made for his access to support that faculty normally have. Since he's in counselor education, a logical question is whether this "reassignment" is preventing his access to research participants on campus. For other disciplines, other questions would be relevant. It is this step that clearly interrupts one's career activities that makes me suspect the letter was drafted and directed by a lawyer with no clue to academic life.

The second concern is the pretense that this "reassignment" is not discipline. Without more information, I have to place this in a gray area in terms of what I can see in the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly collective bargaining agreement language, which has elaborate procedures for suspensions and firings and has a vague catch-all section for other discipline actions. The common-sense interpretation of UHM's actions is that it is discipline, given the stigmatizing effect of barring someone from campus and removing her or him from teaching until some clearly-ongoing investigation is concluded. (At least theoretically, D'Andrea could have taught from home using distance-learning techniques, so there was a clear choice not to keep his teaching assignment intact instead of that interruption flowing automatically from his ban from campus.)

So what is an administration to do if there appears to be a bona fide disruption/safety issue with a faculty member? It depends on the circumstances, but there are option that UHM didn't choose:

  • If there is a documented expectation of some violence, UHM could and should go to court to get a restraining order. Period. That would require the presentation of evidence and contain due process procedures (if not under the control of the administration). I have occasionally heard administrators hold out the criminalization of bad faculty behavior as something no one should want. But if there is a well-founded basis for expecting criminal behavior, you don't handle it administratively; you go through the courts, which comprise the proper channel.
  • If the issue is a violation of collegiality so severe that it becomes a discipline issue, the administration always has the choice of bringing in a faculty member, explaining the allegations that have been raised, promising a fair investigation, and explaining very clearly the consequences if the faculty member takes any action that could be interpreted as retalitation or intimidation. Having a union on campus is a help to the administration in this regard, not a hindrance. If I were in this position, I'd make sure a union rep is sitting in the room, listening to the entire spiel, because it's the union rep who's in the best position later to explain to the faculty member why intimidation or retaliation would be stupid. If UHM was banning D'Andrea from campus from a concern that he would immediately start a manipulative campaign against whoever his accusers are, they're engaging in a type of prior restraint, a "we're not going to let you talk to peers in fears of what you might say" decision. (To be honest, if the expected behavior is a manipulative campaign, then couldn't UHM essentially invite him to seal his own fate in that way?)
  • If the concern is about a faculty member's mental state (e.g., a psychotic episode or hypomania), then the appropriate step would depend on the person and circumstances and requires some knowledge of mental illness, but apart from true safety emergencies, a leave of absence seems far more appropriate than UHM's actions. (See Mark Grimsley's column on working in academe with bipolar disorder for examples of sensitive, appropriate collegial responses to troubling behavior.)

There is a provision in our own collective bargaining agreement at USF which allows a paid suspension of a faculty member during an investigation. That provision is silent as to the faculty member's access to university facilities during the suspension or appropriate accommodation to satisfy the reasonable interests of all parties. What is not appropriate is to interrupt the professional life of a faculty member, fail to accommodate legitimate interests in the middle of an investigation, and then pretend that the constellation of choices was not disciplinary in effect.

March 19, 2007

Indoctrinate U - No screenings

So I went to the Indoctrinate U website on screening locations and dates this morning and ... there's nothing there yet.

March 4, 2007

Freakonomics author fails history of econ 101

Steven D. Levitt gets an "F" for understanding the history of his own discipline in his blog entry Let's just get rid of tenure (including mine).  He writes,

The idea that tenure protects scholars who are doing politically unpopular work strikes me as ludicrous. While I can imagine a situation where this issue might rarely arise, I am hard pressed to think of actual cases where it has been relevant.

Apparently Levitt never heard of the 1940s pressure of dairy interests to force the withdrawal of Iowa State College's pamphlet on the economic benefits of margarine in a wartime economy, Ted Schultz's defense of the pamphlet, and Schultz's leaving Iowa State in disgust afterwards. I had assumed that was common lore among economists, given Schultz's status in the field, but maybe I'm wrong.

Update: Kevin Carey disputes the significance of my remarks. I will acknowledge that in the rush of yesterday evening I went for the credibility issue that struck me, suggesting that Levitt was shooting from the hip rather than thinking about his own discipline. (There are still vested interests in economics.) I'll stick with that judgment and let others go for the main issue of whether academic freedom requires tenure. ... for now. It's the week before spring break, and too many things to do to give a full response.

February 16, 2007

Arizona legislators want historians to stop talking about Brown v. Board of Education

John Wilson points out the obvious flaws in Arizona SB 1612, the latest attempt to channel David Horowitz's idiocy. To wit, the proposed 15-511(D)(3) Arizona Statutes would be created, prohibiting Arizona faculty from being able to ...

Endorse, support or oppose any pending or proposed litigation in a local, state or federal court or endorse, support or oppose any judicial action taken by a local, state or federal court.

That means that if an history teacher in any Arizona public school or an historian employed at an Arizona university says that Brown v. Board of Education was the right decision in 1954 (i.e., endorsing "a judicial action taken by a ... federal court"), they'd be breaking the law.

Incidentally, that would also be true for anyone commenting on Marbury v. Madison.


February 11, 2007

Delighted at Drew's destiny

I'm one of the many people who has crossed paths with Drew Gilpin Faust over the years, and while Harvard is only one university, I'm very happy that Faust got picked as president. I never had a class with her when I was in grad school at Penn, but she was well-known for being serious and supportive, I found her the same, and there is nothing in the last 15 years to contradict the reputation she had among grad students.

She will do just fine as Harvard's president.

There is one apocryphal story I have of her role in saving House of Our Own, an independent bookstore on the 3900 block of Spruce Street in Philadelphia. For many years, it's operated out of the same brownstone building owned by Penn.  While I was a grad student (and several times since), Penn threatened to end its lease for various alleged purposes, including supposed redevelopment or repurposing of the building, though grad students generally supposed that the university thought that House of Our Own competed with the campus bookstore (which it did, or would have if the campus bookstore ever had a significant intellectual focus).

In any case, during one of those occasional crises, Faust and her husband Charles Rosenberg were offered jobs at Harvard. They either asked to talk to or were invited to talk to Penn's then-president, Sheldon Hackney (a Southern historian, like Faust). Hackney asked why they would ever consider Harvard.

"Harvard wouldn't shut down a small bookstore operating in Harvard Square!" is the comment I've heard attributed to Drew Faust. She and Rosenberg stayed at Penn a few more years, and the bookstore stayed open, though I don't know if there's a connection.

February 2, 2007

Texas Governor to Faculty at UT-Pan American: You Suck

Well, that's probably not the explicit intention of Governor Rick Perry when he released his plan to link multiple-choice exams to higher-ed funding increases, but I think the analysis described in the article is dead on:

Other critics said that the system was set up in a way that would reward places like the University of Texas at Austin - where graduates are likely to perform well on standardized tests. As a result, these critics fear, money will flow to the wealthiest universities and not to the institutions in south Texas that serve Latino students who are less likely to have attended competitive high schools.

On the good side, the governor proposed plenty of moolah. On the bad side, it's tied to a perverse system of incentives (multiple-choice exams in history?  sheesh). On the good side, the Texas legislature has already started its session, and sometimes mid-session proposals in state legislatures die simply from lack of time. On the bad side, we're talking about the Texas legislature, which is now without the sharp oversight of Molly Ivins.

On the good side, I'm talking about our society's trust in testing this morning, and I can now start with Texas and end with football.

January 7, 2007

Lack of perspective at the American Historical Association

Yesterday was eventful at the third day of the American Historical Association annual meeting in Atlanta but not in a good way.

  • Police arrested Tufts faculty member Felipe Fernandez-Armesto for jaywalking and put him in jail until the prosecutors dropped charges, embarrassed.

  • The AHA business meeting failed to approve a strongly-worded measure opposing campus speech codes and approved only a watered-down resolution "free speech zones."

So it looks like Atlanta police think jaywalking is a worse crime than murder and those who attended the AHA business meeting think that the only type of speech restrictions they needed to take a stand on yesterday were so-called "free speech zones."

Is there something about Atlanta this weekend that saps one's judgment? I have friends there this weekend for various events, and I just hope everyone's judgment returns by the time they hit the highway.

December 20, 2006

Proselytizing teachers

Tina Kelley's New York Times story about David Paszkiewicz's proselytizing in a high school class has raised a number of questions about the First Amendment and whether a teacher's academic freedom should trump parental concerns that their children not be subject to inappropriate pressures outside the curriculum. Let me cut to the chase: what Paszkiewicz did (which was apparently caught on tape—see the transcript) is inappropriate, but my entirely non-legal view is that it's not a First Amendment issue until his supervisors know of it and do nothing. It's the point when the student or parents complain that the school's responsibility really starts. Myth-fact time...

Myth: Academic freedom doesn't exist for K-12 teachers.
Fact: Legally, K-12 teachers generally have fewer rights than courts will recognize, except those written into collective-bargaining agreements. I don't know of any K-12 union contract that has the type of language on academic freedom that mine at a university level does. But K-12 teachers have some substantive rights in the classroom; see Daly, Schall, and Skeele, eds., Protecting the Right to Teach and Learn (2001), as well as a 1999 article by John Strope, for a broader discussion.
Myth: Academic freedom allows teachers to proselytize.
Fact: Ha! Er, um, let me expand a bit on that. Teachers have wide latitude in the classroom in instructional methods and what they teach, and they're allowed to be devil's advocates in all sorts of situations. (I push the argument for vouchers when I get a class when everyone is dead-set against vouchers, argue against them when everyone is for, and in general take a contrary position whenever the class opinion clearly needs challenging.) Furthermore, in many ways it's foolish to micromanage a classroom; in that regard, John Wilson is correct that one of the reasons for academic freedom is "not because we like teachers to be so stupid, but because the dangers of trying to restrict such comments are substantial." On the other hand, that doesn't give either K-12 teachers or higher-education faculty free reign. Minor goofs are one thing. Behavior that actively interferes with students' rights or ability to learn is something entirely different.  The position of that dividing line is debatable, and the conditions for examining what happens in the classroom are up for discussion, but the line and those conditions exist.
Myth: It's (il)legal to record your teacher as evidence about alleged teacher misbehavior.
Fact: The legal standing of such recording depends on state law. The controversy over Paszkiewicz's actions is only the latest example of what Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik has called the YouTube effect. University of Florida management lecturer John Hall was caught on tape apparently stoned (though he was recorded through a university program that he knew about, not by a student), and Orange Coast College teacher Kenneth Hearlson was vindicated (after considerable pressure) when the tape a student made in an attempt to incriminate Hearlson turned out not to have the events that the complaining students alleged.
Myth: The teacher was violating the First Amendment when proselytizing.
Fact: Here's the tricky bit: Is a public-school teacher an employee of the state or The State when teaching? Remember that teachers have the ordinary right to free expression when not "on duty" as a teacher as well as some rights in the classroom that distance the teacher from being The State -- so, for example, a Prostestant teacher is not required to take off a necklace with a small cross when starting his or her day. In addition, teachers are human beings, and for us to insist that classroom K-12 teachers keep straight when they are Acting As the State and acting as an individual is an unreasonable expectation. Much saner: the school district and school are part of the state and responsible for having policies that follow the First Amendment and supervising teachers. Following those policies or principal's directives is what the teacher is responsible for.
Myth: Was there a violation of the First Amendment?
Fact: According to both sides, the teacher stopped proselytizing when the administration directed that it stop.

Why is the LeClair family suing the school district, if the teacher stopped proselytizing? From father Paul LeClair's discussion forum explanation November 26, I infer there are two possible reasons: the student asked for an apology (an acknowledgment that the behavior was wrong) and never received it, and the student reported verbal retaliation by the teacher.

The teacher's response was to stop the behavior (he had no choice), but no apology. On the contrary, he started making remarks in class that were directed against Matthew, though at that time none of the other students knew what had happened. All they knew was that something was different. Had the teacher responded appropriately and had appropriate corrections been made, that would have ended the matter.

If the retaliation is documented, that's the worse thing for the school district to allow. And technically, I suspect that Matthew LeClair would have had a greater claim (and probably more chance of success) requesting that the administration acknowledge that proselytizing was wrong and stating clearly that it would not allow further proselytizing or retaliation. I'm curious, though, why Paul LeClair didn't write a cease-and-desist letter to the district. That usually comes before a lawsuit, and it's often effective.

Update: Paul LeClair notes that they have not (yet) sued.

November 16, 2006

Want a higher-ed union job?

The United Faculty of Florida's wonderful executive director, Steve Weinberger, is leaving Florida and his job, and we need a replacement.  Want a challenge?  Fill his shoes!


Vacancy Announcement

POSITION: UFF Executive Director/FEA Manager of Higher Education

LOCATION: A service unit of one local with approximately 4,000 members in twenty-four bargaining chapters (11 state university faculty, 1 private college faculty, 9 community college faculty, and 3 graduate assistant) throughout the state. The unit’s office is located in Tallahassee, Florida.

RESPONSIBILITIES: To supervise and administer the day-to-day operations and programs of the state UFF office. Supervise and manage the other staff of the service unit, consisting of two professional and three associate staff. Oversee the office and business operations of the service unit, and report to the unit’s President, Steering Committee, Council of Presidents, and Senate. Provide consultation and assistance to elected leaders and members in the areas of bargaining, contract administration/grievance adjudication, business management, membership development, leadership and organizational development, internal and external communications, governmental and political advocacy, member and human rights, education reform, and other areas of interest or concern to the organization and its members. Represent the interests of Higher Education faculty and graduate assistants to the Florida Legislature and other appropriate public agencies.

QUALIFICATIONS: Master’s Degree minimum; Doctoral Degree preferred. Familiarity with Association work as member, leader or staff. At least two years as Higher Education service unit or organizing staff or comparable experience preferred; including organizing, bargaining, contract administration/grievance adjudication, office and budget management, membership development, leadership and organizational development, internal and external communications, governmental and political advocacy, member and human rights, and education reform. Management experience in working with staff and programs.

COMPENSATION & BENEFITS: Salary commensurate with qualifications, training and experience. Association provided medical, disability, life and dental insurance; employer-paid retirement; vacation, sick leave, and holidays.

CONTACT: Send letter of application, resume, and personal references to: Ms. Lynn Cavall, Director of Organizational Development/Human Resources, Florida Education Association, 213 South Adams Street, Tallahassee, Florida, 32301.


EMPLOYMENT DATE: As soon as possible.

UNITED FACULTY OF FLORIDA/FLORIDA EDUCATION ASSOCIATION IS AN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION/EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER. Consistent with the FEA Affirmative Action Plan, minority, female and physically challenged applicants are encouraged to apply.

October 13, 2006

Why I'm not a member of the American Historical Association and speech codes

Since October 7th's Clipatria blog entry by Ralph Luker about the anti-speech-code resolution he and David Beito are sponsoring for January 2007 meeting of the American Historical Association, I've been wondering how to respond. It wasn't about the resolution itself (about which I'll talk later) but the fact that I haven't been an AHA member for years, and why I haven't.

It's the Job Registry, also known as the Professional Respect Abattoir. I don't mean that search committees kill professional respect.  Outside the Job Registry (and similar institutions at the American Philosophical Association and other professional organizations), they're as good as they can be (though I have heard my share of horror stories from colleagues about their job searches).  And inside the Job Registry, they do their best laboring in a structure that is guaranteed to treat applicants as scam victims.

Let me start with the AHA's own guidelines for the hiring process: "Interviewing and hiring should be based solely on professional criteria." But that's not what happens at the Job Registry, which weeds out starving grad students and other applicants who cannot afford to travel to the AHA.  To interview at a campus, an applicant needs to have sent in an application, prepare a job talk and several things if there is a teaching exercise, have appropriate professional attire, and go. To interview at the Job Registry, an applicant needs to do the above, pay the registration fees, housing costs, and then travel and eat in an expensive convention-hotel area.  Because search committees don't contact applicants until late in the fall, after the best airfares are often gone, those who are on a job search generally have to make plans (and pay for travel) before hearing whether they'll actually be interviewed.

And then there's the environment of the job registry itself.  From a 1972 report of the AHA:

Too often graduate students have been forced to think of the annual convention as, indeed, a slave block, and the arrangements provided have done nothing to diminish that impression. As employment opportunities have decreased, this sense has become even more acute.

I wrote about this in 1998 and 2001, but if you don't believe me that the registry is doomed to have a graveyard stench, take a more recent gander of the sense of Another Damned Medievalist (from 2004):

People were right. The meat market set-up tends to create a group of job-sekers who exude fear, paranoia, jealousy, and hatred.

What I wrote more than five years ago is still true: I am certain that AHA officials have gone to great efforts to make an essentially humiliating experience a tad less like a meat market. Maybe it's now a quieter abattoir. Departments continue to spend hundreds of dollars to send exhausted faculty to places where they get headaches listening to desperate graduate students or Ph.D.s who spent hundreds of dollars getting to the AHA for the sole purpose of the job registry. Why? Because that's how history departments "have always" conducted searches since the change from old-boy networks to advertised searches with bureaucratized procedures. Having interviews at the AHA has an opportunity cost, given fixed costs for searches: reducing the number of candidates invited to campus. I'm not saying that academic searches in fields without a similar forum are more ethical or less painful for the unsuccessful applicants. However, they are less expensive for both applicants and the searching campus. In today's environment, with the capacity to have teleconferencing at a relatively low cost to an institution (given the existing infrastructure), and where grad students and independent scholars can participate in such virtual interviews at low cost to them, it's inexcusable to use "the way we've done it in the past" to justify the continued existence of the Job Registry.

So, back to the AHA resolution on speech codes.  See more from Michael Berube, Hiram Hover, Luker's response, and Hover's rebuttal. I'm surprised that Hiram Hover refers to the AAUP statement on speech codes, since it uses the term in precisely the way that HH thinks is sloppy and is forceful in a way that HH doesn't find justified.  But no matter: if you are going to quibble about the terminology (which I think is essentially what's going on), then suggest alternative language.  Since the AHA passed the resolution on the misnamed Academic Bill of Rights last year, it's perfectly appropriate to push something on speech codes.

Also, the AHA is in Atlanta on a weekend where there's another event I frequent, so I could combine business with pleasure (I'm not sure which would be which).  But if this resolution passes, maybe I'll become active, if only to shut down the Job Registry once and for all.  Anyone want to help me with the logistics of getting a resolution to the floor removing the Job Registry?

October 10, 2006

Have New Yorkers forgotten their manners?

What is it with academic-freedom news from the Big Apple recently, from the interruption of a speech by a Minuteman founder at Columbia to the cancellation of a speech by Tony Judt at the Polish Consulate? Is there something in the water? 

I can talk about this because my father was from Brooklyn (Flatbush, in fact) and my wife is from New York. My older paternal uncle was born and died in New York. I know what New York manners are:

First you let them speak.  Then you yell at them.

October 8, 2006

ACTA discussions

So where would you have a serious discussion about the future of academe, where you'd talk about a thoughtful core curriculum across the country, because you think everyone has a right to the intellectual tools of a good liberal education?  You know, the stuff that shouldn't be the exclusive privilege of the elite?

Harvard's faculty club, of course.

Maybe I'm stuck in a backwater with only 40,000+ students, more than $100 million in annual faculty salaries, a few hundred millions in extramural grants, etc., but am I wrong in thinking that an obsession with whatever Harvard does, including its curriculum, and putting an ACTA roundtable at Harvard is just a mite unhealthy?

See ACTA's blog entry and also Margaret Soltan's blogging on the day, part I, part II, and part III. ACTA gets credit for inviting John Wilson to be on a panel about academic freedom (why not someone from AAUP?). Soltan's also right that ACTA needs to have some serious engagement with faculty who disagree with their perspective (not about faculty largely in their absence).

September 24, 2006

In the "when will they learn?" department of academic freedom

Vandals ruined a run of a conservative student newspaper at the University of Georgia Tuesday. (Hat tip: Ralph Luker.)

To whichever jerks did this: Great way to model respect for diversity, folks. Congratulations for advancing civil discourse. You've shown your clear moral superiority.  Now, please don't claim you're speaking for me or others on the left.

Okay, sarcasm mode off: This vandalism happens on and off on campuses; my vague recollection is hearing a story about such vandalism somewhere in the U.S. roughly once every two years or so. Though the news reports I've read aren't specific about investigations, I assume the publisher and editors filed a police report.  The question for the U.G. administration is whether they'll make a public stance against vandalism of student publications.

September 17, 2006

Michael Bérubé in the NY Times

Michael Bérubé's The Academic Blues is a succinct response to claims of academic bias and a must-read.

September 10, 2006

9/11 and academic freedom, the weird side

And now, just days after Brigham Young suspended physicist Steven E. Jones, there's an article about pressure on the University of New Hampshire to fire William Woodward, who (like Jones and Kevin Barrett) is a member of Scholars For 9/11 Truth. Especially troubling is word that ACTA has called for an investigation into Woodward, presuming that because he's a nut on 9/11, he must be bringing it into classes and is otherwise suspect.

To borrow from Evelyn Hall (who put a certain saying in Volaire's mouth... long story), I think Barrett, Jones, and Woodward are dead wrong on 9/11, but I will defend their rights to academic due process. Ad-hoc investigations outside established procedures are generally dangerous on campuses, and the pattern of attacks on these relatively marginal figures makes me wonder what's behind them. They're not going to convince large numbers of people that the WTC fell because someone planted thermite in the buildings, and in some ways the attacks on them will bring attention to their views.

I can think of a few explanations, but none is satisfying (see the full entry):

  1. The new lese majeste. If this hypothesis is true, some people think that the 9/11 conspiracy claim somehow attacks the head of state and our government in an illegitimate fashion. Major weakness: I don't know of any widespread attempts to fire other faculty who disagree with Bush on a whole host of policy issues.
  2. Pure politics. If this hypothesis is true, the attack on 9/11 conspiracy theorists is designed to attack political outsiders. Major weakness: See the weakness with #1 above.
  3. A sacred memory. If this hypothesis is true, some people view the public memory of 9/11 as sacred, and challenging that memory violates our commitment to remember the day in a certain way. Weakness: Given the arguments this weekend over the ABC fictionalization auto-mockumentary fraudulent folktale, I'm skeptical that there is some sacred consensual memory.
  4. Attacks on academic freedom as cultural capital. Personally, I'm partial to this explanation, that those who attack academics and know of other attacks somehow are sharing some visceral experience. It's like... an echo chamber with endorphins! Yes, that's it. Weakness: while this explanation might be consistent with social networks, there is (as yet) no evidence that there is a social network behind the attacks.

But enough of such lingua franca-style academicizing. Thus far, UNH has resisted the pressures. Kudos to New Hampshire Chancellor Stephen J. Reno!

9/11 conspiracy theories and academic freedom

Brigham Young University has placed physicist Steven Jones on paid leave while it investigates his publications related to 9/11 and his claims that evidence shows the use of thermite in the collapse of the WTC. Let me state right off the bat that I don't find his argument credible. Jones is also one of the original cold-fusion gang (though with important differences from Pons & Fleischmann)—not exactly someone to inspire confidence in fringe engineering judgments.

Nonetheless, putting someone on paid leave is extraordinary for a university and suggests that his actions are potentially so dangerous to the university that temporary separation is unavoidable. The danger of his employment? Well, it can't be to science, because fellow physicists were far kinder to Jones than to Pons and Fleischmann, and in any case the cold-fusion hullaballoo is a few decades back. You don't get scientific misconduct investigations a few decades later that suddenly become an extreme danger to a university.

BYU doesn't grant tenure. Apparently, Jones's status is "continuing employment." But the relevant question is not whether Jones's writings on 9/11 are scientifically correct and valued by the relevant community of scholarship. (They're not.) The question is whether Jones's work as a whole is of value. If 9/11 is his entire work right now, that's one thing, but it should come out in annual reviews (or whatever the regular evaluation mechanism is at BYU).

Putting Jones on paid leave suggests that the real danger that BYU feels is political embarrassment, always an unjustifiable motivation in dealing with faculty personnel issues.

September 3, 2006

Of liberal arts colleges, a core curriculum, and contingent faculty

One might suppose that the following is an object lesson about the type of overgeneralizing that Donald Kagan swims in for his Commentary magazine piece about imperious faculty. (Much better: head to University Diarist's corresponding entry and the fascinating comment thread.) Are faculty blocking a core curriculum either through their pomo aspirations or laziness/caring more about research? Given that Kagan wants us to see all institutions as he paints Harvard, I'm a bit skeptical, but let's head to another institution, one that not only is a liberal-arts college but one where the faculty deliberately tried to craft a common entry point for students.

About 23 years ago, give or take a week, we freshmen at Haverford College were at the end of Customs Week (i.e., orientation) and starting classes. Every one of us was enrolled in the new all-frosh English class that the faculty had decided was critical to a good undergraduate education. Before, there were composition classes and English requirements, and students who had certain AP scores had been exempt... but no longer.  We want everyone to go through a common experience, faculty explained to us. You will read Great Literature and have Intellectual Experiences.

For those who don't know about Haverford, it's a small (thousand-student) college that is still loosely associated with Quakerism. It has an honor code that students administer. In my day, students proctored the exams, where I chose which exam slot to take a final in, signed out the exam, walked to any of several available rooms, and completed the exam (usually with a handful of classmates who are taking finals from different classes). The full load was four courses, which made sense given the reading and general workload of courses. I was a bit of a geek even among Haverford students, but the environment was thoughtful and intellectual.

The faculty is small enough that they can all get together and debate the curriculum. It may take a large room, but they can fit into a big room (and not an auditorium). So they can craft a direction for undergraduate education, and they do, both within departments and the college as a whole. In the mid-1980s, the history department's intro history class was a large-for-Haverford (i.e., 150-person) lecture twice a week and then individual sections taught by faculty on Fridays. I truly enjoyed my first-year physics class (Lyle Roelofs and David Pine deeply impressed me as teachers), but the physics faculty were ambitious enough to redesign it entirely several years after I left. So when the faculty decided to create an all-frosh English experience, they meant it in a serious, ambitious way.

And so we exposed ourselves to Great Literature, such as Moby Dick and Invisible Man (the Ralph Ellison book, not the Claude Raines movie). We all tromped into Quakerish not-quite-comfortable Roberts Hall to listen to Literary Muckety-Muck mumble into the microphone about Ellison's meaning, we all had relatively small sections with individual faculty, and we wrote. Oh, we wrote.

Haverford is an all-undergraduate institution (well, not quite: I knew one masters student in biology when I was there in the mid-80s, but she was the only one as far as I was aware). So there were no graduate TAs to take on the burden of the English classes.  Every member of the English department took at least one section, but that wasn't enough. Even at Haverford, they could not manage to run a common experience, one with thoughtful, serious intellectual intentions, without either hiring contingent faculty or breaking down the commitments of the faculty in other departments to their own disciplines and the courses students expected to take in their majors. There was no other way to run the frosh English course, so the college hired contingent faculty.

I was taught by such a visiting assistant professor. He was nice and a Milton scholar. He told us in the spring that every time he taught Milton, the majority of the small class who took it had serious life crises. I'm not sure if that's the nature of Milton or those who study him, but in any case, he tried hard.  I think he tried a bit too hard—our papers were returned with all sorts of codes and different colors of pen and highlights for his comments—but he did his best under the circumstances and, a few years later, moved into banking. He came to our graduation, and for a few seconds I didn't recognize him.

But my first-year experiences at Haverford—taught by a visiting assistant professor not only in English but also in history and math—illustrate the limits of the teaching faculty at any institution with disciplinary boundaries and commitments to existing students. If you have existing, established courses of studies, where you must teach courses for majors, then who teaches the common-experience courses? You can't just rearrange the specialists to teach the general courses, because they're committed to the upper-division courses. You might stretch the faculty a bit to accommodate a few core courses, but the stretching is limited in those institutions where there already are problems covering the existing courses (i.e., in almost every public institution). 

If Haverford is one of the premier liberal-arts colleges, and it turned to contingent academic labor when instituting a partial core curriculum, what would happen if we instituted a true core curriculum with a limited set of mandatory courses? It matters not whether the faculty are imperious or what the standard ranked-faculty course load is: there just isn't enough wiggle-room in existing commitments to shift around where people teach. Unless a miracle happened and someone committed to hiring tenure-track faculty for these positions, we would see tremendous hiring of contingent labor to fulfill these responsibilities. We all know the grinding nature of English and math courses at state universities—here, where there is at least part of a potential core curriculum, we have the worst exploitation of contingent academic labor, the worst budget situation where the central administration treats the departments as teaching cash cows, and the worst gap between the promise and the reality of university education. Many who teach calculus and English comp do fabulous jobs, but they do so in spite of the conditions, not because of them.

The irony is that the disciplinary organization of a university—the boundaries that make a common curriculum almost impossible without exploiting contingent academic labor—is also what allows for deep intellectual exploration either for majors or for graduate students. Yet that disciplinary organization and the resource and prestige competition the disciplinary boundaries foster also encourage territorialization, turf defenses that dovetail with faculty identifying with a discipline. I tend to value that identification in many regards. I'm an historian in an interdisciplinary field (social foundations of education), but I am not competent to teach other things in education (such as psychology), and I am skeptical of efforts to infuse what we do in other courses. Yet I know that such a structure also creates limits. Part of the reason for the menu-like structure of distribution requirements is because allowing different departments to offer courses that satisfy the requirements evens out the burden of teaching the general-education reqirements more than might otherwise be the case.

I suspect that most of those who call for a core curriculum do not wrestle seriously with these institutional arrangements. I looked through ACTA's Becoming an Educated Person (2003) and could find no references to the funding or resource arrangements needed for what they define as a true core curriculum. I certainly wouldn't mind additional tenure lines in areas such as English, math, and history: there's nothing wrong with an historian's full employment law! But that's unlikely, and I'm not sure the alternatives would provide a sufficient base for a quality undergraduate education.

August 31, 2006

Two fundamental confusions over tenure and academic freedom

Two stories this morning Inside Higher Ed highlight basic confusions many have about tenure and academic freedom, respectively. 

  1. Tenure protects miscreants. Wharton emeritus L. Scott Ward was finally fired after a third arrest for pedophilia-related charges. Over several Penn administrations, Ward had been untouched.  Uh, er, not fired. We don't know whether there was any private reprimand in his file, but we can speculate why an administration wouldn't move against him even after he was on probation. And it has nothing to do with tenure's on-campus procedural protections and probably everything to do with expectations of protracted post-termination proceedings. Having a faculty review panel is not the issue. If I were on a faculty review committee looking at a pederast with a criminal record (he pleaded guilty in 1999), I'd have no problem saying, Get rid of the guy. And most of my colleagues would agree. At a college known for such stellar graduates as convicted fraudster Michael Milken, maybe it's a bad signal to send students when you have a convicted professor on the rolls? Even after his 1995 acquittal, the university could have started an investigation separately; not guilty is not the same as innocent.  (After is the important thing here; someone who is charged is not necessarily and should not be presumed to be guilty. One of my irritations with USF's campus administration is that it equated the indictment of Al-Arian in 2003 with proof. But that's a separate topic.) The fact that due process can be protracted and sometimes expensive is no reason to avoid investigating a faculty member.
  2. Academic freedom is institutional, not individual. Former dean and provost John Friedl's commentary today at IHE is a standard rhetorical ploy: point out extreme interpretations of academic freedom and use it to stake a claim to a narrowed definition. Of course I agree with Friedl on the specifics at issue (that a university can have a moderated, announcements-only e-mail list, and that a university can suggest which things you need to "cover" in a syllabus). But we don't have to agree on the general principles as a result.* It is true that the legal status of academic freedom as an individual privilege is less certain than as an institutional privilege, but that means neither that courts haven't seen it and won't see it as attached to individuals nor that it's a bad thing to tie academic freedom to our broader political freedoms. Tying academic freedom to institutions and not individual faculty and students turns academe into a rhetorical Masonic Order, a privileged society with no clear entrance rules and no connection of privileges to the broader society. If instead we see academic freedom as part of the same Enlightenment-era ideals of inquiry and dialog that also gave birth to the First Amendment, we have much stronger ground and a much more sensible way to argue for academic freedom..

* The extreme-example rhetorical ploy is part of the structure of talk radio, and I wonder if any English folks have looked at talk radio seriously. (Hey, English and American studies grad students: Suggest it to your advisor as a dissertation topic! And never say I wasn't practical on my blog.) Most callers to the Dr. Laura show are dysfunctional enough that they want to air their personal problems to a national audience.  "Dr. Laura, I love your show, and I am my kid's mom. My personal dilemma: Is it okay if my boyfriend just released from prison on pederast charges sleeps on the couch until he gets a place to live, while my 11-year-old is in the house on the weekends? We're not having sex, but he needs a little bit of help right now." No, I haven't heard this call, but it would fit in with the show.

Charles Miller's colloquy on CHE: dodging the market debate

Charles Miller appeared for a Chronicle of Higher Ed live chat about the Spellings Commission, and there were three—not just the one asked by me, but three—questions about markets and higher education.  Here are his responses, with my annotations in brackets:

That's a very broad and important question and deserves a better answer than I can offer here. [SJD: This sentence is an attempt to avoid the topic. It utterly fails, as you'll see below.] The Commission had a goal of creating a "National Dialogue." That dialogue must continue in order to resolve the balance. [This sentence is an attempt to assert that the report will address the balance between individual and collective goals without answering the question.] (We do not actually have a market system in higher education, in my opinion. [We'll see later what he defines as a market system.])

Well I think we do have competition among different sets of institutions, however I think competition does not automatically make a market system. [Mr. Miller must not understand the economists' concept of imperfect markets, including those for energy, food, etc.] I think competition can at times be very destructive. [Such as... ? Without talking about specifics, it's hard to know whether this statement is just lip service.] It is possible to argue that among certain sets of institutions we have the equivalent of an oligopoly, where there may be competition within a group of institutions, but that set of institutions has powerful advantages over other sets of institutions. Because higher education is heavily subsidized and regulated, and lacks serious penalties for poorer outcomes, and lacks transparency, it would be difficult to describe this as a market system. Worst of all, pricing information for individual participants is virtually secret. [Ah... the best way to address problems is by information. Very neoclassical in abstract, but there's this small problem that institutions sell credentials as much as an education, giving some students an incentive to want a credential with as little effort (or education) as necessary. The ideal information for such a student would be to look for high value-added credentials—schools with substantial reputations but where the work involved is at a minimum.]

I could agree that the private sector gets some direct and indirect subsidies through tax and other fiscal policies. However, direct subsidies from the federal government to so-called private colleges average 25 percent of revenues. [Why this focus on private institutions, when the vast majority of students attend public institutions?  And when there are dozens of very poor private colleges? The profligate private universities are easy targets.] In addition, substantial state and local subsidies, direct and indirect are made available, and federal tax subsidies as well. Historically, the performance of our colleges and universities has been world class. The question in a period of strong demand for public resources, is how to maintain that competitive advantage. [Here Miller heads away from the point of the question.]

And then, when asked about alleged liberal bias, he responded by referring to ... um, er ... markets:

Personally, I think where institutional biases exist those places will become less relevant. I think today's students will have access to information from many different sources, in many different forms, and if institutions don't adjust to that fact, they will become less valuable.

Clever dodge (though I'm happy that the Spellings Commission avoided the bias charge in its report)—and here comes the market again in a sly fashion. The problem with looking at higher education as an undifferentiated market is not only that there are multiple types of institutions but multiple goals of students. Students who look for the easiest, cheapest credential will love grade inflation at state institutions. Students who look for the easiest elite degree will love grade inflation at prestigious private colleges and universities. Students who want skills will be hard-nosed about the organization and preparation of faculty. Students who want a liberal-arts education want organization and preparation and the perspective of faculty. Most students are dissatisfied with faculty who are clearly biased and unrepentant (fill in the blanks) because they tend to be poorly-organized and fail to bring a broader perspective. But then students with some of the goals mentioned above might also be unhappy with faculty for other reasons unrelated to disciplinary biases. Markets are great for allocating resources in one type of arrangement, but for balancing different goals in a public good?  I'm not so sure.

The nuts and bolts of the regulatory apparatus will be at the heart of the post-report politicking this fall: so-called unit-record databases, accreditation, and student-aid issues. But Miller missed an opportunity to address the individual-vs.-collective-goal balance yesterday. I wish he hadn't. I don't mind and expected a solid response to the concerns I and others have raised. 

August 17, 2006

Academi-size it!

Gotta love Da Fish sometimes, when he uses cool jargon like "academicize" to explain the distinctions between legitimate teaching and propaganda in this tagline to the Christian Science Monitor piece on Kevin Barrett:

"That doesn't mean you can't bring current political questions into the classroom," he says. "But they have to be academicized."

Here, Stanley Fish's notion of non-propagandizing is far less, er, fishy, than his July 23 NYT op-ed (behind premium sub wall now), as I noted in this blog. I'm glad Fish has retreated from the precipice of academic freedom as mere formalism.

In other weirdness related to Barrett, AP's Justin Pope wrote an article on 9/11 conspiracy theories, stemming from the Barrett controversy, that implied that they were somehow semi-respectable among some subset. Pope failed to mention that BYU physicist Steven Jones, who is the darling of the conspiracy theorists, believes in cold fusion and that his WTC collapse theory has not been published in a refereed journal. Jones is reaching for rather rarefied accomplishments in nuttiness. One more, and he's got a trifecta.

But back to Fish. I love the term "academicize," all distancing and anesthetizing. I know that he means to put ideas in an academic context, to pin them down for studies, like an intellectual lepidopterist. I do the same myself, frequently. But the connotation is antiseptic. I'd rather have a bit of passion, myself, even if it's in counting the spots on spotted blueleaf conspiracy theory, myself. Then again, I could be accused of going overly sarcastic on occasion in blogging. Not always in an academic tone?  Hmmmn.

Okay, so accuse me of running a snidebar commentary. 

Dismissed lawsuit in San Jose State's education program

FIRE blogger Samatha Harris complains today about the summary dismissal of a federal lawsuit, Head v. Board of Trustees of California State University. Stephen Head alleged that his free-speech rights (among others) were violated in the education program of San Jose State University because one of his professors disagreed with his opinions and reportedly said he was "unfit to teach" because of them. Judge William Alsup dismissed the federal complaint for "failure to state a claim"—i.e., that even when one assumed that all of the plaintiff's factual statements were accurate, there was no legitimate cause in the complaint.

Head still has a lawsuit pending in state court, but the fundamental issue here (and probably in state court as well) is really that he's representing himself. Neither he nor I are experts in writing briefs or making legal arguments, and there are dozens of ways in which layfolk can mess up procedurally. And that happened here. While he was making claims of political discrimination, he was not contesting his grade in a course in federal court. That leaves it very difficult for anyone to see the concrete harm, if the essential complaint is that one professor and a department chair criticized him.

To see the logic of the judge's opinion here is not to judge the situation. Head's factual claims don't make the faculty members in question look sophisticated. That's just one side, of course, and I wouldn't expect a student who failed a course with a beef to represent the professor in the best light possible. But in any case, those statements would be grounds for criticizing the professor, not a lawsuit.

Harris is wrong to criticize the lawsuit's dismissal. If Alsup had allowed the case to proceed and eventually ruled for the plaintiff on these grounds, it would essentially give students veto power over faculty criticism. If there truly is a miscarriage of justice because of the grading practice, then let the point be on that, not what was said or not said in class as a basis for a lawsuit. If Head was foolish enough to file a lawsuit representing himself, a summary dismissal was one very likely result.

August 14, 2006

Kershnar and pacing

FIRE reported today that SUNY Fredonia gave philosopher Stephen Kershnar a promotion to full professor that had been denied earlier this year because, well, administrators didn't like Kershnar's criticizing them in public. Good for Kershnar and everyone else who helped fight this. That's a rapid turnaround on an academic freedom issue, relatively speaking, and good news.

ACTA's blog today has an odd comment implying that it is to the shame of AAUP that it didn't get publicly involved before the case was resolved. I have no idea whether the AAUP's staff has been involved at all, and neither does ACTA. In the past several years, there have been cases where FIRE went public long before AAUP. For example, in the case of Sami Al-Arian, FIRE went public with a letter to USF's president and simultaneous press release January 29, 2002 (41 days after the Board of Trustees star chamber proceeding meeting trying to direct his firing). A little over a week later the AAUP announced it would send an investigating committee to campus later in the spring. But I distinctly remember reading a letter that AAUP sent the university president earlier. Often, the first AAUP attempt to cope with a controversy is behind the scenes, to allow an administrator to save face. Again, I'm not saying that's what happened in the Kershnar case, but it's foolish to look at the timeline of what's publicly available and conclude that's all that's happening. And in the Al-Arian case, both FIRE and AAUP acted after faculty at USF did.

Incidentally, I need to go back and see if I published yet my comments on the Al-Arian case, now that the case is (nominally) over and he's been sentenced.

August 8, 2006

Will UCU respond to academic-freedom poll?

Expect a response this week from the University and College Union to the Times higher education supplement poll of academics in the UK indicating a large minority felt under pressure to limit their expression in teaching or research. The online article did not solicit any comment from the UK's higher ed union, but I expect it will be forthcoming.

July 27, 2006

Responses to Stanley Fish

The New York Times today published six letters to the editor responding to Stanley Fish's column Sunday. On writer agreed with Fish, one wish he had gone further, and the other four disagreed. Margaret Soltan has more.

July 24, 2006

Defending Ward Churchill??

A group of academics have now started signing a petition defending Ward Churchill, calling themselves Teachers for a Democratic Society. Essentially, the petition makes the argument both that the process leading to Churchill's dismissal has been flawed (and presumably will be flawed even though Churchill is in the middle of an appeal process with the third peer group that has looked at the case) and that the substance of the research-misconduct report is wrong:

In addition to these misgivings about context and process, the report contains other substantive problems. These include (1) an unreasonably broad and elastic definition of "research misconduct"; (2) a near-obsessive interest in dissecting a small number of paragraphs and footnotes from an otherwise "impressive" and "unusually high volume" of academic work, an analysis that virtually guaranteed the discovery of errors, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies even as it reaffirmed the validity of several "general points" and a core of "historical truth"; and (3) a failure to fully appreciate the "scholar activist" and "public intellectual" roles—roles that, on balance, expand and enrich the academic and journalistic enterprises—that Professor Churchill was clearly expected to fill when hired by the University of Colorado.

Let's skip over the misplaced modifier (a report doesn't have misgivings) and get to the fundamental issues:

  1. What was the definition of research misconduct used by the committee? Maybe I misread the report, but I think it was plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. That also happens to be the standard definition used in federal regulations, which is narrower than an older definition. Pray tell, what definition would be less broad and still have some basis in reason?
  2. Can one find research misconduct in the details of footnote use? Maybe it's my bias as an historian, trained in linking arguments to primary sources, but I have to say yes. There are two issues here, one of substance and a second of proportionality. As an historian, I should be insulted that someone calls a methodological interest in references "near-obsessive," but I simply find it sad. How else should we work? The second issue is one of proportionality—was there enough "misconduct" given the scope of Churchill's writings? I'm not sure if we read the same report—the scholars' description of errors went to the heart of Churchill's argument about the behavior of the U.S. military, among other things. Nor is this a matter of ordinary mistakes (which we all make) and which most of us are willing to acknowledge. When confronted with the errors, Churchill could have come clean and said, "I was terribly wrong in these instances." But that was not his response.

    To excuse the misconduct as being on the margins of the work, moreover, is to suggest that we only need to be accurate and careful when we're at the core of our argument. Plagiarism doesn't matter if it's not our central thesis? Falsification is irrelevant when we're only misstating someone else's work? And, even if this outrageous claim of disproportionality were accurate, it would not excuse the conduct given everything else we know (especially Churchill's failure to acknowledge error). Incidentally (or maybe not), this disproportionality claim was the same argument Jon Weiner used in Historians in Trouble—that Bellesiles was unfairly brought down by a few footnotes. Maybe some research-misconduct committees decide to act in a way similar to a careful prosecutor, focusing on a few slam-dunk incidents. That doesn't clear the person involved, especially if they have had plenty of opportunities to issue errata. (See Timothy Burke's take on Weiner.)

  3. Should scholar-activists be excused from research misconduct because they're politically active? Er, um, no. Someone who's a self-respecting academic could even entertain this argument?

Things start to look bad when Timothy Shortell is organizing this. What's especially embarrassing about the list of signatories is that it includes Mona Baker, who has been at the forefront of the loony side of British academe who want a boycott of Israeli academics. We should be worried about her views of academic freedom? Sheesh.

More at Inside Higher Ed's coverage. Update: My USF colleague Kathleen de la Peña McCook has signed the petition and explains her reasoning in the comments. Kathleen's actively defended academic freedom as a faculty member, inside the union, and as a member of the American Library Association. I suspect some of the other prominent signatories (not Shortell or Baker) are fairly close to Kathleen's position. Noon update: Definitely an interesting thread in comments. Join the fray!

Errata: In the IHE article comments, I erroneously referred to Timothy Shortell as the organizer of the webpage for Teachers for a Democratic Society. I assumed that from the fact that all of the blog entries on the front page were by him. Mea culpa. (See, Ward, it's not that hard to acknowledge errors...)

July 23, 2006

Spanking Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is perfectly entitled by academic freedom and our more general freedoms in this country to believe that There's No Such Thing as Free Speech... and It's a Good Thing, Too, but he's not entitled to misstate the record on Kevin Barrett without expecting some criticism. Fish claims that there is a dichotomy of views on Barrett's adjunct teaching at U. Wisconsin this fall, with supporters who

insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)

In the rest of the column, Fish argues that the primary determinant of Barrett's future should be whether he would focus on teaching, not propagandizing—implying throughout that there was no such question raised. Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing, but that's a clear misreading of Farrell's statement, according to the U. Wisconsin press release from July 10:

"There is no question that Mr. Barrett holds personal opinions that many people find unconventional," Farrell says. "These views are expected to take a small, but significant, role in the class. To the extent that his views are discussed, Mr. Barrett has assured me that students will be free—and encouraged—to challenge his viewpoint."

Maybe I'm not the postmodernist reader that Fish is, and there may be some hidden differance that redistributes power somehow in those words, but I think Farrell said that he asked Barrett if he'd spend his time propagandizing or teaching, and Barrett promised that he'd be teaching. In other words, Barrett met the criterion Fish established.

So where did Fish pull the quotation from? There's a passage at the end of the press release where Farrell does discuss the pressure exerted from the outside based on Barrett's ideas. In most of the world, we call this context. Was Farrell factually incorrect that the pressure was politically motivated or based on Barrett's ideas? Should a university resist such pressure? Put simply, Fish cherry-picked a quotation, ignored what didn't fit his theory, and wrote the column.

One shouldn't be too surprised by Fish's larger argument, since his thesis fits with his other writings on academic freedom: To Stanley Fish, there is no such thing as free speech, academic freedom has nothing to do with our society's system of political freedoms anyway, and faculty should keep their politics out of their jobs.

This perspective on the politics and history of academic freedom leads Fish to a convoluted definition of academic freedom as the right to define one's area of study or teaching.

But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content.... Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.

Miraculously, this definition is entirely divorced from what one may conclude from study, which Fish doesn't consider to be covered by academic freedom. Fish's redefinition is the immaculate conception of academic freedom, somehow removed from the potential taint of actual ideas.

Not only does it cut colleges and universities off from a rich source of political support—viewing faculty as society's whistleblowers—but Fish's redefinition is ultimately a sterile view of faculty. As Timothy Burke has noted many times, we shouldn't strip faculty of the passion that motivates them in teaching or research.

Hat tip to Keith Hoeller, an AAUP member from Washington State, for pointing me and others on the AAUP list to Fish's column. See my earlier comments about Barrett if you want more of my blather on this topic. Update: Ann Althouse has more. ACTA blog takes 70% of Fish's article to say that, yes, by golly, we need to uphold academic standards, and aren't we glad Fish finally recognized the limits of academic freedom.

July 12, 2006

The trouble with Kevin Barrett

So after considerable pressure by politicians and talk radio, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will not be summarily dismissing religious studies adjunct Kevin Barrett, who believes that 9/11 was a conspiracy of non-religious, Machievellian-Straussian cynics who believe that hatred and hostility are what move the world. After the provost's statement, Barrett appeared on Fox News's Hannity and Colmes, which I suppose shows that the best way for someone with a Ph.D. to get air time is to be a total nutter.

The analysis of this case is made harder by the fact that 9/11 is a marginal part of the course Islam: Religion and Culture but not entirely outside it. According to Inside Higher Ed, his doctorate is in "African language, literature, and folklore," which overlaps with the course he's teaching, but it's not as though either Islam or terrorism is in his area of expertise. But it's also not exactly true, as Ann Althouse claims, that Barrett's hiring was as "if we [UW-Madison had] found someone hired to teach evolution was a young earth creationist planning to devote a week of his course to his theory."

Some, including Althouse, have raised questions about whether Holocaust deniers, rabid White supremacists, etc., would be allowed to teach. There is the occasional racist whose academic freedom is protected—for example, Glayde Whitney, the late psychologist at Florida State University whose writings were clearly supremacist. However, those situations are usually about statements made outside the classroom. If the whole course were about 9/11, then conspiracy claims would constitute incompetence in one's area of supposed expertise. Someone who teaches European history is incompetent when they claim that the Holocaust never happened. But 9/11 isn't the core of the course.

I think the fundamental problem, as Ralph Luker has noted, is that Barrett is teaching outside his area of expertise. He should not have been hired as an adjunct to teach something that's tangential to his training, which is the case if the reporting is correct. If he were teaching a course in African culture, he wouldn't have a reason to talk about 9/11 in class and who cares what he said on Hannity & Colmes in that case.

What's very troubling, and unremarked, is that the UW-Madison provost engaged in an ad-hoc investigation primarily to address the embarrassment factor, and if UW-Madison had fired Barrett, it would have been for embarrassing UW, for the most part. I don't care that the provost decided not to take further action; his choice was foolish from the start. The better course, by far, would have been to say something like the following: "We have a contract with Dr. Barrett, and unless there is clear evidence that he intends to breach his contract, it's not a wise use of university resources to engage in an in-depth investigation of his teaching. It would also be a problematic step for any administrator to interfere in classroom teaching at a university without extraordinary evidence of irreparable harm to students or their education. On the other hand, there have been concerns raised about the expertise of Dr. Barrett with regard to the course, and we have an obligation to our students and accrediting agency to make sure that adjunct instructors truly are experts in the courses they teach. My office will shortly begin a review of university procedures to make sure that all adjuncts have the appropriate expertise and meet our accreditation standards."

July 6, 2006

IHE column on the Spellings comission draft

If you followed the link to my blog after reading my Inside Higher Ed column, How To Succeed in Report Writing without Really Making Sense, welcome! Feel free to continue debating the ideas in the comments here. And look around—I write blog entries on education policy, academic freedom, my own research, and various other matters. There's an Atom RSS feed available (and other feed flavors a few screens down on the left).

June 28, 2006

Commentary on Spellings Commission draft report

I just sent off an op-ed column on the Spellings Commission draft report to one of the major higher-ed news outlets. In it, I acknowledge the misleading statements in the draft but focus on a deeper problem in the report, a fundamental inconsistency that I think is a fatal error (even if you agreed with the factual claims).

We'll see if there is any interest.

June 14, 2006

More on Churchill

The full report of the standing committee on research misconduct at the University of Colorado Boulder should answer the questions raised about the political context of the Churchill investigation, from both those critical of the investigation for proceeding at all and from those who wondered if UCB would address the question of why Churchill was hired in the first place. Once again, the faculty involved have done themslves quite a bit of credit.

Incidentally, it is not true (if anyone was wondering) that faculty eschew concerns about academic integrity in searches. I am aware of a search some years ago that removed a candidate from the interview pool because of bona fide concerns about plagiarism.

June 13, 2006

A true defender of academic freedom

No, I'm not talking about Ward Churchill, whom a University of Colorado committee today recommended be dismissed for research misconduct. I mean Michael Bérubé, whose speech at the AAUP annual meeting today is another thoughtful essay on the needs of universities. Another must-read. (Incidentally, someone who cannot tell the difference between Bérubé and Churchill is incompetent to comment on universities; someone who cannot tell the difference bewteen Bérubé and Horowitz is drunk on Purim.)

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be showering after playing some baseball with Vincent.

June 11, 2006

Constitution Day and academic freedom

On my union's activist e-mail list this weekend is a thread on the Constitution Day mandate starting last year. Some are miffed by it, but there's more than one interpretation of that requirement. From section 111(b) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 comes the following threat to our nation's students, at least if you're David Horowitz:

Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.

(See the Notice of Implementation for additional information about implementation.)

What this does, of course, is give cover to all teachers to violate their academic responsibilities by inserting all sorts of irrelevant material into their classes. Biology and philosophy teachers now have a "a bulletproof excuse" (to quote my colleague Roy Weatherford) to discuss the constitutionality of the current war's constitutionality, wiretapping, etc. Careless for Congress to give all of my irresponsible colleagues an ironclad alibi for their politicization of classes.

Unfortunately, those of us who teach history, government, political science, etc., can't use Constitution Day for these purposes, but, heck, it's our subject anyway.

June 10, 2006

Ban on academic travel to Cuba hurts U.S. scientific needs

Wonderful entry yesterday from Archives of the Scientific Activist on why the new law forbidding Florida public-university faculty from traveling to Cuba on any outside grant, let alone state funds, is foolish: it would prevent my marine-science colleagues from keeping track of pollution in future years when Cuba is expected to start drilling for oil.

June 8, 2006

Dis-positioning NCATE and teacher-ed (again)

There's been a spate of online stories and blogs about NCATE's president Art Wise announcing that the definition of social justice will be removed from NCATE documents on accreditation at a hearing where critics were ready to suggest removing NCATE as a federally-approved accreditor because, they argued, the combination of requiring certain evidence of dispositions for teacher candidates together with some institutional missions of "social justice" represented potential "viewpoint discrimination." Commentary: Samantha Harris on the public-private status of NCATE as an accreditor, Jim Horn's response to Wise's statement, Margaret Soltan, Robert Shibly on social justice, and KC Johnson on his battle over dispositions at Brooklyn College (among other things).

I have a few comments here and there in those entries. One of my colleagues down the hall in the school psychology program was not convinced by my argument that trying to gauge the virtue of teacher candidates was unwise. In addition to my concerns about litmus tests and feeding into the historical denigration of teaching, this commitment to judging teacher candidates may come from the domination of education by psychology. (One of my fellow historians on the same hallway would call it colonization.) I just don't think, absent behavior we witness, we can predict with that much accuracy who's likely to be prejudiced in a classroom situation.

Then again, we do have students (and when your institution graduates hundreds a year, you have a good handful every once in a while) who behave egregiously in various ways, and we kick them out. No, you're not allowed to date students or sexually harass them. No, you're not allowed to plagiarize if you want to be an English teacher. Yes, you have to tell us if you've ever been arrested, and that would cause some serious difficulties for your being hired by a school. That's an institutional burden by itself; I'd hate to see what would happen if we tried to guess who would be poor teachers by other means in addition.

June 3, 2006

Smart NATFHE boycott commentary

Jon Pike has the best commentary I've seen on the Israeli-boycott resolution of the former lecturers' union, NATFHE. The resolution isn't binding on the newly-created University and College Union (UCU) (into which NATFHE and AUT merged), and I suspect that there will be a decisive anti-boycott vote next year within UCU.

June 2, 2006

Petulance and its discontents

George Leef reified ACTA's logical slip yesterday by saying that Ward Churchill's plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification were not "the main thing" in terms of his transgressions and repeats the claim that courses are replete with ideological bias (based on a few anecdotes, as usual). ACTA's blog says it's "good ... to see the petulance with which some academics respond to legitimate criticism named for what it is."

Hmmn... I guess it's fair to infer tone from a written document, but we don't know who the petulants are. John Wilson? Me? Well, I have a thick-enough skin that calling me petulant doesn't bother me, but Leef could've had the decency to provide a link to us miscreants to drive up our visitor counts... oh, wait. That would be petulant griping.

In any case, the ad hominem remarks don't address the substantive criticism by Hiram Hover or Timothy Burke, among others. And it's just mind-boggling for anyone to say with a straight face that evidence of research misconduct isn't the "main thing" when it appears.

May 31, 2006

A case and a case study of academic freedom

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in Garcetti v. Ceballos that public employees have less of a right to speak out on issues related to their employment than had generally been considered. Inside Higher Ed discusses the hedging in the opinion on academic freedom. Robert O'Neil has an important point, in his discussion with IHE's Doug Lederman: does this mean that public employees (including public-institution faculty) have fewer rights precisely in areas where we have the most expertise? Perverse consequences...

And the NY Times has a feature about Louisiana State University's attempt last fall to muzzle Ivor van Heerden, a nontenured leader of the university's hurricane research center, because of his criticism of the levee systems. Fortunately, colleagues supported him and LSU administrators backed down. As reporter John Schwartz notes, van Heerden "suspects that his critics may not be as upset about what he might have gotten wrong as about what he has gotten right." This is absolutely a case study of why academic freedom is important, and it's critical to keep in mind that these cases pop up in areas crucial to public safety.

May 30, 2006

O'Connor and French respond

Erin O'Connor (in her guise as ACTA blogger) and David French have responded to Timothy Burke's critique of the How Many Ward Churchills? paper essentially by saying, (1) asking the report to quantify is unfair and (2) it doesn't matter how infrequently professors design a course around a specific ideological bias (which is the claim in the report, from course descriptions)—any is wrong. Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but when a report title includes the words "how many," it sets up a certain expectation about quantification.

O'Connor goes further by saying that Burke used the wrong standard:

Humanists, as Burke well knows, don't amass statistical data, but they do still make valid arguments by accumulating examples and by analyzing them; ACTA's approach, centered as it is on the rhetorically suggestive course descriptions posted by academic departments across the country, necessarily has far more in common with the humanist technique of assembling textual evidence in order to demonstrate the existence of telling linguistic patterns than it does with a number-crunching methodology, and Burke, himself a historian whose work hardly inhabits the hard data world, knows this.

O'Connor wants the ACTA report judged by humanistic rather than social-science standards? Fine. She's an English professor at Penn. Would she allow any student to write a paper using only blurbs on the covers of books, without ever cracking the covers? When someone tries to analyze what happens in a class through the course description, we're getting some fascimile equivalent of the literary analysis of book blurbs.

As I've commented elsewhere, I would be far more willing to grant ACTA credibility if it didn't have a history of deliberately distorting faculty views, whitewashing its errors, having no sense of accountability for its own activities, and rarely commenting on the broader university management issues that are tough on liberal arts. When an organization devotes a disproportionate amount of energy to portraying faculty as villains, why should anyone be surprised when faculty cast a skeptical eye at reports that distort what we do?

Updates: Timothy Burke has more in reply to both O'Connor and French, as usual both substantive and written gracefully. Hiram Hover has more.

May 29, 2006


I feel a bit sick after hearing that the leadership of one of the UK's higher-ed faculty unions voted for a boycott of Israeli academics. See LabourStart's list of articles about the boycott. There is nothing specific yet about the dynamics in the hall or precisely what will happen when the two UK higher-ed unions merge on Wednesday. But this is not good news by any stretch of the imagination.

May 26, 2006

Mendacity on the academic-freedom front

ACTA president Anne D. Neal finally responded to Tim Burke's criticism of the How Many Ward Churchills? report. Whew. Now we know that, according to Neal, Burke is illogical, solipsistic, unfair, and not paying attention to the incredible importance of course descriptions. According to Neal, "ACTA’s report is as friendly to institutional self-governance and academic freedom as it is possible for a watchdog organization to be."

I'm not convinced.

Let me narrow this down to the question of whether course descriptions are important indicators of much. Neal's language:

Course descriptions are designed to stand alone — if they are all a prospective student needs to know about a class, then they are also all tuition-paying parents, taxpayers, and concerned citizens need in order to form a preliminary judgment.

This objection is part of Burke’s larger criticism of the report’s reliance on course descriptions. But his claim that these documents — the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class — do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst. If true, this charge would mean either that professors routinely engage in false advertising or that the process by which students choose courses is a charade that fools no one but students themselves.... They matter because they are professors’ own public representations of what happens in their classrooms. That so many professors describe their pedagogical aims in ideologically loaded ways raises entirely legitimate questions about accountability and balance.

I don't know if Neal ever taught a college course, but if she asked any college teacher, she'd hear evidence that students do more than rely on course descriptions when picking courses and from among multiple sections of the same course. Every semester, students ask me for syllabi during registration time (even though past syllabi are available on my website). We know they also talk to each other about courses and, usually, are concerned more with the faculty's competence than with the content of the course. Course descriptions are limited, in part because universities set word limits on them. My university's course proposal form limits course descriptions to 255 characters. Period. Someday (and in some universities today, perhaps), catalogues will have links from course listings to syllabi. But that lack of operating transparency (something Tim Burke and I both would like to see) does not mean that course descriptions are "all a prospective student needs to know about a class."

Moreover, the defense of course-description analysis is mendacity in action, on several levels. Neal neatly ignored Burke's specific criticism of their use of Duke's History 75 as an example, both their cherry-picking one course from the Duke history department and also the overinterpretation of the course description itself.

But, at another level, it is mendacious to avoid the obvious point: ACTA chose course descriptions because they're publicly available and easy to get an employee to track down, not because they're great indicators, and ACTA attacked course descriptions because criticizing them is at least slightly more substantive than criticizing course titles. All academics are keenly aware of the problems with using variables that really are not indicators of what we really need to know but are used by sloppy colleagues because they're available. It's the academic equivalent of looking for a lost key under the streetlamp because the light's better. That's essentially what ACTA has done. It's a sign of sloth, because ACTA could have simply gone to a state with a public-records law (e.g., Florida) and asked for copies of syllabi. Or they could have gone to the MIT website, where there is a whole slew of information on every course in the university, to discover more meat. But they didn't.

But let's not use a scholar's standards of care with research (since Neal explicitly eschews that in her column). When I've talked to or corresponded with journalists about their choice of information, almost universally the response has been, "Well, yes, I know it's imperfect, but it was available." They're forthright about the limits of their work. I don't think you can say the same about Neal.

And, since we're talking about the amazing refusal to acknowledge reality, IHE also published a piece by Dennis Baron, arguing as John K. Wilson did last Friday that the most important fact about the Churchill affair is the political pressure on the university. Those of us who have read the committee's report and found its conclusions on Churchill's scholarship rather impressive are fully aware of the political context but cannot ignore the real problems uncovered in Churchill's scholarship. Baron's claim, "I don’t know enough about the situation to support or challenge the panel’s unanimous findings" is just absurd. We know that Baron has read the report, since he criticizes the committee's reasoning on its framing of the work. The report is written for nonspecialists; why can't Baron decide if the committee had a point?

The problem here is that both the political context and the substantive errors in Churchill's scholarship are relevant. It's just not true, as Baron claims, that "the committee’s 125-page report signals a chilling warning to academics: If you want to stay below the radar, keep your politics and your scholarship to yourself." There are very serious concerns that the committee and others have raised about the context of the investigation, but we don't do ourselves any good by oversimplifying the threats to academic freedom. Local context is important. The leadership at the University of Colorado has done a far better of insulating the investigative process from political interference than my own university did in the case of Al-Arian, doing so even while the administration was (quite legitimately) reeling from the football-team scandal. And even here at USF, the administration has several times backed away from foolish errors. I've criticized the governor's education policies, openly and in testimony in the state capitol, and I'm still here. I co-wrote an article on the Al-Arian affair, one criticizing the university administration, and I am still here. In January 2002, one week after my tenure file went to the central administration offices, I stood up in front of the faculty senate, with the press capturing every second of the meeting, and laid out the criteria by which the administration's and board's actions would be judged, clearly implying that it would be seen as a violation of academic freedom, and I still got tenure and a promotion. As far as I'm aware, no one has tried to sick some imaginary research-misconduct police on me in retaliation for anything I've said. That doesn't vitiate the concerns we have about academic freedom, but it does mean we should be vigilant, not paranoid.

May 25, 2006

Banning travel to Cuba

Inside Higher Ed has finally reported on the Florida bill that would ban travel to countries labeled as supporting terrorism using funds that go through public colleges or universities. I've heard conflicting responses from fellow faculty around the state—not about the wisdom of the policy, which most would recognize is an infringement on several areas of research, but about whether the university faculty's collective bargaining agreements would protect such activities. Obviously, from the article, the sponsor in the Florida House does not particularly care to hear from academics. I suspect that if it were insurance companies or utilities, he'd be far more respectful.

I had been wondering whether such rules would also prohibit bringing one's university laptop or equipment to Cuba to conduct research, even if the purchase was not primarily for research in Cuba, and then I realized that laptops might fall into technology export restrictions (a long explanation from University of Chicago's research office regarding export restrictions that apply to research conducted in Iran, Cuba, etc.). Then that raises another question: if a faculty member goes through the official, rather severe federal filters for bringing a laptop to Cuba or Iran, why would the state not be willing to let the university handle the money? I guess Rep. Rivera just doesn't trust the federal government.

Ward Churchill's response

Via Inside Higher Ed and Churchill defender John Moredock comes news of Ward Churchill's response to the investigating committee's report. A little over one page of the six-page response concerns the substantive allegations. Readers can judge for themselves whether this is a great scholar responding to a witchhunt or a continuation of the mendacity that the investigating committee claimed.

May 18, 2006

A little more on Ward Churchill

The comment thread on yesterday's story on Churchill at Inside Higher Ed is rather interesting, in a watching-a-train-wreck sort of way, because the defenders of Churchill (look for Unapologetically Tenured and Timothy Shortell) could not (at least as by this morning) address the points of Ralph Luker and others: If the deliberate pace of the investigating committee is not enough to insulate the investigation from hot-headed political pressures—if Churchill should be let off the hook for his misconduct because of the acknowledged inappropriate pressures—then there is no way to hold controversial faculty accountable if they transgress.

I have to thank Unapologetically Tenured and Shortell, though, for providing a clear example of the wrong standard to apply here. They essentially argue that we should hold universities to the same standards as criminal courts—where even minor violations of due process at any point in the investigation or proceedings end the case. That's not the right comparison, though. Academic due process is not the same as criminal due process, either in the degree of individual risk or the reasons why we care about due process. Those of us who are civil libertarians hold prosecutors to a "clean hands" standard because taking someone's liberty is extreme and requires extraordinary care. While we worry about the potential chilling effect of prosecutorial misconduct in some cases, that's not the universal motivation.

On the other hand, academic due process is not about liberty but about jobs. So there certainly needs to be fairness and procedural integrity, but not at the level that criminal investigations and trials must meet. I'm a union officer trained in grievance matters, but I don't think I've ever met a grievance officer who wants university discipline matters to follow any state's criminal rules of procedure.

In addition, the motivation is different. In academic due process, the primary motivation is to protect the academic freedom of faculty and to prevent the chilling effect of academic-freedom violations. I'm convinced the majority of Americans understand that need for protection from pressures, as long as they think it serves the academic role of teaching, research, and social whistleblowing. Were political pressures to effectively insulate individual faculty from any and all accountability, then I think we'd be going outside the bounds of that understanding. Academic freedom must therefore be crafted to allow appropriate collegial governance (including sanctions for transgressions, where appropriate) even in an environment of intense pressures.

The ordinary way that institutions provide a measure of due process is peer investigation and deliberation, both of which are reflections of our professional lives. (I'm not mentioning the other steps in the AAUP Red Book statements on discipline, because I'm looking at the aspects that insulate discipline from outside pressures, not the steps appropriate to guarantee internal due process.) We had both in the Ward Churchill case: a committee of five peers examined the allegations, and they did so over months of study, rather than the days or weeks that I'm sure the press and other parties may have wished. Did that provide enough due process in this case? Clearly, the committee members were aware of the pressure and discomfitted by it.

But that discomfort—something that was inevitable in this situation—did not prevent them from writing an outstanding report, one that was as careful as Ward Churchill's scholarship is not. Their performance under pressure proved the value of peer investigation and deliberation. Unless the defenders of Ward Churchill at this point can suggest an alternative set of mechanisms to allow investigation of a faculty member when there is political pressure raging around—and have some good reason to believe such investigations would do a better job than the peer committee in this case—I'll stick with peer investigations and deliberation.

May 17, 2006

ACTA exploits Ward Churchill (again)

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a "report" they call How Many Ward Churchills? I'll give ACTA a 10 of 10 on the Horowitz Chutzpah Scale for trying to capitalize on the release schedule of the Churchill investigation report with a paper on a topic that was entirely unrelated either to the substantive investigation or to Churchill's public remarks about 9/11. Timothy Burke spent the afternoon reading ACTA's "report" and has deservedly ripped it apart. It's shoddy at best and meretricious at worst. As Ralph Luker pointed out earlier,

It seems to me, however, that ACTA's title and methods are enormously irresponsible. Insofar as they are to be judged at all, and I think they should be, faculty members are assumed innocent until found guilty—found guilty by their peers and, then, only on a case by case basis. ACTA's claim that "Ward Churchills Abound" is highly irresponsible. You can dress David Horowitz in an academic gown and call him respectable, if you will. He's still a demagogue and I'm sorry to see ACTA, Erin [O'Connor, who blogs for ACTA], and the Phi Beta Cons trying to dignify his tactics.

I'm especially disappointed that Erin O'Connor has been willing to put forward this nonsense as anything like respectable.

May 16, 2006

Ward Churchill, redux—NOT!

Inside Higher Ed, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Associated Press (in the Washington Post) have covered the just-issued report on allegations of research misconduct by Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado. The accepted federal definition of research misconduct comprises plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. And according to the faculty committee, Ward Churchill had a hat-trick of the worst kind. I haven't read the entire report word-for-word, but it's clear from the sections I have had time to read that the committee members spent a great deal of effort trying to comb through the debris of Churchill's scholarship, finding a long-term pattern of disturbing conduct. My favorite sentence thus far:

The conventions of scholarly attribution are not empty forms of etiquette; they are central to the progress of scholarship and the accountability of the scholar. (p. 95)

In addition to the discussion of the individual charges, there is also some discussion at the beginning and end of the committee members' distaste with the political context of the investigation. They didn't use that as any sort of excuse either to exculpate or to condemn Churchill, though. The core looks like a fairly straightforward examination of things on their merits. Around that are some jewels about the outside pressures on the university, the harm caused to ethnic studies by Churchill's transgressions, and a lack of consensus on appropriate sanctions. All five members agreed that at least two years' suspension without pay was warranted. Three members thought that firing would be at least minimally acceptable, though two of those recommended five years' suspension without pay, and only one thought firing was the most appropriate sanction. A compromise verdict, or the closest one can get in academe?

Either five or more years' suspension without pay or outright dismissal would be appropriate. A more creative approach might be to suspend him for two years, strip him of tenure, demote him to assistant professor, and then require he demonstrate professionalism necessary to earn tenure in the normal way. Since his wife has already resigned from the university, it's clear that he has planned for being fired or suspended: He'll go somewhere else and sue. But if CU gives him a reasonable appeal process, he'll almost certainly lose (barring anything interesting that could be revealed in discovery).

Thanks to Ralph Luker and Erin O'Connor for linking to news stories. Erin O'Connor isn't quite right, though, in describing Churchill as "guilty as charged." It turned out, at least for a few charges, that he was "guilty not quite as charged." Churchill's own statements in defense of plagiarism charges damned him in at least one other instance.

Update (5/17): A comment at the Volokh Conspiracy has the right word describing Churchill's conduct: mendacity.

May 14, 2006

Boycott proposal redux

Last year, the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) first passed and then rescinded a policy advocating a boycott of Israeli universities and all affiliated faculty. It looks like British anti-Semites and muddle-headed allies are at it again. This time it's a resolution placed before the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), which will meet at the end of the month. See the Inside Higher Ed article, the New York Times article, the petition of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the analysis by Jon Pike, an AUT activist at Open University, and a description of credentialing politics inside NATFHE.

Watch the ENGAGE blog for developments until the meeting May 27-29. Because NATFHE and AUT are planning a merger, union merger politics play into this as well.


(Belated hat tip to Ralph Luker.)

May 4, 2006

Florida ed news: Vouchers, high-school majors, school-year schedules, trips to Cuba

It's the second-to-last day of the regular Florida legislative session, so this is when a lot of business gets done, as well as other political flux (i.e., Bush's defense against Senator Mandy Dawson's claims of political arm-twisting on the voucher votes). Too much to really cover comprehensively, so I'll start with a list of bullet items and then discuss relatively briefly:

  • Passage in the senate of a bill that would shift the failing-schools voucher program to the corporate tax-credit voucher (SB 2234).
  • Passage in the senate of a bill that would put all the non-voucher funds from the corporate income tax into a trust fund that could not be spent on education (SB 2406).
  • Passage in the senate of a bill that would create some minimal accountability for private voucher schools—fingerprinting and background checks for teachers and staff (SB 256).
  • Passage in both houses Wednesday of a bill that would expand and make permanent a virtual-school voucher program for homeschooled students (SB 1282).
  • Passage in both houses of a bill to create "majors" in high school and more career counseling in middle school than currently exists (HB 7087). (This is the A+ Plus Plan.)
  • Attached to that bill is a provision that Florida public schools's academic years not start until the middle of August.
  • Passage in both houses of a bill that would criminalize any public or private school educator who uses public or grant or private funds to take students on a trip to any country labeled a terrorist by the State Department. The sponsor made clear this was to prevent trips to Cuba (SB 2434).

More on the jump.

Vouchers bills

Three of the voucher bills passed today are attempted statutory fixes to the flaws in the failing-schools voucher pointed out by the Florida Supreme Court in January. One attempted fix is to shift the failing-schools voucher to an existing program that lets corporations shift dollars on a one-for-one basis from their corporate income-tax burden to private-school scholarships. A second bill declares that the corporate income taxes are either for the tax-credit voucher program or for non-educational expenses. This is an attempt to get around the issue the Supreme Court raised that the voucher structure drew funds away from general appropriations (i.e., funds that could be used for public schools).

The third bill provides for some minimal accountability for the disabled-student and corporate tax-credit voucher programs in terms of students safety (i.e., requiring fingerprints and background checks of private voucher school employees) and fraud prevention. It says a great deal that these programs have operated for most of this governor's years in office without any of these provisions and that this bill does not apply to the virtual-school voucher program. It also says something very important that for programs involving thousands of children and hundreds of schools, the bill only allows the Department of Education to conduct unannounced spot-checks of the schools for these minimal provisions three times in a year for the disabled-student voucher program and seven times in a year for the corporate tax-credit voucher program. No, I didn't mean three or seven checks per school. That's three or seven checks for the whole program (respectively) for the year.

The last voucher bill I mentioned, though it passed yesterday, expands and enshrines the virtual-school voucher program that started essentially as a sole-source giveaway to K12, the virtual-school company associated with former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett. (I guess going through a bidding process wasn't something he wanted to gamble on.) One scandal that first year (2003-04, I think) was that the bill authorized only first-grade and up students, but the Department of Education allowed K12 to enroll kindergartners. Right now K12's virtual school in Florida still operates alongside one other. The bill would authorize three, with the two currently operating guaranteed the work for another year.

One signal difference between the virtual-school voucher program and the others is that the virtual-school program essentially operates as a contract relationship between three operations and the state Department of Education, a contract that can be ended at any time for failure to perform duties. Students have to participate in the statewide assessment program, and the virtual-school companies get ranked in the same way as local public schools and charter schools. For those reasons, I think the virtual-school voucher program, or more properly the virtual-school contracts, are not vulnerable to the voucher-program flaws pointed out in Bush v. Holmes.

But the same cannot be said of the other three voucher programs. Even if the corporate tax-credit voucher program is seen as not competing with the public schools (something that I think courts will not accept, even with SB 2406), there is still the matter of uniformity in the Florida state constitution. As I have noted elsewhere, the court did not define uniformity but left the clear impression that whatever it required, the failing-schools voucher program didn't cut it. I don't think having fingerprinting will do it, either, especially when this governor's chosen emphasis has been on accountability. When two other choice programs (charter schools and the virtual-school contracts) require participation in the state's accountability framework but vouchers don't, the courts will probably not look kindly on this continuing double standard.


This bill is the omnibus school-reform package this year (apart from vouchers), and it's every bit the legislative sausage you'd expect from any governor's last year, despite the catchy "A+-Plus Plan" title. I'll see if I can decompose it a bit.

Update (3:30 Friday): A contact in Tallahassee has let me know that I was looking at one of the older versions of the bill. I'll correct this in detail later but will remove some things I know are not in...

Reading office

The bill puts the governor's Just Read, Florida! initiative into state law as a unit in the state education department with a budget line.

Career ladder chopped off

The bill eliminates the previous career-ladder pilot (with the acronym BEST). This was poorly funded and essentially defunct as it was.

Opening date of school pushed back

The bill prevents any school district from starting the 2007 year before the middle of August. This is a moderate change, since advocates of a later year-opening really wanted late-August at the earliest.

Mandated progress monitoring for many schools, especially at the level for which there is minimal research

(3:30 Fri: I'm not sure if this is still in there... but I need to make sure I have the proper version before making changes.)

The annual school-improvement plan required of all schools has been changed, with schools labeled C or worse having the following among the new requirements (in lines 639-648, on pp. 24-25 of the engrossed form of the bill):

  • Mini-assessments of targeted Sunshine State Standards benchmarks that provide ongoing progress monitoring of students and generate data to redesign instruction.
  • A student performance monitoring plan and clearly assigned school personnel monitoring responsibilities.

Let me disclose my postdoctoral experience with Doug and Lynn Fuchs of Vanderbilt University, who are well-known researchers in the area of curriculum-based measurement (CBM), also known as progress monitoring. Both are associated with the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring. I've seen the stuff up close and I've seen it used well. Other sections of this bill require that students in academic troubles have progress monitoring at some level (which could be a special-ed individualized education plan, or IEP, a school-wide progress-monitoring plan, or an individual progress-monitoring plan). That seems fine to me, at least in theory.

On the other hand, CBM/progress monitoring has its most solid research base at the elementary level, and while I haven't had a professional reason to keep up with the literature in about a decade, I suspect most of it has stayed at the elementary level, with some at the middle-school level. Yet, if you look at the distribution of letter grade labels applied to Florida schools, you'll get a sense of the oddness of this requirement: Of the 1650 elementary schools receiving letter grades in 2005, 380 (23%) had C or lower. Of 529 middle schools, 193 (36%) had C or lower. And of 391 high schools, 249 (or 63%) had Cs or lower. Because of the nature of the grading system, high schools are predominantly in the middle of the scale with the mode being C (while the mode for both middle and elementary schools in 2005 was an A). If you include the combined-level schools (i.e., K-8, 7-12, K-12, etc.), then of all 927 schools receiving a letter grade below a B, 547 of them include secondary students and 442 have no elementary students at all.

In other words, the requirement based on research at the elementary level will be applied disproportionately at a level (high school) for which I'm reasonably sure there is scant evidence either of success or of how to use it. That doesn't meant that progress monitoring can't work out at the high school level. And I may be wrong about the research. But it's reasonable to predict considerable growing pains and a potential backlash against this. If there are serious implementation problems that sour the state on progress monitoring, then this bill would have been an enormous disservice to the children of Florida.

Getting the GEDs out of the longitudinal graduation rate

The bill requires that the state department of education discontinue crediting GEDs as diplomas in the longitudinal graduation rate.

Task force on paperwork reduction

The bill requires that the DOE convene a task force to help reduce the bureaucratic form-filling time that is a burden on the district. My only prediction is that this task force will create a paperwork burden... hopefully, only a minor one that will result in some real improvements. Despite its being Southern, Florida is highly bureaucratic; the 17-story Turlington Building is the second-highest thing in Tallahassee (just behind the 22-story Capitol complex).

Dropout survey

The bill requires that students dropping out of school at age 16 or above sit down with a counselor who is supposed to tell them why dropping out is wrong and ask them to complete a survey on why they're dropping out. I wonder how many of them sign the existing required declaration that dropping out is stupid (with more flowery language), ...

Middle-school curriculum mandates

The bill mandates that students promoted from 8th grade have earned three years' worth of credits each in English, math, science, and social studies, and one half-year course in career exploration in 7th or 8th grade. There is a requirement that districts create policies to allow students to recover/forgive failed grades with intensive remediation. My primary concern, though, is with the short time-frame: this is all supposed to start with my son's cohort, in the fall.

High school curriculum changes

The high-school piece of this bill is more complicated. I think it slightly raises the academic coursework required for a standard diploma (4 years each of English and math, 3 for history/social studies, science [2 of which have to be lab-based], and ten in various electives.

It's the composition of the 10 course-years' worth of electives that has gotten much of the press play. Four of those year-long courses (or a combination of year- and half-year-long courses that combine to four years) have to be in a thematic strand approved by the state as a major. A student can also have a second major or a minor of an additional three years in another thematic strand. No big deal, I think: many students spend their high school years in drama, band, orchestra, step, etc., and this structure will accommodate those interests. It fits easy with magnet programs, and I don't think this dramatically changes the structure of schooling.

Where the real question will come is in the provisions for transfer students. Imagine this system in place a few years from now, and there's another hurricane disaster that shifts a few thousand seniors from another state to Florida. They don't have coursework in these strands. There will inevitably be a waiver system for transfers, I suspect.

Career academies

The bill defines career academies as the type of program that 1980s/90s tech-prep advocates would have loved, combining vocational and academic skill building with internships, shadowing, etc. Another section of the bill creates a vocational certification program.

Transferable Electronic IEPs

The bill requires that the state department create an electronic IEP form that then becomes mandatory for local school districts. Ideally, this would make all critical information about students with disabilities easily transferable when students move. Good thing in theory! Given my wife's experience with the online IEP for Hillsborough County here in Tampa (better than paper, but clunky as all heck), I hope they combine this with the paperwork-burden-reducing task force. (Really, what this needs is a usability-design focus from the start.)

Tightening up of repeat FCAT administrations for graduation purposes

Currently in Florida, if a student does not meet the required threshold for graduation on the 10th grade FCATs, they can use retest opportunities. The retesting is without the performance items on the regular 10th grade FCAT, however, a distinction of some note in Florida in terms of standards. The bill tells the FDOE to make the resting "as equally challenging and difficult" as the regular one.

Governor's takeover of problem schools

(3:30 Fri: I'm fairly sure this was taken out by the senate; will confirm later.)

It's not exactly clear what the process is, on first reading (late at night), but the bill provides a method for the Governor to assume control of a school with repeated academic difficulties.

Collective-bargaining agreement collection

The bill requires that the FDOE collect and provide online access to all collective-bargaining agreements in the state's schools.

Union shaming requirement

In the same provision noted above is a requirement that the state also publish the salaries of union officers (teachers elected to union positions, not staff). I'm not sure what this is supposed to do, other than act as an encouragement of unions to elect non-teacher personnel to officer positions so the numbers look low (in terms of union-officer salaries).

Differentiated pay

The bill requires a differentiated pay plan for each district. This is the watered-down merit-pay provision that is very very far from the EComp plan tied to the FCATS that has been floated by the State Board of Education. It's subject to collective bargaining and can include a variety of factors.

Evening the assignment of teachers

The bill includes a statement of intent that collective bargaining can include steps to address inequities in assigning experienced, effective teachers to low-performing schools and a requirement that school districts assign no more than the average proportion of "first-time teachers, temporarily certified teachers, teachers in need of improvement, or out-of-field teachers" in the district to schools with a higher-than-average proportion of poor students or low-performing schools. The intent is wonderful; the language is idiotic. Think about this for a second: in larger districts, roughly half of the schools will have an above-average proportion of poor or minority students. And none of those schools can have a higher-than-average proportion of inexperienced or weak teachers. That means that every school in "nice" neighborhoods has to have a higher-than-average proportion of inexperienced and weak teachers. This will be logistically impossible, I think. I understand the (best possible) intent of this provision, to make wealthier areas share the burden of the weaker teachers in a district. It presumes that a major barrier are teachers unions, but I suspect most unions would have no difficulty with incentives for experienced teachers to work at schools with intense concentrations of poverty. But I just don't know about this requirement...

Banning student travel to Cuba

The bill that would ban using public or private funds for student trips to Cuba (and any other country labeled as terrorist by the U.S.) for any purpose, including in private universities, is an obvious violation of academic freedom. Update (Friday 10:25 pm): Last night, when I first read about, I wrote, "On campuses with collective bargaining agreements protecting academic freedom, this is unenforceable." That's incorrect, I've been told by colleagues; the legal construction of a collective bargaining agreement does not supersede laws imposing restrictions on behavior.

News Sources

April 19, 2006

Al-Arian muddle

With the plea agreement (PDF) approved by the judge this week, it looks like the criminal proceedings against Sami Al-Arian are winding down (barring weird stuff that is actually somewhat likely). From the coverage in the local newspapers (St. Pete Times and Tampa Tribune), it may end the legal situation in as clear a case as either side may wish: guilt on one count of conspiracy, with deportation to follow a relatively short sentence from this point on.

However, the end of the criminal case doesn't leave us with that much greater knowledge of the facts. Al-Arian admits to having lied in material ways about his relationship to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad before the 1995 declaration that it was a terrorist organization and about others in Tampa. But it's still not clear how much the PIJ exploited his presence in Tampa versus Al-Arian's exploiting the PIJ to boost his own ambitions with a think tank. Both are likely.

I may have more to say on the aftermath of the case after the semester winds down. Not now, though: I owe students a batch of papers returned.

March 19, 2006

Academic freedom report in Florida

Florida's legislative research service (Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability or OPPAGA) has just issued its report on academic freedom, requested by Rep. Dennis Baxley after his version of the Academic Bill of Rights died in the last session.

Community Colleges and Universities Have Academic Freedom Policies: Relatively Few Grievances Filed (PDF) is a 10-page report. It says all university and most community colleges have academic-freedom language in its policies, more specific to faculty than to students, they have grievance provisions, and that student-initiated academic-freedom grievances comprise less than 1 percent of all student grievances. A higher proportion of formal faculty grievances (9 percent) is related to academic freedom, at least in the documentation that institutions sent OPPAGA.

Some in Florida may have hoped that OPPAGA's report would justify Baxley's bill. It doesn't.

March 14, 2006

Victory on academic-freedom grievance

The last agreed-upon changes to the USF computer network user agreement were completed yesterday, so I can now explain that even though the university took more than nine months (285 days, to be precise), USF's computer network guidelines no longer have speech codes embedded in them. I'm very surprised it took this long, but I was willing to be patient because there was only one outcome possible, and while this was pending no faculty member could really be punished without quite a bit of embarrassment on the part of the administration. And since the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida has been successful in putting public pressure on the administration in several different cases over the past few years, I felt no need (and others in the chapter didn't try to dissuade me from this lack of desire) to embarrass the administration just for the sake of the political pressure. Sometimes when you know you're going to win and people aren't hurt at the moment, you can be patient.

To recap my concerns: USF blog server's "user agreement" had some odd language about banning offensive language, referring to anything other than coursework, and I realized the general network user agreement had some similar problems, so I raised concerns with the head of academic computing and, when that produced nothing, filed a grievance last June under the academic-freedom article of our collective bargaining agreement. When I met later that month with the president's representative on union matters, we agreed that the network administrators probably didn't understand the academic-freedom consequences of the user guidelines, and before he retired, he offered to refer all of the issues to our faculty senate. But he never responded to questions I had about his proposal, and it was some weeks after he retired before I heard anything from his replacement, and there wasn't a meeting until January, and ... (but my concerns about dilatory treatment of grievances is a different matter)

So when I sat down with the new president's rep on union matters (and a few other items), a staff member from academic computing, and a member of the university's general counsel's office, we immediately agreed on a few changes (to delete all references banning the use of computer network stuff like e-mail for religious or political organizations) and then came time for education and dickering on a few matters:

  • Offensive language. Back in May 2005, the university lawyer had recommended changing the ban on offensive language to discriminatory language, a change I thought meant nothing in terms of academic freedom. I explained this again in the January meeting, said I had no problems with user guidelines that banned illegal acts, and just explained the inadequacy of a few proposed alternatives until the university staff present in January said, essentially, okay, we'll delete that. And so it was deleted. The new language is a prohibition against Publish[ing] information that is threatening, harassing, abusive, defamatory or libelous, which generally have definitions in a legal context, and while I'm a bit concerned about overly vague uses of "abusive," think it'll stand pretty decently.
  • The private profit clause. University staff explained that they just didn't want computers used for staff or students who started up side businesses with university resources. I said I agreed with the university's interest in preventing the abuse of university equipment but explained that there was frequently a legitimate purpose for activities that would "generate private profit" but still served the university's mission. I then cheated by giving an example from the class of a former faculty member whom I knew was well-liked. They couldn't say that our erstwhile colleague's class violated the university's interest, and eventually the president's rep suggested the addendum "not related to university activities."

A few notes about this:

  • In this case, the faculty union contract benefitted students and other staff as well as those in the bargaining unit. Everyone won because faculty rights were used as a lever to change general university policy.
  • Administrators showed they were educable in these matters with a little bit of effort and considerable patience. If someone's livelihood were at stake, I would've been a bulldog and pulled out all the tools at my disposal to get a faster response. But for many purposes it's important to think of the defense of academic freedom as an educational process, and one that's eternal.

Yes, I'm satisfied. Is USF's environment perfectly friendly to academic freedom? No. I'm sure the folks at FIRE could comb through USF's policies and find other speech-code-ish things embedded in the thousands of pages of paperwork. But computer use is a trigger for considerable oversight of what happens on campus (or off!), and this successful grievance significantly reduces the chances of problems down the road.

(Later on the 14th): I need to thank the chapter grievance chair Mark Klisch for his help with the grievance and him and several other officers for their support. Mark handles most of the grievances on campus, few of which are as visible as academic freedom but most of which affect individual faculty far more.

March 10, 2006

Media mayhem in Miami

Today's Miami Herald tells the story of Miami Sunset Senior High business and technology teacher Donna Reddick, whose anti-homosexuality comments in a student-journalist video series have sparked discussion of whether out-of-classroom remarks by school employees in a student-journalism project is protected speech or makes it difficult for her to teach gay students (or, more properly, difficult for them to trust that she'll treat them in a non-discriminatory fashion).

Her comments were in the last segment of a video series shown at the school, on a topic the students chose (views towards homosexuality). Previous segments had included views of students and other staff that were positive or neutral, and according to news reports Reddick's statement was part of a segment featuring comments critical of homosexuality. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sexual sins, which included homosexuality, she told the student journalists.

More on the jump...

If the reporting is accurate, here are the salient facts:

  • Reddick's comments were not made in class.
  • Reddick's comments were in response to a request by the student journalists and helped them fulfill an assignment.
  • Reddick did not address or attack the integrity of individual students.
  • The series sparked plenty of discussion in the hallways of the school.

First, it's clear that the student journalists succeeded spectacularly in prompting discussion on the topic. I suspect that most gay students at Miami Sunset will learn that their peers support their rights to an equal education and life outside school, as do a majority of teachers (if less flamboyantly than students). Might some feel uncomfortable around Reddick? Yes, but I don't think discomfort is a reason to punish a teacher for comments made in response to a direct request by students. (Apparently, school district administrators haven't ruled out disciplinary action against Reddick.) Teenagers are old enough to know about "sticks and stones."

Second, the context is important. I could see far greater grounds for concern if the comments had been in her class, directed at specific students, or in environment with preexisting anti-gay violence where similar remarks might be a red cape for those bent on hate crimes. Her comments were not made in class, were not in a context to elicit or provoke violence (or even discrimination), and were made where refusal to grant an interview to students by all of the teachers with similar views would have made the students' assignment impossible to fulfill: How do you illustrate diverse opinions on a topic if people holding one perspective silence themselves?

(Tip from Andrew Rotherham. Also see a local CBS station story.)

Arizona SB1331 dead

The Arizona Senate defeated Senate Bill 1331, what I called the pederast's academic bill of rights, on a 17-12 vote yesterday. (Tip of the hat to Inside Higher Ed on that.)

March 6, 2006

The pederast's academic bill of rights

Arizona SB 1331 has generated quite a bit of discussion in the state and elsewhere for its proposed mandate of alternative readings and coursework in case a student objects to curriculum on grounds of belief. It passed the state senate's higher-ed committee 5-2 on February 15 and is currently on today's agenda in the senate's rules committee. The motivation apparently came from one student upset with the assignment of the book The Ice Storm, which includes wife-swapping. Never mind that the novel points out the destructiveness of such behavior, but those who want to censor Lolita probably never get the point of its end, either. So here's the bill text:

Each university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents and each community college under the jurisdiction of a community college district shall adopt procedures by which students who object to any course, coursework, learning material or activity on the basis that it is personally offensive shall be provided without financial or academic penalty an alternative course, alternative coursework, alternative learning materials or alternative activity. Objection to a course, coursework, learning material or activity on the basis that it is personally offensive includes objections that the course, coursework, learning material or activity conflicts with the student's beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.

Let's think about the consequences of this. I'm sure that the bill's sponsors assumed it was crafted for conservatives squeamish about various topics, or maybe wanting to pass a biology course without having to learn about evolution. But let's see what other students it might empower...

  • Pederasts could insist on social-work classes that encourage predatory sex (because existing courses violate the students' beliefs or practices).
  • Tarot-card enthusiasts could insist on psychology classes that endorse occult theories of personality and fate.
  • New-age believers could insist on physics classes that acknowledge the power of pyramids.
  • Budding terrorists could insist on ethics classes that talk about the glory of suicide bombing.

Apart from the reductio ad absurdum argument here, this legislation is just awful. I can't imagine Governor Napolitano signing such a bill into law, so the parlor question today is whether Arizona legislators recognize the problem and extricate themselves from national ridicule. Since its passage in one committee, objections have been raised by a community college board, faculty, and letters to the editor, as well as several columnists.

Update (later on the 6th): The bill status page for the Arizona legislature indicates that the rules committee judged the bill "proper for consideration" and it's now on tomorrow's caucus calendar. I don't know the terms of art for the state legislature and hope this means it's just been cleared to be looked at and can still be killed quickly. Anyone know for certain?

(Welcome, everyone who's arrived here from Inside Higher Ed's link. After finishing this post, browse the site.)

3/08 note: Catching Flies was on this before I was.

February 10, 2006

'WT..." AAUP and other tidbits

I'm simply befuddled with the delayed conference that the AAUP first sponsored and has now put on hiatus, about academic boycotts. I'm simply too tired right now to attempt untangling the different threads, so I'll ask you just to read the article and the responses on IHE. What's especially sad are the comments by Joan Scott, an historian and past chair of AAUP's Committee A.

More beyond the jump.

This is the second embarrassing operational mistake by AAUP in the last year, coming after last summer's endorsement of the ACE statement on academic freedom (and the dissent that followed quickly on that statement).

In the good- or at least no-news category, Florida Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) has not (yet) filed a bill this year to enshrine Horowitz's ABOR in law. He's told elected leaders of the United Faculty of Florida that he's waiting until our state legislative research service returns an analysis of university policies and practices. While the report itself will be public, the original documents are not covered by Florida's public-records laws. But it's a good sign that no bill has been filed after what I expect has been the production of at least a draft report (which almost surely has been described to Baxley, if the unit's folks are competent, which in my experience they are). I could be wrong, of course.

And in the "this requires watching" category, South Dakota's lower house has passed HB 1222, a bill that ACTA is pushing. In theory, there's nothing wrong with requiring that institutions produce a variety of reports, including qualitative descriptions of their actions in various realms, including academic freedom. However, the bill notably did not cover academic freedom per se but intellectual diversity with a rather odd definition: "the foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, and other perspectives." My concerns with intellectual diversity tie into to disciplinary issues, not really ideology, but I understand the other arguments about it. Nonetheless, I am curious why this peculiarly political and ideological definition ignores things like conflicts in disciplinary literatures.

Moreover, academic freedom includes and goes well beyond whatever that encompasses. There's nothing in the bill's definition of intellectual diversity that mentions research or the general environment on a campus, or the insulation of institutional personnel decisions from undue external political pressures. There's nothing about academic due process for faculty, or for students.

We'll see what happens as this goes to the SD upper chamber.

February 9, 2006

Bruised Bruins and egos

UCLA law professor Jerry Kang has a concise legal analysis of the imbroglio surrounding the "Bruin Alumni Association" blacklisting scheme. Greg James Robinson, who pointed out Kang's observations, is concerned about the chilling effects on campus as a consequence of such snitching efforts. We have some time and space to consider the issues in abstract since it appears that "BAA" head Andrew Jones is having his handed to him on a platter, by his own advisors, just a short time after David Horowitz had to retract a bunch of his allegations. Pardon me while I reach for my handkerchief, and I'll continue after a decent interval and the jump.

The fundamental question raised in a few places online (most clearly on the Volokh Conspiracy) is the question of what actually chills speech. All who write or speak publicly are opening themselves to criticism. As academics, we're supposed to be provocative and thick-skinned. I write an article, and someone disagrees with me. People cite the stuff, discuss it, argue its significance, and then buy an oversweetened latté. (Sometimes they buy the latté before writing.) Readers sort out the truth, or what they think the truth is. In class, we're supposed to foster discussion. That doesn't work well when everyone agrees on one position. Students disagree, and they're supposed to be thick-skinned enough to withstand criticism of their positions and listen to other perspectives. They're also supposed to be thick-skinned enough to withstand criticism and grading by faculty without wilting.

A critic outside a field crosses the line into coercion with a threat or pressure to eliminate an academic job or program based on what faculty write and say. The most obvious violations of academic freedom in this regard comprise crude, explicit pressure: "The university should fire so-and-so." I'm willing to give ignorant lawmakers one threatening remark as a good excuse to educate them about academic freedom, because education is part of my job. But that education needs to be direct and firm and should come publicly from faculty and administrators. The response needs to be immediate and forceful, because extended pressures or threats create a well-recognized attempt to chill speech that extend far beyond the give and take of general criticism.

Threats and pressure can be indirect, where the context of the pressure is similar to historical violations of academic freedom. The "Bruin Alumni Association" effort reminded too many of us of the Cold War efforts to find anyone who would inform authorities of politically incorrect behavior or attitudes of faculty. The scope of this program was designed to range far beyond the collection of anecdotal student reports on Rate My Professors and targeted individual faculty for opprobrium. It's a plausible conclusion that Jones was (and probably still is) hoping that he could pressure UCLA administrators to fire the faculty he hated.

Gauging indirect pressure and threats is and will always remain a judgment call. That is why we need to learn and remember the history of academic freedom (violations), so we can tell the difference between bona fide efforts that chill speech, on the one hand, and legitimate public debate, on the other.

January 27, 2006

Academic freedom and Michael Bérubé

Today, Michael Bérubé's blog has an important essay on academic freedom. At several thousand words, it's considerably longer than most blog entries (such as this one), even from loquacious professors. And while I have a few minor quibbles, they're very close to my views, and, more importantly, he wrote them first. Kudos. Go read.

December 24, 2005


The UMass Dartmouth student who had claimed he was visited by Homeland Security agents after an ILL request for Mao's Little Red Book has now confessed to making up the story.

I don't usually fall for urban legends and hoaxes, but there's a first (or nth) time for everything. And I suppose that, after all the undocumented claims about outrages on campuses from other POVs, it's time that a hoax catered to civil-liberties fears. But I was wrong not to note earlier that it was alleged, and kudos to those (including Gary McGath) who were more cautious.

December 19, 2005

Free Public Commons principles in university-commercial collaboration

Check out the Open Collaboration Principles developed by a group of universities and companies that can guide future collaboration. While the New York Times article gushes about this, it's not a fabulous breakthrough that says that universities and companies won't attempt to squeeze every penny from research, but it is a model for institutions and individual researchers who advocate open-access projects, or those that have a spirit of the public commons, so they're not left twisting in the wind without knowing how to handle a mix of open and proprietary components.

December 17, 2005

Write a paper and get an FBI visit?

A University of Massachusetts student was interviewd by the FBI for suspicious behavior after he requested a copy of Mao's Little Red Book through Interlibrary Loan for a paper he was finishing. Not only is this an interference in legitimate college activities, it's an utter waste of FBI time.

Update: As Ralph Luker notes, the agents in question were from the Department of Homeland Security, not the FBI. See also today's Inside Higher Ed article.

December 12, 2005

NY Sun and Al-Arian

Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun called me this afternoon and asked me about the future of Al-Arian vis-a-vis USF. My answers were a technical way of say, "Gee, I don't know, and here is why it's complicated," as well as, "It's a bit premature to say that anything at the trial justifies or undermines the administration's claims in firing him in 2003." Gerstein's a smart reporter, which means that probably 70% or more of the article will be accurate and in context. He had also talked to my coauthor Greg McColm on the article we wrote, so I'll be curious in comparing notes with Greg.

(Hey! I take Phil Graham's quip about journalism being the first draft of history seriously. Think about the consequence of that a bit and you'll understand...)

Fortunately, he called just after I had finished a paper. Distractions, distractions, ...

December 7, 2005

Al-Arian trial end

Along with other bloggers, I'll say a few words about the end of the (first) trial of Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants after the jump.

  • As the more rabid bloggers have noted, the prosecutors were incompetent, dragging the trial along without clearly connecting the dots for the jury.
  • The prosecutors' incompetence may have saved Judge James Moody from the embarrassment of having convictions overturned on appeal because of his decisions. If I remember correctly, he let the prosecutors introduce Alisa Flatow's death in a terrorist bombing before they had established a link from the defendants to that incident.
  • The result of this trial does not mean that Al-Arian is innocent. The American system of jurisprudence has no checkbox for innocence, only guilty or not guilty. We often interpret the latter as a sign of innocence, but that's not technically what happens. And comments that jurors made to reporters yesterday indicated that they just weren't convinced that there was a clear intentional connection between fundraising by the defendants and specific acts of terror by the Islamic Jihad. Apparently they didn't focus much on attorney Moffitt's arguments about free speech, or at least not directly.

So what of Al-Arian and USF? The result of this trial does not justify USF's firing of Al-Arian—but the trial's value as an external judgment of the actions of USF administrators is minimal, as I've written before. And several things would have to happen before Al-Arian's pending grievance is resolved: He'd have to get out of jail, not be in deportation proceedings, and decide he wants his job back. Since there are 9 charges still pending, and the reputation of the Justice Department's anti-terrorism prosecution effort is at stake, I agree with the observer (whose name I forget—I read a bunch of stories in a blur this morning) who said that the Justice Department is stuck with the case until the (likely bitter) end, and then they're stuck with attempting to deport Al-Arian. One of his codefendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh (a sometime USF grad student), was judged not guilty but had already agreed to be deported if not convicted.

December 3, 2005

Tennessee Board of Regents and ABOR

Yesterday, the Nashville Tennessean reported that the state Board of Regents would vote yesterday on a proposed student bill of rights. The McMinville, TN, Southern Standard reports that the Regents approved it. Unfortunately, I can't find a follow-up article this morning on the Tennessean's website (or on the websites of the dailies for Knoxville or Memphis), and the two sources noted above describe the language in very different terms. The Regents site doesn't have a clear route to the agenda and materials. Can anyone help me find an official source for this?

(Adam Groves tipped me off.)

December 2, 2005

Good news

Well, it looks like Penn dropped the charges against the student-photographer of student-exhibitionists (hat tip to Erin O'Connor), Penn State faculty finally created an AAUP chapter to defend themselves with, and Missouri faculty have been saved from the dissolution/disorganization of the University of Missouri system, according to an e-mail I received overnight (on an AAUP general list) from David Brodsky, who also has an online analysis of Horowitz's 'Academic Bill of Rights'.

December 1, 2005

Student photography and speech on campus

Erin O'Connor has a set of links and commentary on the case of a University of Pennsylvania student who posted pictures of a couple making love in a campus dorm window (in plain public view). Since bad taste seems to be going the rounds these days as a target of university crackdowns (John Daly, anyone?), there's not much more I can add other than to point out that poor taste does not justify censorship or retaliation.

I was a graduate student at Penn from 1987-1992, and I'll admit I was largely distanced from events. I thought Penn's administration was being foolish, but that struck me as all too common those days (when Penn's real-estate department tried to close House of Our Own Books until a faculty uproar). I didn't know Alan Kors (the primary opponent of speech codes at Penn) because I'm an Americanist, he's a Europeanist, and Penn's history faculty is large enough that I didn't take courses from all the Americanists, let alone others (other than Lynn Hunt and Dain Borges). Sheldon Hackney was president of the university at the time, before becoming head of the NEH under Clinton. Now he's back as a member of the history department. Not eliminating the speech code quickly was one of Hackney's worst mistakes as university president, and I hope he's learned enough to be on the right side this time (and to speak up).

November 29, 2005

Academic-freedom grumps

The world is all out of sorts. FIRE president David French advising the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on Haranguing Higher Ed Academic Freedom in Higher Education is strange enough. Then catch this from Joan Wallach Scott's review of Donald Downs' Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus and FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus:

[I]n the classroom, academic freedom rests on the notion of faculty expertise, ... It derives from values that attach to the distinctive role of the professional scholar, a member of a self-regulating corporate body whose job it is to certify that expertise. Academic freedom pertains to scholars as professionals, not individuals... Students do not have this kind of academic freedom and they ought not to be encouraged to believe that they do. [Emphasis added.]

This in the same issue of Academe where Joseph Heathcott explained the inappropriateness of the guild analogy for graduate training. Scott's been the head of AAUP's Committee A, doing good work, and she's allowed the occasional mistake. This one's a doozy. You think that maybe we'd realize that to the extent that academic freedom is a special form of free speech for individuals, it inheres in the institutional circumstances, not entirely in the person's characteristics. (If I quit my job and started working for a corporation, would I have special speech rights compared with my neighbor just because I have a Ph.D.?) Yes, faculty have authority over the class in important ways, but, sheesh, this is an inapt and particularly foolish bit of phrasing.

Then there's the strange case of John Daly, the Warren Community College adjunct faculty who insulted a student at the institution in an e-mail exchange about the Iraq war and then was pressured to resign because his statement was politically incorrect, rude, and embarrassing to the college and, in addition, he's an adjunct and thus vulnerable. It's hard to pick a starting point for criticism—there are so many from which to choose. Seventy wrongs still don't make a right.

I turn around (okay, stop writing entries on academic freedom for a few months), and the world goes to pieces. What's wrong with you guys?

November 14, 2005

Al-Arian and academic freedom, redux

Greg McColm and my article, A University’s Dilemma in the Age of National Security (PDF), is now out in the National Education Association Thought and Action Fall 2005 issue (pp. 163-77). We've been working on this for over two years or, rather, Greg has done the vast bulk of the work and I've been putting in chip shots, academically speaking. He deserves any credit for clever turns of phrase as well as persistence that many other academics don't have. It's a little different from what we submitted but that's life with editing. Among other things that I've learned in working on this article is that some disciplines don't have standard citation styles because the rival proprietary journals have different ones, so the standard is to use the citation style of the source that material came from. But I'm sure that's not why you're going to read the full entry, which is about the criminal trial that's entering its concluding stage this week. Note: the article itself is unrelated to the trial, since it was written well before the trial started. Its appearance at the close of the trial is just coincidence.

This week, the prosecution will rebut the case raised by the lawyers for the four defendants. Al-Arian's team rested without presenting witnesses, but the others presented a few witnesses each before the summations. Journalists have described the summaries in essence as a battle over circumstantial evidence. Are the disparate pieces suggesting funding links between the defendants and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad enough to show that they raised money for PIJ with the intent to support the specific organizational mechanics of terrorism (and not just ancillary activities of PIJ)? There are bound to be appeals upon any convictions (and the several hundred pages of jury instructions, along with the dozens of decisions Judge Moody made in the course of the trial, will be fodder for them), but this seems to be the central question of the conspiracy and terrorism charges. (The other charges, about fraudulent immigration applications, is a whole other kettle of fish, and journalists haven't touched those at all, at least as far as I can tell.)

I haven't been sitting in the jury box, so I don't know the full evidence and won't comment on the key question. I'm sure that if there is a conviction, many will claim that the conviction is proof that the administration of USF did the right thing by trying to fire Al-Arian before indictment and by firing him right afterwards. That is essentially an argument that the end result of a criminal trial justifies the employment actions of a university. In some cases, where the basic facts are known before trial, that might well be the case. But I'm not so sure it holds here, with Al-Arian—not because he's anything like an angel. Far from it. But there are a few points that remain, specific to the trial:

  1. The firing of Al-Arian after the indictment was a purely symbolic and political act. There was no payroll difference for the university between an unpaid leave of absence during a trial, at the end of which a conviction ends the job, and firing a professor after indictment. In both cases, the defendant is unpaid.
  2. Many of the factual assumptions of Al-Arian's critics turned out to be in error, especially if you agree with the prosecution's case. In the early 1990s, Al-Arian wasn't adding to PIJ coffers, from all reports of the prosecution case that I've read. Instead, he was desperately seeking to raid PIJ accounts to support the think-tank he had co-founded. This prosecution claim doesn't necessarily obviate their central point, but it is related to the criticism of Al-Arian that he was using his employment at USF as a cover to legitimate the funding of terrorism. He may well have used his employment at USF as a mechanism to start a think-tank with delusions of Palestinian intelligentsia gravitas, eventually willing to propose various financial mechanisms to keep it afloat. (This is detail from the prosecution's case, detail that Al-Arian's lawyers may or may not dispute.)
  3. The immigration-fraud charges are a safety-valve for the federal government. If Al-Arian and the other defendants are acquitted on the more serious charges but are convicted on the fraud charges (which I am guessing have a lower threshold to prove), those convictions will be powerful tools at deportation hearings, which (I am also guessing) would proceed on a track parallel to the appeals of any criminal convictions. A fraud charge may not carry lengthy prison time beyond what the defendants have already served before trial, but such convictions could be used in deportation hearings. The end result might well be an even more complicated legal mess than some of my friends and colleagues are predicting.
  4. If there is no conviction or deportation order left standing at the end of the day, there is still Al-Arian's grievance against his firing. The USF administration's decision to fire Al-Arian on his indictment hinges on the legitimacy of that indictment, whose counts changed before trial, and (if it comes back to an employment case) would necessarily be a matter of not being proven in a court of law, at least as far as the law is concerned. The machinations to fire Al-Arian before indictment might well be used by Al-Arian's civil lawyer(s) as evidence that the termination decision was pretextual. And Al-Arian's civil lawyer in 2003 filed a pro-forma grievance under administrative rules passed by our Board of Trustees under the assumption that the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the faculty union was void, an assumption that Florida's courts have now made invalid. One more mess to consider.
  5. If there is no standing conviction or deportation order at the end of all this, and there is a university grievance process that results in upholding Al-Arian's dismissal, the AAUP investigation of USF will probably become active again. In the summer of 2003, staff and members of Committee A reported to the annual meeting that under AAUP procedures, universities were given more due process than they usually give faculty: a university's hearing process had to be concluded (or none started) for AAUP to officially censure the administration. Because USF's administration and Al-Arian's lawyer agreed to suspend the process for a post-termination grievance pending the outcome of a criminal trial, AAUP's staff and Committee A leadership concluded that the annual meeting could not fairly consider the censuring of USF's administration. But if Al-Arian is freed and the grievance proceeds, then that stoppage on AAUP action is lifted (at least as I read the AAUP process). That doesn't guarantee censure, but it does make some discussion within AAUP highly likely, at least in the annual meeting.
  6. For those who long argued for Al-Arian's termination, before an indictment, I wonder if they considered the likely results (at least until an indictment): a man as a cause celebre, with loads of time on his hands to raise funds for Palestinian causes. If those causes included terrorism,...
  7. For those who long argued for Al-Arian's termination, and who are delighted that Al-Arian is on trial, I wonder if they thought that federal agents were better or worse at investigation than university administrators, or if in retrospect they preferred that the administration hire private investigators, who could possibly have interfered with or discovered the clandestine wiretaps of the feds.

Since Al-Arian's lawyer filed his post-termination grievance in 2003 using non-union procedures, the United Faculty of Florida (my faculty union) is out of the loop officially regardless of the results of the trial, any deportation hearings, or the grievance process. Of course, I'm not ruling anything out given the twists and turns of all this. My longstanding concern here has been with the long-term consequences of administration actions on faculty morale and the university environment, and while there are many things that are operating significantly better today than almost four years ago, this episode is another patch of tarnish on USF's history. The administrators and trustees who served in late 2001-early 2003 may not have been responsible for all of the things coming at them, but they made enough errors to contribute to problems. Until someone convinces me otherwise, I think the university would have been better off waiting until an indictment and putting Al-Arian on unpaid leave until the end of the trial (and subsequence proceedings) or waiting for evidence that would clearly justify discipline or termination on its face. The guy is no model of university citizenship, but that's not the entire question here.

Correction (7:30 a.m., Tuesday): It looks like the jury instructions only took three hours for the judge to read. Deliberations start today.

November 1, 2005

Alito and academic freedom

It looks like Samuel Alito's opinions on academic freedom are mixed. In one case, Saxe v. State College Area Sch. Dist., 240 F.3d 200 (2001), Alito wrote an opinion striking down an overly broad anti-harassment policy. So far, so good in terms of protecting expression.

Then there's Edwards v. California Univ. of Pa., 156 F.3d 488 (1998), in which Alito wrote an opinion undermining the claims of a faculty member to individual academic freedom separate from institutional academic freedom. The passage that is most worrisome follows (in the extended entry):

We do not find it necessary to determine whether the district court's instruction adequately defined the "reasonably related to a legitimate educational interest" standard because, as a threshold matter, we conclude that a public university professor does not have a First Amendment right to decide what will be taught in the classroom. This conclusion is compelled by our decision in Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ. , 910 F.2d 1172 (3d Cir. 1990), where we explained that "no court has found that teachers' First Amendment rights extend to choosing their own curriculum or classroom management techniques in contravention of school policy or dictates." Id . at 1176. Consistent with this observation, we concluded that "[a]lthough a teacher's out-of-class conduct, including her advocacy of particular teaching methods, is protected, her in-class conduct is not." Id . (citation omitted). Therefore, although Edwards has a right to advocate outside of the classroom for the use of certain curriculum materials, he does not have a right to use those materials in the classroom. Accord Boring v. Buncombe County Bd. of Educ. ,

136 F.3d 364, 370 (4th Cir. 1998) (in banc) ("We agree . . . that the school, not the teacher, has the right tofix the curriculum."); Kirkland v. Northside Indep. Sch. Dist. , 890 F.2d 794, 800 (5th Cir. 1989) ("Although the concept of academic freedom has been recognized in our jurisprudence, the doctrine has never conferred upon teachers the control of public school curricula."). But see Bishop v. Aronov , 926 F.2d 1066, 1075 (11th Cir. 1991) (finding that a public university's restrictions on a professor's in-class speech "implicate[d] First Amendment freedoms").

Our conclusion that the First Amendment does not place restrictions on a public university's ability to control its curriculum is consistent with the Supreme Court's jurisprudence concerning the state's ability to say what it wishes when it is the speaker. The following passage from Rosenberger v. University of Virginia , 515 U.S. 819 (1995), addresses this issue in the university context:

[W]hen the State is the speaker, it may make content- based choices. When the University determines the content of the education it provides, it is the University speaking, and we have permitted the government to regulate the content of what is or is not expressed when it is the speaker or when it enlists private entities to convey its own message. . . . It does not follow, however, . . . that viewpoint-based restrictions are proper when the University does not speak itself or subsidize transmittal of a message it favors but instead expends funds to encourage a diversity of views from private speakers. A holding that the University may not discriminate based on viewpoint of private persons whose speech it facilitates does not restrict the University's own speech, which is controlled by different principles.

Id . at 833-34. Since the University's actions in the instant case concerned the "content of the education it provides," id . at 833, we find that the University was acting as speaker and was entitled to make content-based choices in restricting Edwards's syllabus.

Edwards's reliance on the principle of academic freedom does not affect our conclusion that the University can make content-based decisions when shaping its curriculum. The Supreme Court has explained that "[a]cademic freedom thrives not only on the independent and uninhibited exchange of ideas among teachers and students, but also, and somewhat inconsistently, on autonomous decisionmaking by the academy itself." Regents of Univ. of Michigan v. Ewing , 474 U.S. 214, 226 n.12 (citations omitted). The "four essential freedoms" that constitute academic freedom have been described as a university's freedom to choose "who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study." Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke , 438 U.S. 265, 312 (1978) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quotations omitted). In sum, caselaw from the Supreme Court and this court on academic freedom and the First Amendment compel the conclusion that Edwards does not have a constitutional right to choose curriculum materials in contravention of the University's dictates.

There are two concerns I have here. One is the substantive judgments entailed here, which suggests that the First Amendment only protects an academic's statements outside class. I can't exaggerate how troubling that is. (FIRE staff, what do you think?)

But what is more worrisome is the slippery logic here, conflating all sorts of things: the restrictions on K-12 teachers with university teachers, of speakers with university teachers, and of general public employees with university teachers. There's the acknowledgment that the 11th Circuit had at least somewhat different reasoning (and a sort of balancing test) in Bishop v. Aronov, but no grappling with the reasoning there or with the broader question of when institutions have sway and when university teachers have sway. [Update: After a bit of thought, I should clarify that I don't agree with Bishop v. Aronov. My point is that Alito's reasoning here is brief and apparently untroubled with the possibility that he was essentially wiping out first-amendment protections for university teaching, period.]

Rachel Fugate's 1998 article, Choppy Waters Are Forecast for Academic Free Speech (Florida State University Law Review), is available on-line and explains much of the legal context here. (Thanks to Religion Clause for the case-law references.)

October 28, 2005

Bedfellows, amicus briefs, John Roberts, and Hosty

Interestingly enough, I've read absolutely nothing on the blogosphere yet about the collection of signers for FIRE's amicus brief supporting certiorari in the appeal of Hosty v. Carter (that's a page from the Student Press Law Center describing the case). One of the signers is David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom, and now the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has joined the brief.

As I've written before, my concerns about appealing Hosty is the potential for it to open up opportunities for the Court to weaken academic-freedom. At the time, O'Connor had just resigned, and I had no idea that we'd go through the shuffle we have over the past 4 months. But given Roberts's professional background representing universities, as well as his questions in the Garcetti v. Ceballos oral arguments earlier this month, my concern is at least moderately warranted. Roberts is more familiar with the arguments put forward by university administrators than other justices, and the Hosty case provides some opening for administrators to argue that academic freedom is an institutional rather than an individual right (an issue the AAUP legal staff is concerned about). Roberts's work in defending affirmative action is consistent with the view that institutional officers are best fit to make decisions, and while it is unlikely that Hosty or FAIR v. Rumsfield would be decided on such matters, I would not be surprised at all if a Hosty opinion or concurrence by Roberts inserts such an argument as dictum—not legally binding but dangerous nonetheless as a signal to the federal circuit courts.

Having said that, if the Court grants cert, I wish the appellants the best of luck. The opinion by the circuit court was wrong on its merits, and despite my concerns about an appeal on tactical grounds, I'm with the Student Press Law Center and Harvey Silvergate's recent column on the substance of the issue.

Which leads to an interesting question, about the FIRE amicus brief and its signers, which include groups avowedly hostile towards the academic freedom of faculty (Horowitz's group and Accuracy in Academia, to take two examples). Some will inevitably read the combination as proof that FIRE is insufficiently aware of the dangers posed by these groups. Personally, I don't take FIRE's soliciting or accepting signers as evidence of anything in FIRE except a professional desire to present a broad front in the brief and the signers' taking advantage of a political opportunity (to be blunt). And amicus-brief politics can be strange; I remember hearing from one professor in grad school that a particular brief was carefully crafted to be signed only by presidents and former presidents of major professional associations, precisely for the gravitas.

However, I am concerned that other defenders of academic freedom might be scared away from this case because of this coalition. I can hear it now: Who wants to agree with David Horowitz or Accuracy in Academia? That enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thinking would be dead wrong. It's one thing to stay silent on the issue of appealing the case—I think I've stated some good reasons to be cautious at least for this year—but if the Court takes up the case, it's essential that everyone stand on the right side (with students, here).

September 23, 2005

Speech codes at USF

My brief column on speech codes at the University of South Florida came out tonight on the union e-mail newsletter, describing a grievance I filed and then amended in June (PDF file). I've been sitting on this item for a few months, but it's clear that between a changeover in the administration staff member who handles grievances and other items, addressing a fairly cut-and-dried violation of academic freedom was not a priority. It's not about academic freedom itself—I'm not the only member of the union deeply concerned with some sloppiness in handling relations with faculty. This Just Happens at most universities, because maintaining good relations with faculty requires consistent good habits and prioritizing, and for good or ill, communicating with faculty and defending core academic principles are not the highest priorities for many college and university administrations.

We'll see whether stuffing that item in the e-mail newsletter gets the attention of administrators in a constructive way. If not, it's on to a formal grievance hearing. This may turn out to be the first hearing of our administrator newly in charge of processing faculty grievances. That's pretty unusual (for a hearing to be about an academic-freedom matter). In most cases, grievances are about things most readers might find more mundane: discipline, assignments, evaluations (including T&P), nonreappointment, and pay. That doesn't mean those items aren't about principles. Often, they are. Rather, this grievance is about a matter of principle before someone's job is on the line. How does that matter, you ask? Well, we'll see if this gets to a hearing...

September 21, 2005

Tensions in higher-ed debates

Erin O'Connor is onto something in her discussion of this week's Chronicle of Higher Ed article reporting a study of college student's career orientation and lack of interest in a liberal education, and how a liberal education may well be at odds with the world-competitiveness language accompanying the announcement of a blue-ribbon commission on higher-ed directions in the U.S. Only one quibble: O'Connor's claim that liberal education is clearly disappearing is a standard myth of declension, assuming that there was some mythical Golden Age when college students gladly focused on a liberal education, when faculty taught it (well), and when everyone agreed on what a liberal education was.

(And now, back to the grind of grading for me, and then editorial stuff, indexing, ...)

September 19, 2005

Hosty appeal

From the FIRE blog The Torch comes the news that FIRE and the Student Press Law Center is appealing the Hosty v. Carter decision to the Supreme Court, in hopes of resolving inconsistent Circuit-Court opinions in favor of college student press freedoms. I think the decision is a bad one, and while I'm not sure that appealing it is strategically wise, I certainly wish the litigants the best of luck if it's granted cert.

August 29, 2005

KC Johnson, law profs, and intellectual diversity

Two stories in the last few days have popped up about intellectual diversity in higher ed. One is KC Johnson's story in Inside Higher Ed and the other is a story in the New York Times describing a study of law professors' political contributions.

It's the first week of classes and I'm still far behind where I need to be right now—I have weeks of work on Education Policy Analysis Archives waiting for me, let alone the end of an edited book manuscript, classes, and a union membership drive—so I'm going to let these pass without extensive comment, at least for now. See Ralph Luker's compilation of responses to the Johnson column.

August 11, 2005

Introduction drafted for Citizen-Scholar

In response to one reviewer's comment, I've drafted an introduction to put a broader frame around the other chapters. The following is from a passage on the policy feedback of greater educational attainment:

The majority of adults have sat through college lectures, both good and bad. They know that college students have to study on their own. They know that college classes tend to be larger than high-school classes, except in a minority of colleges, and that many classes have several hundred students attending at once. Millions of adults remember applying for loans and scholarship and combining work and study (and, on the rare occasion, sleep). Millions are still paying back college loans. In other words, the majority of adults have direct, personal experience with both good and weak college teaching and, moreover, are familiar with the overloaded, institutional life of colleges.

The consequences of this experience for the politics of higher education are subtle but important. The majority college experience of the nation's adults has laid the foundation for non-ideological criticism of colleges. The troubles of most college students have little to do with the political leanings of faculty. First, consider what happens in classes. College students are familiar with both good and bad teaching, and their experience tells them that most bad teachers are painful to watch and work for because they are disorganized or do not know their subjects. While many have some experience with a teacher or two whose lectures consisted of ideological rants, from a common student perspective the problem with most such ranting is that it wastes their valuable time. (From a faculty perspective, I have greater concerns about ranting, beyond the time wasted.) But, for the most part, students are concerned with the effectiveness of teachers, not their political inclinations.

Part of this comes from my thinking over a key chapter in Hersh and Merrow's Declining by Degrees, a companion book matched with the documentary. I've commented elsewhere on the book, a set of first impressions. I still think the book is uneven, but if a book changes my thinking significantly, there's something important of value there.

August 3, 2005

Liars at ACTA

This morning's Inside Higher Ed has an op-ed by Anne D. Neal, executive director of the American Council of Trustees & Alumni, who complains that the American Council on Education's Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities is vague, paying only lip service to ideals of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. I won't rehearse ACTA's hypocrisy on this point, the November 2001 report claiming that faculty are the "weak link" in American patriotism—there are plenty of online discussions about that execrable document that ACTA's staff then tried to whitewash.

Instead, I want to point out that, while criticizing the statement endorsed by ACE and others for its vacuity, Neal did not once propose anything concrete. As John K. Wilson points out in his comments (at the end of the column, not on his own site), Neal is at least as vacuous as the statement she decries, except perhaps she adds a bit of gratuitous bile. The point of the op-ed column is not to convince anyone reading IHE. Neal recites the hoary cliches about a monolithic campus culture and says little new or responsive. Instead, she is playing the time-honored tactic of an advocacy organization, invented along with the oldest profession and well before modern politics: playing to one's base.

Through 2003, ACTA received about $2 million in grants from conservative foundations, including Olin and Scaife. I should state up front that I have no problems with advocacy organizations receiving funding from anyone they choose to. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education receives funding (and employs staff) from across the political spectrum, and the origins of their funding doesn't prevent them from defending students and faculty whom their staff concludes have been denied their rights. So I am not surprised that despite the inclusion of several moderates in its founding group, ACTA's politics align with their funding (or, rather, those who fund ACTA's activities do so because they are comfortable with ACTA's politics). But let's take a closer look at the mission of ACTA:

ACTA is the only national organization that is dedicated to working with alumni, donors, trustees and education leaders across the country to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically-balanced, open-minded, high-quality education at an affordable price.

So far, so clear (whether or not you agree with this). Given this statement, I wouldn't be surprised at some of ACTA's activities, such as the call for a general-education curriculum that isn't a smorgasbord of courses. One can have a productive debate over what a general-ed curriculum should look like, and that's not my focus today—and, again, I'm skipping that small problem of hypocrisy with academic freedom and instead focusing on the nuts and bolts of that first claim, to support liberal arts education.

As an historian, I'd love some solid support of liberal arts education, especially as I teach within a college of education. (I'm one of six liberal-arts faculty in my department of twenty-some colleagues.) But while ACTA talks a good game about the importance of liberal arts, and they take in money from folks for talking the talk (and for training trustees), what has ACTA done about the fairly hard conditions of liberal arts education in the country?

  1. The reliance on contingent faculty for teaching liberal-arts courses, especially introductory courses in composition and math
  2. Lower salaries in liberal arts
  3. The proliferation of vocational majors with little academic content, such as "hospitality management"
  4. The corruption of education through big-campus athletics

I have never seen ACTA address any of these issues (please correct me if I'm wrong!) and have seen ACTA turn a blind eye to the violations of its principles by supposed friends. For a case in point, I use Florida's state universities, whose trustees were all appointed by Governor Bush after the breakup of the old Board of Regents and then trained by ACTA. So does ACTA claim any responsibility for these trustees who turned around and gave exorbitant salaries to presidents, who created programs like hospitality management and tried to create a school of chiropractic, and who have taken no steps that I've seen to raise the status of liberal arts? I will have a lot more respect for ACTA when it does more than pay lip service to liberal-arts education.

And if you're a supporter of ACTA, you might want to ask its staff what it's doing with your money. Trust me, the title for this entry isn't about Neal lying to me or the general public.

(P.S. I'm aware that Erin O'Connor is writing for the ACTA blog. She seems to be a pretty thoughtful conservative on her own blog, and I'm surprised she's willing to blog for ACTA, given its record. In this case, the blog is better than the organization.)

July 22, 2005

Silliness at William Patterson University

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education press release on the case of Jihad Daniel at William Patterson University illustrates the problems of overly broad language on harassment that in essence defines any speech as harassment if it offends someone, for virtually any reason. Apparently, the employee and grad student responded to an e-mail announcement of a showing of Ruth and Connie: Every Room in the House. He wrote back the head of William Patterson's women's studies department asking not to receive any more e-mail about films including gay or lesbian content.

Daniel's e-mail was not disruptive. It was vocal, and he clearly was not happy with the e-mailed announcement broadcast to the whole university. I think he's substantively wrong on the appropriateness of such announcements and the practicality of omitting specific individuals from such broadcasts. But he was within his First Amendment rights to write the e-mail. So what happened next was Kafkaesque: The university accused him of harassment just for his e-mail, and his fairly clear defense had absolutely no effect.

Students, faculty, and staff have the legitimate expectation of an environment that is physically safe and provides an opportunity to learn and discuss ideas without discrimination based on anything other than the merit of one's ideas. But those expectations do not cover intellectual and emotional comfort. Universities are precisely the place where you'd expect some stiff challenges to your ideas.

When challenged (gee, there's that word again),I have heard a lawyer at one university suggest that "offensive" speech could be replaced by "discriminatory" in speech-code language and leave an acceptable policy. For my 3.14159... readers, does this make any sense?

July 21, 2005

Creative commons and graduate students

Chris Karr has an interesting idea to protect students from the rare faculty who steal ideas:identify their work explicitly with a Creative Commons license. This is technically to make the claims to authorship clear rather than change the legal status of work—a Creative Commons license is more a way to release some part of of copyright privileges rather than something separate—but it's an interesting idea.

July 12, 2005

Pennsylvania investigations

Hiram Hover and Michael Bérubé chime in on House Resolution 177. More coverage:

July 7, 2005

Legislative investigations and academic freedom

Today, Inside Higher Ed reports that the Pennsylvania House approved House Resolution 177, establishing a committee with the power to investigate allegations of bias in public institutions in Pennsylvania. Thus far, this is the only victory of David Horowitz's in any legislature. A few notes:

  • As usual, the resolution observes paeans to academic freedom before getting down to the dirty work.
  • The select committee consists entirely of the Pennsylvania house subcommittee on higher ed, plus two members.
  • Legislative committees did much of the dirty work of McCarthyism in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, modeled on the federal committee started in 1937 by Martin Dies (later known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities or HUAC). Here in Florida, the Johns Committee first targeted the civil rights movement and then, when it couldn't find Communism there, looked first for Communists and then gays and lesbians teaching in Florida schools and universities, including at the University of South Florida.
  • Faculty are given a whopping two days' notice of allegations and a chance to respond. The problem is not the notice but the fact that most faculty will face the dilemma of taking time off to appear before a hostile committee, on the one hand, or being told that they had the chance to respond so any failure to appear must mean the student is correct, on the other.

It is the last item that's the kicker, practically speaking. I suspect that faculty unions in Pennsylvania and non-union chapters of the AAUP will come up with a creative way to respond, and I expect my fellow historian of education William Cutler, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, will give them an earful, as will Michael Bérubé, but this has the potential to be a sordid little committee, cloned in other states, just like the McCarthyite investigating committees.

July 4, 2005

Independence is a state of mind

Thanks to former history grad student eb's reorganization of the blog no great matter, I found out about two of Timothy Burke's entries on intellectual diversity from February and December 2004. In them, Burke points out the more subtle ruts that academics fall into based on disciplinary and institutional mores and suggests that most academics are fairly conservative in thinking about academe.

In the meantime, I've been reading Hersh and Merrow's edited volume, Declining by Degrees, just out from Palgrave as the companion to Merrow's documentary of the same name. Thus far, the essays are of highly mixed quality; somehow, despite most of them being outside academe, the majority of essays strike me as self-indulgent whining about colleges rather than carefully researched or thought out. For example, even though he is usually more careful when writing about elementary and secondary schools, Washington Post writer Jay Mathews sees college's treatment of AP courses as a synecdoche for the laziness with which faculty look at their own curricula. Maybe I have higher expectations for him, but couldn't he have done a bit of independent research rather than rely on his previous work on AP courses?

Ah, well. Can't have everything. Have a happy holiday, everyone!

June 24, 2005

More on Hosty v. Carter

There is more on the Seventh Circuit opinion on Hosty v. Carter (about the censorship of a student newspaper at Governors State University) from Greg Lukianoff, John K. Wilson, and the Student Press Law Center (which has a resource page on the case). The primary concerns appear to be that the decision, which nominally was about the qualified immunity of a college official from a §1983 lawsuit, has ramifications far beyond the decision about potential damages for censorship. (Thanks to Charles Mitchell at FIRE for an e-mail pointing out the first item, which led me to most of the others.)

June 21, 2005

Censoring students? IHE makes mistake

Today, there is a story at Inside Higher Education reporting (or misreporting) the majority opinion in Hosty v. Carter. In the Inside Higher Ed story, Doug Lederman said that the opinion applied to colleges the 1988 Hazelwood decision that allows high school administrators to censor student newspapers:

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled on Monday that a controversial 1988 Supreme Court decision restricting the free speech rights of high school newspapers applies to student newspapers subsidized by public colleges and universities, too.

However, Lederman misreads the majority opinion about a case from Governors State University. The Dean of Student Affairs and Services, Patricia Carter, ordered the paper's printer to stop printing any newspaper that didn't have her explicit approval after a series of articles criticizing the administration for firing the newspaper's faculty advisor. The students sued for damages from the college's officials, asking the courts to assume that they did not have immunity. The district court and a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit had decided in favor of the students in the case of Carter (but not the other officials), and the whole court agreed to hear an appeal from the university.

Yes, the majority opinion overturned the district court and the 3-judge opinion before the en banc hearing, but it wasn't on the basis of whether Hazelwood applied in toto to colleges. In Part II of the majority opinion, the judges came down on the side of the students in making a preliminary, favoring-plaintiffs judgment of whether a student newspaper is a qualified public forum (i.e., whether censorship is forbidden). It was only in Part III that the majority overturned the earlier opinions, which had to do with whether the college official had immunity. In that part, the majority opinion ruled that the inapplicability of Hazelwood was not clear, and that a competent official could have decided that it might apply. But the majority never said that public officials automatically have a right to censor college publications; the ruling hinges entirely on the second part of a two-prong test on immunity of public officials accused of violating constitutional rights.

I think it's pretty clear that a student newspaper is a qualified public forum, at the very least, but let's not be hasty in criticizing this opinion. More importantly, I hope that the Student Press Law Center does not appeal the case. While it may harm so-called §1983 cases in the circuit, there could be much greater harm from appealing it and opening up the whole censorship can of worms right now, especially since we don't know who will be on the court next term. The Seventh Circuit Court did not prevent lawsuits designed to change the behavior of public colleges and universities, and in fact their ruling came down slightly on the side of student freedom of expression (though not nearly as clearly as other circuit courts, as the dissenting opinion noted). All this ruling appears to do is to bar lawsuits against public-college officials for damages. Yes, in theory it would be nice to extract monetary revenge for censorship, but I think the greater damage is opening up the larger question. I am not a lawyer (yada, yada, yada), but I don't think it takes a lawyer to understand the difference between §1983 suits and other legal tools to prevent censorship.

June 19, 2005

Bits and pieces of academic freedom this week

Three academic-freedom controversies floating in the blogosphere:

The first two are deeply troubling, and I assume no one is going to question that they are violations of academic freedom if the factual claims are true. (Sadly, relatively few organizations have raised questions about sponsored research and academic freedom, whether at FIRE or the AAUP.) The issue at OSU is more complicated. I've previously commented on it and was taken a bit aback at the FIRE blog argument, that the criticism of the dissertation constituted an assault on research because of its content. As explained in the Panda's Thumb rebuttal, the relatively narrow claims at OSU are about the evasion of the dissertation policies (i.e., that the committee members did not have relevant expertise). And the delay was at the behest of Bryan Leonard's advisor. Furthermore, a dissertation defense is generally an open process at most campuses, and as Alon Leavy notes in a comment on Pharyngula (comment 5), it is supposed to introduce at least the possibility that someone might challenge the student's ideas.

Yet the argument is not absolute. OSU faculty-senate secretary Susan Fisher is wrong to claim that there is no academic freedom for students, and (in an entry otherwise filled with factual errors and distortions) David Heddle has a point that graduate students are at the mercy of their program faculty in terms of the plausibility of their projects. Where those projects strike into new territory, I'm sure there are the occasional dissertation members and advisors who block the research. A friend's sociology dissertation was stuck in the pre-proposal phase for about a year because several dissertation members did not approve of it, and I'm certain similar barriers appeared occasionally for those opening up social history in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ideally, the interaction between a student and her or his advisor (and committee) should be a dialogue, with the student getting the benefit of expert perspectives in the area the student is working in. But life is not always ideal. Swapping out committee members is the usual option for students whose projects are blocked inappropriately or, more prosaically, in situations where personalities clash or someone just isn't the best mentor for a particular student. This pragmatic need for committee fluidity is why doctoral programs need a critical mass of faculty. In the case of Bryan Leonard, OSU has five science-ed faculty with Ph.D.s in its math, science, and technology education program. For him not to have a science-ed advisor or even committee member is curious indeed.

The back-up practical solution is to have faculty who are not precisely in the area on the committee. I'm confident that's what Leonard might say (as Heddle claimed): only these faculty would give him a fair shot. And, if the relevant administrator had seen the committee's makeup in advance and approved it, I would be far more sympathetic. But I suspect that's not what happened, and the consequences show the fact that academic life does not follow the usual rule: On a campus, apologizing after the fact is not generally easier than securing permission first. In this case, advance permission would have been far easier than what happened after the graduate school discovered the makeup of the committee. Leonard's non-science-ed advisor, Paul Post, also takes blame for not having run the committee membership up the line before Leonard started the dissertation in earnest.

Side note: In a comment, Richard Hoppe points to a lesson plan on evolution that explores an active scientific controversy about evolution.

June 18, 2005

Klocek defamation suit

Former Depaul University adjunct Thomas Klocek has filed a defamation lawsuit against DePaul. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's David French comments on the lawsuit on FIRE's blog. As I've noted before, the key issue here is not that DePaul fired Klocek without due process (since adjuncts have few procedural rights at universities—whether they should is a different issue) but that they did so for illegitimate reasons. When the administration said they had fired him for what he said (and then covered that with a flimsy pretext), they were damaging his reputation in the most stupid way possible. From the Washington Post report, Klocek isn't suing them for the dismissal per se but defamation. This is lawyer-speak for, "I can't sue you for your core sin, but I will sue your heinie off for the associated sins that are actionable."

June 8, 2005

Kudos to Manuel Gomez

Pointed out today by Minnie Quach (of FIRE) is a fine short description of protected speech on campuses by Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Irvine.

June 7, 2005

Chairs and speech

Kudos to David French of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) for acknowledging today the gray areas involved in the speech of department chairs, who act both as faculty and as administrators. The immediate occasion is the controversy over Timothy Shortell, recently elected as chair of Brooklyn College's sociology department. As the New York Daily News and New York Sun reported, Shortell had published an article in which he called religious adherents "moral retards," sparking outrage on campus and in the New York metro area. Brooklyn College historian KC Johnson explained his concerns about Shortell as chair (pretty much calling for his removal) and compared the possible removal of Shortell with the pressure on Ward Churchill to resign from his position as head of his department earlier this year and the removal of Leonard Jeffries from his position as a CUNY chair for anti-Semitic comments.

Jeffries sued on his removal as chair (he wasn't fired from his faculty position), and after various legal maneuvers, Jeffries' initial victory, and a Supreme Court decision in another public-employee speech case, the U.S. Second Circuit Court ruled that the CUNY chancellor and trustees did not need to prove actual harm from his speech to remove him from his administrative post. The crucial part of the decision for academic freedom is the distinction between a chair's role and a professor's. The court noted, "Jeffries is still a tenured professor at CUNY, and the defendants have not sought to silence him, or otherwise limit his access to the "marketplace of ideas" in the classroom." Therein lies the arguments about the authority of universities to remove chairs (see Eugene Volokh's comments on this vis-a-vis Ward Churchill).

Last Friday (June 3), French argued from this perspective that Shortell's views created a liability problem for Brooklyn College in case he ever was involved in a tenure or promotion denial for a colleague with professed religious views. Since then, a FIRE supporter e-mailed French, arguing that one could on that basis bar virtually anyone with strong views about the nature of religion from any administrative post, whether the person was atheist, Catholic, evangelical, Muslim, etc. David French responded with the following arguments (I am paraphrasing):

  1. Shortell's essay was more than an abstract discussion of theology; instead, it constituted specific ad hominem denigration of a class of individuals on the basis of religion.
  2. Shortell's position as a hiring authority (and someone equivalent to a law firm's hiring partner or someone in an HR department with hiring authority) put the university at substantial risk, given the current state of employment law.

I don't think this is a substantive answer to the concerns, as it restates the argument, perhaps with the variant that Shortell's writings are more severe and prejudicial than the views of most faculty on faith. Nonetheless, French gets credit for responding to his correspondent.

Part of the difficulty here is that there is a difference between the legal situation (where administrators and governing boards can remove department chairs) and the practical life of universities. French suggests that universities take much greater care in screening potential administrators, especially for this type of embarrassing flaw. Would that universities had such luxury! For some positions, there is an underwhelming dearth of applicants (or even nominally qualified applicants).

But let's assume that we can identify employment-law-foolhardy faculty and ban them from administrative posts. The fact is that faculty still have enormous power to wreak havoc in personnel matters, from screwing up searches to playing politics with tenure decisions. The reason why the Supreme Court stripped union organizing rights from private-university faculty in the Yeshiva case is because they share management authority in many matters, from curriculum to personnel. Ask any administrator supervising searches what the greatest fears are these days, and one of the top ones will be a faculty member who screws it up by not following written procedures, by asking a legally impermissible one in an interview (e.g., about the marital status of a candidate), or by something worse.

I don't think administrators have the authority to bar faculty from all personnel authority, including the shared power involved in searches and tenure/promotion decisions, for their written comments. In the real life of campuses, administrators fear all sorts of actions but live with the risk, in the same way that real corporations live with the same risk involving managers.

In reality, the removal of departmental chairs based on their speech is a cover-your-rear maneuver to stem public embarrassment. The personnel-hiring argument of Johnson and French is a fig-leaf cover for that reality. There is no comfortable resolution of this: Jeffries, Churchill, and Shortell are not the brightest stars in academe's firmament. But the removal of department chairs based on public embarrassment is dangerously close to allowing a heckler's veto on campus, and telling faculty that they shouldn't be worried because administrative posts are not the same as faculty posts is cold comfort when a campus has been under siege.

ADDENDUM 1 (8:45 pm): On second thought, I'm not so sure that the relevance of the Jeffries decision revolves around the distinction between chairs and faculty. The heart of that short decision was the question of whether harm to an agency needed to be actual or plausible for a public employee to be fired based on speech. The Second Circuit Court tossed off the line about distinguishing administrative posts from faculty positions, but that was not at issue in the case (as Jeffries was not fired), and so it not relevant to that case, and I am doubtful whether it would be precedential in another case.

ADDENDUM 2 (10:45 pm): The obvious parallel I missed was with Larry Summers's controversy (du jour). Stanley Fish has opined that Summers's remarks about women and science violated the job requirements of being a Harvard president, with the snide aside, Whenever the phrase "academic freedom" is invoked, you know you're hearing cant. In essence, French and Fish here are on the same side (which has got to be a first), arguing that one can lose an administrative job from one's speech.

June 4, 2005

What's fair in love and academe

Noted by Erin O'Connor today is the first article in a Rocky Mountain News series this week on Ward Churchill. The reporters have been looking into the allegations that are now part of the internal research-misconduct investigation at Boulder. The allegations that are most troubling to an historian are the charges that Churchill plagiarized several other works and that he repeatedly mischaracterized the causes of a run of smallpox at Fort Clarke in 1837. I don't care whether you call the latter fabrication or willful incompetence, but it's serious misconduct if it repeatedly misconstrues the scholarship. (You're allowed to disagree with other scholars, but it's not kosher to claim that your colleagues support your argument when they don't.)

The question that may spring up from the series this week is whether the newspaper is trying to pressure the University of Colorado to fire Churchill. That's the wrong question. Is it proper for a newspaper to report on controversial events on campus and try to conduct an independent investigation? Absolutely. We call this a free press. Much to their credit, the article today focuses on the factual questions, and from the overview piece the reporters look to have contacted as many relevant sources as they could. (We'll see about the details in the rest of the series.) Several years ago, the local newspapers in the Tampa area had a field day with an ophthalmologist then at USF who had reportedly experimented with a new optical surgery device without either filing the correct paperwork to declare that he was doing so or to ask patients for informed consent to use the experimental device. They could not have replicated a professional investigation by medical researchers, but the story was legitimately newsworthy.

May 26, 2005

AUT boycott of Israeli universities overturned

Here are reports from the BBC, Jerusalem Post, the Guardian, the Observer, Haaretz, and the official AUT page. (Thanks to Sharon Howard for the first blog entry I read on this.)

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

May 21, 2005

Al-Arian and symbolism

Now that Judge James Moody has identified a jury for the trial of Sami Al-Arian and three codefendants, it's time for a little reflection on the choices made by USF administrators over the past decade and a little perspective on the meaning of the trial for academic freedom, if there is any. The book I'm writing, Scholar-Citizen, will discuss the case at USF (what do you think started the idea of writing a book in the first place?), but that's one of many incidents in the book. I'll put some broader thoughts together about the case here and over the course of the trial.

A few disclaimers first: I will not take a position on Al-Arian's guilt or innocence. In the next week, I'll explain the relevance of any verdict for the university, but this is about the case on the campus. In addition, my colleague Greg McColm has a much stronger grasp than I on the details of Al-Arian's time at USF (or maybe I should say the details of and allegations about his employment), and is still keeping up a huge repository of information at the on-campus faculty union web site. He'll be the primary author of an article on Al-Arian, USF, due process, and faculty governance that will be appearing in a journal sometime in the next year.

So, to the issue today: Why did some faculty and many Tampa residents want USF to fire Al-Arian long before his indictment on charges that he helped finance the Palestinian Islamic Jihad? In 1994 and 1995, a PBS video and newspaper articles in the Tampa Tribune alleged that Al-Arian had helped finance terrorism, and that USF's formal relationship with the World Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) (that Al-Arian had co-founded a few years before) legitimized a slew of activities that were mixed up with the direct and indirect financing of terrorism. USF cut off that relationship in June 1995 and suspended Al-Arian for pay in 1996 during a formal investigation, and then reinstated him to teaching in 1998 after the investigation stated that there was insufficient cause to fire Al-Arian (as part of a broader report into the relationship with WISE). While the controversy over Al-Arian heated up again in 2001 when Al-Arian appeared on the FoxNews "O'Reilly Factor," in reality the local controversy had begun several years before. (See Greg's chronology for a summary timeline of related events.)

I do not think that my neighbors and the minority of my colleagues who wanted Al-Arian fired before 2001 really thought that doing so would end his activities. They're smart enough to know that he would have become a cause celebré, with plenty of time on his hands to raise more money if that's what he did with his free time. Nor do I think that anyone really thought that USF was better equipped to investigate criminal activity than the FBI. Nor, for that matter, was anyone willing to say that anything goes in trying to stop Al-Arian's non-work activities, or at least no one behaved as if they believed it. As far as I'm aware, no one tried to assassinate him (which would be the logical step to take if you really thought Al-Arian financed terrorism and if you really believed that someone other than the justice system should take direct responsibility for action). And, in the end, after all the pretexts put forward in 2001 and 2002, USF fired Al-Arian after he was imprisoned.

So no one could have thoughtfully proposed that USF fire Sami Al-Arian as one step to fight terrorism. Instead, the pressure to fire Al-Arian was largely symbolic: To many who live in Tampa, the presence of Al-Arian shamed USF in some way, and paying him a salary was a violation of USF's moral obligations. There are two pieces of this claim, both the argument that a publicly-funded institution has additional obligations not to hire shady characters as faculty, simply because they are publicly funded, and also the argument about a university's moral obligations.

The first argument is about public funding and has been used repeatedly as a justification to fire unpopular faculty at state universities, from William Schaper at the University of Minnesota in 1917 to Al-Arian to Ward Churchill in 2005. (See Carol Gruber's Mars and Minerva for Schaper's case.) But there are both legal and ethical reasons why this purse-strings argument is untrue. Legally, governments are under First Amendment restrictions in its hiring and firing practices. A private university has far more legal leeway to fire a faculty member for the faculty member's public statements and off-campus activities than a public university (even where doing so would violate principles of academic freedom).

More fundamentally, however, he who pays the piper does not call the tune in professional relationships. When we bought our home, we had a buyer's agent. The buyer's agent was paid 2.5 or 3 percent of the purchase price, and that money came from the seller. Even though the seller was paying our agent, our agent had no obligation to maximize the purchase price. In fact, her fiduciary obligation was ethically and legally to us—to give us the best advice on buying a good house at the lowest cost. In many areas of business, fiduciary obligations are guided by a professional-client relationship, not by who pays the professional.

Even if we were to accept that professors should pay heed to whoever pays the bills, it is unclear how we should decide matters where there might be a conflict. The legislature gives operating money to the university, but my students also pay fees. What should I do when a student performs poorly in a course? The student might say, "I paid tuition. I should get the course credit." But most of my fellow taxpayers would probably say the opposite. Both are paying for my salary. If I followed the money, I would have no clear guidance.

So the identity of whoever pays my check is generally irrelevant to my professional obligations as a faculty member and irrelevant to the central institutional obligations of a college or university. (I am not arguing that there are not accountability issues with public funding in terms of tracking the funding, following state laws, following the state and federal constitutions, etc. Nor am I saying that administrators should ignore state legislators. This matter is about the core principles of any college or university.)

After disposing of the claims that USF could have fought terrorism by firing Al-Arian or that it was obliged by its publicly-funded status to fire Al-Arian, we are left with the argument that a university has a moral obligation to maintain clean hands in its hiring practices and to be willing to fire faculty against whom there are serious allegations of immoral actions off campus. The difference between me and my colleagues and neighbors who believe this argument is that we have different ideas about a university's basic obligations. It is not about fighting terrorism, and it is not about public funding. At its core, a university's core principles is what the argument about Al-Arian and USF is all about.

May 18, 2005

AUT boycott rollback

From one Crooked Timber entry, it looks like the rollback of the AUT Israeli university boycott is possible to likely. The latest ENGAGE blog entry is even more positive. Procedural issues with delegate registration may pose the greatest problem to the rollback.

And if you haven't yet donated to ENGAGE, please do so now!

Foolish private universities

In the fall, DePaul University suspended professor Thomas Klocek without a hearing or a chance to confront accusers for having an argument with students outside class—not his students, either. And Yale University refused to renew assistant professor David Graeber's contract, and it appears like a possibility that he was fired either for being an anarchist and for siding with a graduate student active in the graduate-student union at Yale.

The salient differences between the possible outcome of these two cases are not the political viewpoints of the faculty. Nor is it the fact that Klocek has been reported to be an adjunct (though that's not consistent in what I've read), while Graeber is tenure-track, because normally that would lead one to believe that Klocek's position is much weaker. And generally, adjuncts are in weaker positions except where there are specific protections. But in this case, despite Klocek's probably adjunct status and what may have been a failure to file a timely grievance, Klocek has a chance of winning back his position because DePaul's administrators provided pretty clear evidence that they were taking action for impermissible reasons. Even though adjuncts at most places don't legally have to be given due process before being given a notice of non-reappointment, you don't fire someone and then give their public speech as the reason. And the post hoc claims about tossing papers seems a pretty flimsy pretext to me. I may change my mind if DePaul provides evidence of much more serious behavior by Klocek, but I suspect that won't be forthcoming. FIRE is an effective advocate, and they're going to kick DePaul repeatedly in the Chicago press.

Other comments on Klocek by Steven Plaut, Laura Putrie, and Nicole Zieglier Dizon. Crooked Timber weighs in on Graeber. Thanks to Erin O'Connor for the initial tipoff.

May 16, 2005

Baxley/Horowitz bill post-mortem

A last few items for the record. :

  • The Florida House now has a video archive of the April 19, 2005, meeting of the House Education Council, where several students as well as United Faculty of Florida President Tom Auxter testified against the bill. (There are other issues covered in that meeting as well, but the Baxley/Horowitz bill occupied the first part.)
  • I suspect Rep. Baxley will be back with the bill next year. We'll see if the Florida Board of Governors also tries to take steps. Hmmn...

May 13, 2005


How can there be miscellanea in a single topic? Well, if it's academic freedom and you have the AUT boycott, a book proposal on academic freedom, campus network user agreements, SIU-Carbondale's situation, and Alan Kors's slamming of Stanley Fish, ...

  1. You can now support ENGAGE's effort to overturn the AUT boycott of two Israeli universities through PayPal, so you don't have to be in the UK to help out. (The organizers need help with paying for the blog's web site as well as printing and mailing costs associated with the effort in the UK to get local associations of AUT to meet and direct their representatives.)
  2. I've finished the book proposal and the draft of the last chapter for Citizen-Scholar: Defending Academic Freedom and Principles in Today's America. E-mail me if you want to see a copy of the outline and are interested in helping me improve the MS as I work on this over the summer and fall. We'll see if any publishers are interested in it!
  3. While signing up for my campus's WordPress blog site, I noticed that the "user agreement" said that we couldn't publish anything that was sexist, racist or otherwise "offensive." Sheesh, I thought speech codes went out with several court opinions about 15 years ago. I've had a bit of correspondence with the head of academic computing and the general counsel's office, but if there's no movement quickly I can easily file a grievance under the faculty union contract. Since I sent a letter before filing a grievance, I want to give the university a chance to respond positively before a grievance.
  4. The Illinois Southern is reporting that the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale faculty senate will be "monitoring" the situation in the history department after the majority of the department criticized Jonathan Bean's teaching in a letter to the student newspaper last month.
  5. Alan Kors called Stanley Fish the academic hypocrite of the millennium on Wednesday. I have my own disagreements with Fish's reasoning in free speech, but I'm wondering if Kors went too far in ad hominem remarks.
Off to revise syllabi for the summer and fall and then get ready for the nutty May madness in our life (two birthdays, an anniversary, and end-of-school-year rituals).

May 10, 2005

Petition opposing AUT boycott of Israeli universities

Jeff Weintraub at the University of Pennsylvania has set up an online petition to oppose the Association of University Teachers boycott of Israeli universities, established to support the ENGAGE effort to overturn the boycott at a special conference later this month. Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing this out.

May 7, 2005

Chugging along in chapter 8

After the end of the day's meetings for the Florida Education Association, I went back to my room and intended to grade student papers. Really I did! But then I started to work on the last chapter of Citizen-Scholar, and I'll just have some serious grading pain later today and tomorrow (when I'll drive up to Ocala with my family, drop them off at my mother-in-law's, and head somewhere to grade—I'd still have to do it even if I had been a good boy last night). But I'm making good headway, as I thought I would, and here's the last paragraph of the section intended for faculty:

Finally, faculty must recognize that the classroom and the journal are not private spaces, in the end. Many students talk with their friends and family about what you and I say in class. Anyone can go into a library or search the internet for what you and I write. Teaching and writing are profoundly public activities, even if we are used to having little attention paid to our professional lives. That should not be a chilling perspective; it is realistic. At any point, our work can become public, so we must act outside the class and office as if our work always is on display, making sure that we protect the essential conditions of the intellectual fiduciary. Working in a fishbowl is only dangerous if the bowl is fragile.

I suspect this is the paragraph that will irk my colleagues the most. What do you think?

May 4, 2005

AAUP condemns attempted Israeli academic boycott

Yesterday, the American Association of University Professors released a statement condemning the British Association of University Teachers' boycott of two Israeli universities. See ENGAGE's blog for the latest news about the AUT and the boycott.

Go, AAUP! My prediction: the AUT council vote will be reversed at the end of the month, but it'll be a few years before AUT repairs the damage to its reputation.

May 3, 2005

Conservative theologian chilled by Horowitz

Anne Marie B. Bahr's The Right To Tell the Truth is recommended reading in this upcoming Friday's Chronicle (requires a subscription). My thanks to staff at the United Faculty of Florida for the heads-up on this.

More at SIU

There's more verbage about Jonathan Bean and Southern Illinois University at Big Muddy IMC, The Southern, the Daily Illini, and Cliopatria (a Ralph Luker entry). As non-tenure-line instructor Michael Davidson points out, we do not have the entire story. I would not be surprised to find out that faculty on both sides of this at SIU have been behaving badly. That does not wipe away the larger issue of how one addresses concerns about a colleague and substantive, serious, even hurtful conflicts. Letters to the student newspaper do not seem the adult approach; stripping a faculty member of TA support does not seem to be the adult approach. As a union activist, I'm well aware of the tactical possibilities of public posturing. But at first glance, these events appear to go far beyond such tactics (and one engages in tactical posturing deliberately, after considering alternatives and planning an end game—something that I doubt happened at SIU).

Addition: Hiram Hover has the best lesson of all, here, with regard to this type of controversy: what if David Horowitz's bill had become law in Illinois?

May 2, 2005

Dissing Fish

It's time to come out of the closet, I suppose: I've just finished redrafting a book proposal on academic freedom after 9/11, which was going to focus a few years ago on the Sami Al-Arian case here at USF. But publishers made clear they were not going to be interested in a book just on Florida universities (no matter how interesting, and I received a very nice compliment from one publishing director during that process), and in the meantime we've had Ward Churchill, MEALAC, the subpoenas hanging over Drake University for a few weeks, David Horowitz, and Jonathan Bean at Southern Illinois University, as well as others. So the book project is now Citizen-Scholar: Defending Academic Freedom and Principles in Today's America, and, yes, I know this is coming on top of a bunch of good books on the corporatization of universities, works focusing on the internal dynamics on campuses (such as speech codes), and Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt's Office Hours as well as Michael Bérubé's forthcoming Liberal Arts, but I have my own perspective on this.

Today, I've been working on the last chapter to include in my pitch, a chapter where I firmly disagree with Stanley Fish on the definition of what I call the intellectual fiduciary of colleges and universities. A snippet in the full entry...

Here is an excerpt from the chapter's current form:

Milton scholar Stanley Fish has long argued that "there's no such thing as free speech, and it's a good thing, too," as the title of his most famous essay on the subject claims. Fish's argument has three parts. First, he points out that speech is not without context; it does not exist absent some disagreement or attempt to use the speech to promote to end. Second, he argues that no one really believes in completely free speech; everyone has their limits of toleration for unpopular content. Third, he claims that the First Amendment has historically only been concerned with political speech, to provide safety for political dissent. According to Fish (and Robert Bork), only in the last four or five decades have courts expanded the First Amendment to privilege non-political expression; to him, the older test balancing interests is preferred. Thus, he argues, it is legitimate for colleges and universities to ban some definition of hate speech on campus, if a university defines the content as both untruthful and harmful. The logical consequence of these arguments is that the purpose of a university is divorced from the democratic assumptions of our society. In a 2005 column attacking the idea of intellectual diversity, Fish argued that the job of a university is unrelated to democratic citizenship:
Citizen building is a legitimate democratic activity, but it is not an academic activity. To be sure, some of what happens in the classroom may play a part in the fashioning of a citizen, but that is neither something you can count on—there is no accounting for what a student will make of something you say or assign—nor something you should aim for. As admirable a goal as it may be, fashioning citizens for a pluralistic society has nothing to do with the pursuit of truth.

While Fish and I share similar concerns about the ideological attacks on colleges, universities, and their faculties, we disagree on campus free speech and the foundations of the intellectual fiduciary. To Stanley Fish, the sole goal of a university is to seek out truth.

But Fish is wrong on several counts.... [three reasons and then]

Finally, Fish's reasoning removes colleges and universities from their political context. In the United States, we have a far greater notion of free speech than anywhere else in the world, and it is part of a deep-rooted political culture. In the middle of World War II, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring schoolchildren to say the pledge of allegiance and explained, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Decades before the creation of modern tests for restraint of speech, the Supreme Court recognized the broader principle. To remove academic freedom in the U.S. from this context cuts faculty off from the greatest possible political support for their work.

This is the first chapter that will be finished, because it doesn't require nearly as much resesarch as the others. With some luck, it will be finished along with grades next Monday. And then wish me luck with publishers! In any case, I think I'll be driven to finish much of it during the summer.

April 29, 2005

Joke complaint at Students for Academic Freedom

Thanks to my colleague Gregory McColm for finding and pointing out the joke complaint about Bob Jones University at Students for Academic Freedom. So much for careful vetting!

April 28, 2005

More on the AUT council vote on the Israeli-university boycott

I've joined the ENGAGE blog's list of academics opposed to the AUT council vote attempting to impose an academic boycott on two Israeli institutions. Much cool stuff over there on efforts to overturn the hasty motion as well as solid explanations of why an academic boycott makes no sense. Go there. Read.

Trouble at Southern Illinois University

On April 11, the student newspaper for Southern Illinois University, the Daily Egyptian, printed a letter from six history faculty condemning one reading distributed by colleague Jonathan Bean, a source that Bean had taken from David Horowitz's Front Page online rag (which has no real rag content, so maybe we need to find a different term for online yellow journalism). I haven't read what Bean distributed, but it doesn't really matter. Sending an open letter to blast a colleague is simply unprofessional intimidation. What ever happened to walking down the hall and talking with a colleague?

And then the administration went further—the dean cancelled his classes for a week and told his TAs that they needn't work with him for the rest of the semester. Fortunately, there are sane heads on the campus, including a few colleagues, one of whom blasted the school's response as a back-door speech code to suppress offensive speech in the class, as well as individual students and the Daily Egyptian editorial board. Eventually, Bean was assigned other graduate students—a recovery of some decorum, but sheesh—talk about making a dungheap out of a molehill.

According to one newspaper account, Bean was first called into his chair's office, who harangued him because two of the graduate students were upset with the material. Apparently, the TAs didn't talk to Bean directly or think about providing their own materials to help students think about the article. And neither the department chair nor other faculty thought of mentoring the TAs to assert their own academic freedom in providing an example of thoughtful dissent. All around, it looks like there was insufficient thought on the affair until far too late.

Let's take a more extreme example, for argument's sake—what should faculty do if, as SIU English professor Tony Williams asks in his defense of the college's censorship, a colleague distributes something like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as if it were truthful? If, after talking with a colleague and providing some material to educate her or him, and if the faculty member then still claims something that is factually untrue in a matter of substantive weight in the course or program, then faculty have an obligation to go through a more formal process of saying, "No, you're wrong." Usually this process doesn't begin in a fruitful way with a broadside to the student newspaper. It's the academic equivalent of calling the cops the first time your neighbor's guests park in your driveway.

And administrators who reward this behavior are even more foolish. It's their job to break the walls of any echo chambers and do their best to turn a potentially explosive situation into a learning opportunity. Despite my discomfort with the fuzzy phrase teachable moment, that is how one should view controversies in classes.

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing this out. (My apologies to him in forgetting to credit his blog earlier.) Update (4/29/05): See Inside Higher Ed's article, which generally overlaps the other accounts except for a memo from the dean's office asking faculty to "exercise restraint and reason." As Ralph Luker pointed out late last night, maybe she should have thought of that a wee bit earlier?

April 25, 2005

Bravo, Graham

Graham Larkin's column today in Inside Higher Ed is just a wonderfully incisive piece about David Horowitz with a whole lot of documentation in the links. His column uses the internet powerfully and is highly recommended.

April 24, 2005

Boycott of Israeli universities

The Association of University Teachers (in England) voted on Friday to boycott Haifa University and the Bar-Ilan University, both Israeli institutions. The Crooked Timber entry on the subject reflects what should be a clear response from academics: this is a violation of academic freedom. Period.

Three years ago, my campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida made the following statement about an earlier action by journal editor Mona Baker, and it should stand as a clear repudiation of the AUT action as well:

The USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida opposes on principle the barring of individual academics from any intellectual forum on the basis of nationality or institutional affiliation, and we condemn the actions of Mona Baker of University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology in removing Gideon Toury from the advisory board of the Translator and Miriam Shlesinger from the editorial board of Translation Studies Abstracts. (August 9, 2002, minutes)

April 22, 2005

Baxley/Horowitz bill dead

The consistent story out of the Tallahassee Democrat, Palm Beach Post, and the St. Petersburg Times is that the Baxley/Horowitz bill is dead and that the university presidents made no promises in their meeting with him. There may have been a gentler reception of him at the Board of Governors meeting in the afternoon (the articles didn't provide much detail on that meeting), but the university presidents apparently took the approach that Baxley was accusing them of incompetence. University presidents don't like to be accused of incompetence, and several Florida university presidents are politicians with their own ways of rounding up support.

Howard Rock, a good union member and former head of the faculty senate at Florida Atlantic, pressed Baxley after the morning meeting, and United Faculty of Florida president Tom Auxter responded astutely to the student complaints. Go Howard and Tom!

(Addendum, 9 am: Baxley should be happy that the bill's dead if Daniel Ruth's column today is any indication. Columnists have noted that he sponsored three of the most-ridiculed bills in this legislative session.)

April 20, 2005

HB837/SB2126 update (Florida legislature)

While the Baxley/Horowitz bill is effectively dead in the state legislature (though the House may pass it in a symbolic move late in the session), Baxley will try the Colorado gambit: asking university presidents to recreate the bill's provisions in administrative form. I am less convinced of any immediate threat, since the university-system faculty have union contracts that protect academic freedom, than of the possibility that this is a first act in a long-term strategy. Since this maneuver is similar to Colorado's resolution of the Horowitz bill last year in that state, I'm wondering if there's further coordination. There need not be, since it's fairly common for administrators to lobby legislators and make various promises about behavior and priorities in return for appropriations. But there's also been some quick work in the United Faculty of Florida to ask for e-mails before tomorrow's meeting between bill sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley and the state university presidents. Personally, I suspect university presidents already are expert at demurring, but reinforcing the clear faculty opposition to anything like Baxley/Horowitz can't hurt.

Sources: Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Tallahassee Democrat, the student-run Florida Alligator, Orlando Sentinel, Gainesville Sun, and the Ocala Star-Banner. (Thanks go to United Faculty of Florida staff for collecting these clippings and distributing them to elected union officers.)

In the next few days, I'll try to carve out time for a few notes about Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt's Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004)

April 17, 2005

Al-Arian semi-retrospective

The St. Petersburg Times today printed a retrospective of sorts on the long-term influence of the Al-Arian imbroglio on the campus of USF. On the whole, David Ballingrud has it about right in terms of the fallout thus far, where he discusses it: faculty activism pushed back against efforts to give administrators wholesale discretion to dismiss faculty for a variety of vague concerns, prompting the administration and chair of our Board of Trustees to reverse the emergency rules and apologize in a very limited way in early 2003 for their mishandling of affairs. Since then, the administration approved a second Faculty Senate proposal to create a pre-dismissal hearing process for faculty (after the firing of Al-Arian) and agreed to better academic-freedom language. That has been solidified with a collective bargaining agreement concluded in the fall that I think is better than anywhere else in the state at the moment. Much of the credit for that collective bargaining agreement goes to the cooperation between the Faculty Senate and the United Faculty of Florida (our union) in making sure that there was no chance that divide-and-conquer tactics could succeed.

There are several exceptions to this reasonably good outcome:

  1. For at least a good portion of the faculty, our institutional memory of the Al-Arian affair still leaves a considerable discomfort about the way that the administration and trustees have not been held accountable for their handling of issues (I suppose this is residual bitterness I hear from a few colleagues) as well as some concerns that the way the administration ignored due process can reappear at any point.
  2. It is not sure whether the academic-freedom provisions guaranteed faculty would extend to graduate students and adjuncts, if push came to shove. Given the extensive reliance on contingent faculty in our and other universities, this is troubling. Several years ago, the state's risk-management bureau pushed the university to settle a lawsuit by a disguntled student upset that a graduate student had shown nude photographs in a class (after he had made clear that students could leave for that class and not be penalized).
  3. As Ballingrud notes, many Muslim students feel far more vulnerable than any faculty member.
  4. In expending energy to address the academic-freedom crisis (and a challenge to the faculty union, which I won't get into here), my colleagues have had little chance to address some of the long-term structural issues with our university. Part of that is a matter of time, but the lingering friction between a number of faculty and the administration writ large (though not all top administrators) means that there is a large reservoir of distrust that might interfere with working together. That's more a concern rather than an inevitable barrier, and in some ways the growth of faculty activism might promote some structural improvements. I don't know.

And I'm sure I'm not hitting half of the consequences (let alone the subtle ways this will reverberate over the years)...

April 15, 2005

HB837/SB2126 update (Florida legislature)

It looks like the bill wasn't considered in the Florida Senate Education Committee meeting this week and is probably effectively dead with the face-saving maneuver for Rep. Dennis Baxley (the House sponsor) that the universities promise to better publicize the grievance procedures that currently exist (and are published in the catalog).

The Florida Senate staff analysis is scathing, including the following:

The bill elevates student expectations in academic instruction to the level of an academic freedom protected by the courts. Arguably, this academic freedom of students has not been recognized as a constitutional right. However, the bill appears to create a cause of action for students to litigate against the public postsecondary education institution in which they are enrolled. This cause of action could produce some unintended consequences. For example, in a course on study of the bible, a student could file suit demanding that the professor discuss evolution. ...

The bill does not define serious scholarly viewpoints. Accordingly, this provision invites student complaints as to the proper pedagogical method employed by the faculty. Moreover, the lack of a definitive standard would place the courts in a Hobson’s position of denying a cause of action based on a lack of standards by which to measure the complaint, thereby rendering this provision meaningless, or creating a standard by which to measure serious scholarly viewpoints thereby arguably intruding upon separation of powers concerns.

This language and other parts of the analysis mirror the arguments taken by the United Faculty of Florida and the Florida Conference of the AAUP. My thanks goes to the hard work of everyone in lobbying the Senate to kill this bill.

(Update, 8:27: A few subject-verb disagreements this morning—one in the early version of this entry and two others in letters to several senators—remind me that I probably should sit on drafts of anything that I write this early in the morning. How embarrassing...

April 14, 2005

More coverage of HB 837/SB 2126

New coverage in the Baxley/Horowitz bill comes from the Florida Alligator, a Palm Beach Post column satirizing the bill, and a Tallahassee Demcorat op-ed from a conservative FSU student criticizing the bill.

April 8, 2005

Venal and mortal sins in the defense of academic freedom

I wrote a few days ago that I hadn't known of any Florida administrator who had openly opposed Baxley's bill. That's not correct. Florida's higher-ed Chancellor Debra Austin has written (though I haven't heard it reported that she's spoken publicly), "We do not believe this legislation is necessary since the AAUP professional guidelines for faculty are widely used nationally and protect against these same concerns," as reported by the USF Oracle earlier this week. I wish the opposition were more open, as quiet lobbying may end the life of a particular bill but does nothing to educate the public about higher ed. But I'm glad she's on the right side of this at all.

On the wrong side is whoever threw a pie at David Horowitz this week. That's simply unethical, illegal, and stupid. You can't defend academic freedom by interfering with a speech.

In print on HB 837

Plenty of stories in the last two days in Florida have focused on the hearing Tuesday at the House Education Council in the University of Florida student newspaper, the Alligator, the Palm Beach Post, the Tallahassee Democrat, and several papers using the Associated Press feed. The most interesting is a piece in the St. Pete Times that one of the professors accused of bias in Tuesday's hearing says it's a lie (The point is not that I automatically believe the faculty member but that Horowitz and his allies automatically believe student complaints.) Several stories (in the Gainesville Sun on April 6 and April 7, among other places) suggest the bill would never pass the Senate, may not even pass the House, and would get vetoed by Governor Bush. David Horowitz's online outlet boasted that the governor called Horowitz a freedom fighter. Ah, well—if a very conservative governor won't do your bidding, at least point out the kudos. Baxley will debate University of Florida graduate student Charles Grapski on a Gainesville talk-radio station this afternoon. Editorials appeared in the St Pete Times, the USF student newspaper, The Oracle, and even the Rutgers U. student Daily Targum.

On the satirical side, there's the North Florida Flat Earth Society's award to bill sponsor Dennis Baxley as well as a letter to the U. Florida student newspaper thanking Baxley and other conservatives and Howard Troxler's April 7 column in the St. Petersburg Times.

And I have my piece that appeared in the Palm Beach Post this morning (and in the Lakeland Ledger over the weekend, though it's not online there—thanks to Jim Cebulski for letting me know it was printed there).

April 6, 2005

Debate on Florida Horowitz bill

Today, my colleague Roy Weatherford debated Dennis Baxley on Democracy Now for about 10 minutes. It was cordial, and Roy acquitted himself well (he was positively sparkling when on The O'Reilly Factor in 2001).

April 5, 2005

HB837/SB2126 update (Florida legislature)

It's now the end of the Education Council meeting, which I've been listening to on-line. Horowitz got an hour of airtime. One student from Florida State University Students for Academic Freedom said that he received ten complaints in the last week—which he wouldn't detail, of course. United Faculty of Florida President Tom Auxter had about 2 or 3 minutes to give the only comments in opposition to the bill, and then public comment was shut down to give bill sponsor Dennis Baxley a platform at the end.

So much for listening to a variety of views from the public.

Update (7:45 pm EDT) I now have the full text of the written statement of Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida:

The so-called “academic bill of rights” drafted by self-proclaimed “conservative” activist David Horowitz is a template for legislation that attacks free inquiry and endangers academic freedom in the name of defending academic freedom in universities and colleges. It steals the language academic organizations have used for decades to articulate and defend academic freedom and uses this language to mask an attack on intellectual freedom that holds the potential for limiting what can legitimately be discussed in the classroom and mandating what must be discussed. In Florida two legislators, Rep. Dennis Baxley and Sen. Stephen Wise, have used this template as the text for HB 837 and SB 2126 (“An act relating to student and faculty academic freedom in postsecondary education”).

The right-wing forces behind this legislation want the world to see life the way they see it—where everything is right vs. left, and power should be shifted their way on every occasion. They need to use language deceptively to make their agenda seem palatable.

But inside the shiny apple they are handing to us are three razor blades that will cut into free speech if we bite on their proposal. These dangerous provisions have to do with controversial issues in the classroom, the requirement of “balance,” and litigation over grievances.

1. Controversial issues need to be discussed in classrooms, and it is dangerous to draw boundaries in the law over how and when they should be introduced. The Legislature should not become involved in defining or shaping what is controversial, or for that matter whether it should be heard or how it should be handled. This violates constitutional rights and undermines one of the main functions of the academy, namely, to explore and investigate freely and make public the results -- without political sanctions limiting what is permissible.

2. The “balance” requirement, which demands opposing sides of every controversial issue in the classroom be heard and given equal time, reduces all discussion of controversial issues to a debate over stereotypical versions of extreme alternatives, a debate required and enforced by the Legislature. This will, if written into law, cause a dumbing down of the mental life of students to the cartoon version of intelligence we find on right-wing talk shows where everything controversial is broken into categories such as conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. secular humanist, or American vs. communist. It forces classrooms to waste time giving equal time to aberrant opinions when there could be a developed discussion of alternatives that are viable from an academic point of view. The legislation has the effect of undermining mature discussion; in other words, it has the effect of undermining academic freedom while claiming to promote academic freedom.

3. Insisting that the legislature use its powers to make rules for academic freedom is a serious mistake. The effect of this legislation, with its requirement of a grievance procedure that enforces a laundry list of expectations of what life will be like for the student, is that litigation proliferates. A mandated grievance procedure at each institution will become enforceable by appeal to state courts. This will create enormous expense and aggravation at the same time that it has a chilling effect on speech by faculty in the classroom. Previously each institution had its own mission and way of handling student complaints about unfair behavior in grading or in the way discussions are conducted. Now a crude requirement from a centralized source, defined in state law and enforced by courts, simultaneously politicizes higher education and introduces a one-size-fits-all approach – to be tested and developed in the courts and to be amplified and expanded upon by future legislatures. Approaches already in existence at the university and college level allow us to handle problems discreetly and subtly—without the collateral damage inflicted on academic freedom by this legislation.

I am glad to see this legislation is not making much headway in other states. At the same time I am not glad to see that the Florida House has been moving it forward and that this alien invasion into academic life actually has a chance of becoming a reality here.

This legislation jeopardizes all that faculty have done in recruiting efforts to build their universities and colleges into viable institutions. This political clampdown on intellectual freedom will kill our recruiting efforts, accelerate the exodus of faculty that is already occurring due to salary conditions, and destroy the quality of academic life in our state.

Tom Auxter
United Faculty of Florida

If there's a video archive of this or other committee meetings about this bill, I'll post the link(s) in later entries.

April 4, 2005

Florida's HB 837/SB 2126 news

In the Florida House tomorrow, the Education Council will be hearing from David Horowitz as a witness, invited by Council chair Dennis Bexley (R-Ocala), who is also the sponsor of HB 837. But I expect that Bexley will be politic enough to let several faculty representatives speak, including the head of the AAUP Florida Conference (whose name I don't know—used to be David Kerr at St. Petersburg College, but I don't think David is still an officer), Florida Education Association Higher Ed Director Roy Weatherford (University of South Florida), and United Faculty of Florida President Tom Auxter (University of Florida). I assume that the council of state faculty senate presidents is also opposing the bill, though I don't know if they're sending a representative tomorrow. Unfortunately, I do not know of any college or university administration that is openly opposing the bill. Technically, it's a forum rather than a debate over the bill. But I expect some media coverage (though it may be swallowed up by the pope's funeral preparations in Rome).

The meeting materials have the typical slew of articles selected by Horowitz and committee staff, with only one piece in opposition (a newspaper editorial). But there will be plenty of argumentation against it. The United Faculty of Florida Senate officially declared its opposition over the weekend (I was happy to be the main sponsor), and even the staff analysis in the House suggests its effects: $4.2 million in lawyers' salaries, because each campus will have to hire one extra lawyer just to deal with the consequences of a bill that puts the phrase "rights" into state law, or legal standing to sue over the content of what's taught in a classroom (as opposed to the standing to sue over discriminatory treatment, something already existing in Florida law). My friend Greg McColm calls it the lawyers' welfare bill (at the same time that many legislators are calling for tort reform).

Some of the things that students might demand and that, according to the plain reading of the law, could be required to be presented:

  1. Flat-earth views in a physics class
  2. Creationism in a biology class
  3. Holocaust denial in a 20th-century European history class
  4. NAMBLA materials in a social-work class

One of the more whimsical arguments I heard over the weekend is that the consequence of this bill could be the following: if a biologist is required to present creationism theory, then he or she is teaching religion, outside his or her area of expertise. That violates accreditation standards.

If you live outside Florida, you can help us by making two contacts, e-mailing Florida House Speaker Allen Bense (or calling his House office at 850.488.1450) and Tom Lee (Senate office 850.487.5229). As usual with legislators, be polite and explain the reputational problems this would cause for recruiting faculty and the competitive disadvantage in addition to the core issue of academic freedom.

March 25, 2005

Is the ABOR language a fig leaf?

I've written before that Florida's House Bill 837 (our version of the David Horowitz ABOR) does not write into law any insulation of the curriculum from legislative meddling (such as the attempt to foist a chiropractic school onto Florida State last year). This Tuesday, the first committee hearing the bill recommended it on a party-line vote, and Students for Academic Freedom National Campus Director Sara Dogan wrote a glowing article about the event for FrontPage (Horowitz's online outlet).

Regardless of the wisdom of the ABOR in toto, it seems that to enshrine only a portion of it (that giving students the apparent standing to sue professors and universities), but not all of it, is only paying lip service to academic freedom. Is the flowery language only a fig leaf for intimidation of faculty? Let's test that:...

This evening, I wrote the following to Ms. Dogan, to see whether she'll stand up for the principles that her organization says it supports:

As national campus director of Students for Academic Freedom, you must be aware of the full text of David Horowitz's ABOR, and I do not know if you have noticed the important differences between ABOR and House Bill 837 currently pending in the Florida legislature. HB 837 puts much of the BOR in the "whereas" clauses, especially one crucial bit about noninterference in curriculum matters, such as the use of state appropriations bills to affect the curriculum.

You may not be familiar, however, with the history of academic-freedom encroachments in Florida. There was last year's attempt by the legislature to force Florida State to create a chiropractic school regardless of the faculty's opinions on this, coming on the heels of the legislature forcing new graduate schools onto FSU and Florida A&M a few years before. I could list a number of other incidents, but this should be sufficient at least for now. This is precisely the type of meddling that the Horowitz language is supposed to bar, or so I assume.

Yet that language is not written into statute with HB 837. Regardless of what else we may agree or disagree with [sic—ouch], I hope you will agree with me that academic freedom requires that the legislature not interfere with the curriculum, and that a bill that does nothing to stop such practices is far from a true protection of academic freedom. For that reason, I urge you to distance yourself from HB 837 as the bill's language currently stands.

We'll see how she responds.

Ward Churchill news

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing out that the University of Colorado has released its preliminary report on the accusations against Churchill. The university decided to forward some of the allegations to the standing faculty committee on research misconduct but not to act on three matters:

  • His writings about the 9/11 terrorist attacks
  • One misconduct allegation made by Churchill's sister-in-law
  • Whether Churchill had gained an employment advantage by misrepresenting his ethnicity (a matter previously investigated, according to the report)

What's left is a set of research misconduct allegations with at least some documentation. The committee's procedures are fairly standard (in part because the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have minimum requirements for research-misconduct committees). The narrowing of the allegations still under consideration allow everything to be considered by an existing committee with existing procedures, and that's all to the good in terms of separating out the substance from the political pressures, no matter what your impression on the allegations might be.

March 23, 2005

New twist on Florida HB 837

A report by the Gainesville Sun on yesterday's Florida house committee meeting on our local version of the so-called Academic Bill of Rights made clear one additional twist: according to the report, the bill would go further than just requiring grievance processes but would give students legal standing to sue professors over what they say in class.

One additional note: Florida has a broad public-records statute. According to the news report, the bill's sponsor refuses to name the students who have supposedly corresponded with him about being abused in class or victimized by propogandizing faculty. Of course, anyone can ask his office for that supposed correspondence, and he has to provide it.

March 18, 2005

Move over, Ward Churchill

After reading portions of Churchill's interview comments at CNN, I have one reaction: move over, poster boy, and let us professionals do the heavy lifting to defend academe. An example:

Look, man, I riveted the entire nation on—what did I rivet the entire nation's attention on? It's just boilerplate now ... there's no analysis of the content of what I said.

My gut instinct is that this statement shows either a blithe ability to ignore the world of academic criticism or blithe disingenuousness. There has been analysis of Ward's writings on the subject, my current favorite being Mark Grimsley's (part I ,part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI, and his broader comments on l'affaire Churchill). If he had wanted to talk about the value of his writings, he could point to other writings with some self-deprecation and express some delight that at least the controversy has led to a reexamination of the basic ideas in the hands of academics with diverse views. But, no—at least as reported by CNN, he may be glorifying in the academic-freedom martyr role. That may be just an illusion crafted by the editing, but I wouldn't be surprised, either.

March 15, 2005

Surprises from Cambridge to California

In a few days, the University of Colorado at Boulder lawyers stop negotiating a buy-out with Ward Churchill's lawyer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education blog goes a bit overboard in making factual claims about the Foothills College imbroglio over a student's paper, there's a big online todo about whether David Horowitz has been fudging information about evil liberal professors, and there's also the new blogspat or blogrumble between Michael Bérubé and Robert KC Johnson, not to mention the fact that Harvard's Arts and Sciences faculty express no confidence in President Larry Summers, presumably over his management "style" in the last several years more than his specific comments about women in science (which was likely the last straw rather than the primary reason).

I'm not going to comment on anything extensively until I nail down this edited book manuscript we're trying to get out the door, however. Someone else will have to save academe, or it'll have to survive on its own, until then. The only teasing line I'll leave for my loyal 1.63 readers is that my USF colleague Greg McColm has a wonderful metaphor to explaining the piling-on in the Churchill case (and with Sami Al-Arian), much better than the term piling on. But I won't spoil the surprise. Just hope that he gets a book contract to explain it!

March 12, 2005

And now, the plagiarism accusation

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing out new allegations that Ward Churchill plagiarized work by a Canadian writer; according to the report, when she refused to have her work in one of his edited works appear in a second publication, he wrote something under his name that was remarkably similar. This may be part of a larger pattern of sloppy scholarship, if journalists' reports are accurate.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: what has Ward Churchill's behavior been like as an academic? In my experience, good journalists "get it right" about 70-80 percent of the time. After all, if Phil Graham was correct that news was the first draft of history, that means there's plenty of rewriting to be done. So we take the allegations as printed in the media with a grain of salt. With claims of fraud, it's sometimes tough to find the truth, and as I've written before, academics can lie about each other and requires some care in investigation. Plagiarism is much easier to discern: compare the material. Sloppy footnoting is one thing, but stealing words is another.

If Churchill has come close to or crossed the line over to plagiarism, I suspect he'll quickly agree to a buy-out now that these allegations exist.

March 10, 2005

The devil's in the details

So I've looked at the "academic bill of rights" introduced in the Florida legislature, and there's something very curious about it, as I noted earlier: there's absolutely nothing in it either about the academic freedom of faculty or about the freedom of the institution from legislative meddling, which does appear in the so-called model language on the Students for Academic Freedom site: "Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget." I'm not surprised that language doesn't appear in the Florida bill, since our legislature is infamous for that exact meddling.

But the bills in other legislatures—Colorado last year and Ohio this year—are similarly narrow in focus, with no pretense that they want to make sure the institution's curriculum is free from political pressures.

If the "model" is sloppily written, what does it say about the bills that they don't include any pretense at balancing things?

And it just keeps coming

Two news stories reminds us all that the attacks on academic freedom and campus speech can come from anywhere. The sloppily-written so-called Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) has been introduced in the Florida legislature as House Bill 837—something I need to write about, given my views about faculty needing to advocate for universities. For now, I will just note that the introduced bill omits the provision of the ABOR about legislators' not meddling in curriculum!

Do students have a right to academic freedom? Of course. The ABOR doesn't touch issues on private universities, but LeMoyne College has dismissed a student for advocating corporal punishment in schools, presumably because my teacher-education counterparts there believed that the A- paper indicated he couldn't follow state law forbidding corporal punishment. FIRE has gotten involved in this case, and they're right. Folks, what someone advocates in a paper is not necessarily related to their propensity to violate legal expectations.

March 5, 2005

On academic fraud and credentials

In response to one of the allegations swirling around Ward Churchill, Ralph Luker has a poignant and thoughtful story about Martin Luther King and Luker's mentor at Drew University that raises some good questions about academic credentialism. I'm not sure I agree with Luker's conclusions, but he's right to point out the mote in our own eyes.

No, this isn't my promised entry about Churchill—I looked at my obligations this weekend and have to scramble to catch up with a bunch of work. But since Luker used a personal story as a counterpoint to Churchill, I'll explain briefly why I'm hesitant to wade into the argument over academic fraud with free-swinging arguments.

Some years ago, a very close friend in another field was accused of fraud. There was appropriate debate over her research—did it really hold, were there extraneous factors that she wasn't considering—but then there came allegations that her conduct went far beyond the normal human frailty of research. She had just made it up, two researchers said. Her university conducted an investigation—a very long drawn-out affair, in which she needed legal representation to make sure due process was followed—which supported my friend's account. On some investigation, it turns out that at least one person who had made the allegation had a record of accusing other researchers of fraud. If my friend hadn't had tenure or hadn't used legal representation, her career would now be over. As it is, she spent thousands of dollars on lawyers, and she has largely soured on conducting the type of well-funded research that she made her name on, all because some academic yahoos decided to screw her over with loose allegations of academic fraud.

Fraud certainly exists, but it's not something to be judged through the blogosphere. I'll be darned if I'm going to play games with someone's career based on news reports and blogging.

(For obvious reasons, I've fudged some of the details to protect identities.)

March 4, 2005

On taking things out of context

If I'm going to slam a conservative for taking my writings out of context, I should note that it's not a feature of life that's bounded by partisan or ideological leanings. As Dispatches from the Culture Wars makes clear, the criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith's appearance at a Harvard University forum on diversity is as utterly absurd as what Jacob Laksin wrote in his e-mail correspondence. Apparently Smith said we should not be bound by conventional ideas and said, specifically, that women should feel they shouldn't have to compromise on their professional and personal lives. Apparently for mentioning the word "husband," one gay coalition at Harvard castigated her as heteronormal. Didn't they listen to what she actually said? Sheesh.

March 3, 2005

Jacob Laksin correspondence

My e-mail to Jacob Laksin and his reply appears in the full entry. (See this morning's entry for more information about his column and the entry he was commenting on.)

First, me:

I saw the FrontPage puff piece on academics writing about academic freedom and Ward Churchill this morning—thank you for spelling my name correctly (even if you got "corporatization" wrong).

Now, the next time you mention me in an article, could you actually take issue with the core argument I'm making?

And Mr. Laksin's reply:

I’ll happily take your compliments about my spelling in the spirit with which they are intended (I can feel my conservative knuckles rising, ever so slowly, from the ground). I wish I could return the compliment, but having looked on your website this morning, I see that you have misspelled by name in the link you so kindly provided to my piece. (Laksin, not Lakson) [SJD: He's absolutely correct: I misspelled his name. We're now even on misspellings.]

As for not engaging your argument, I offer in my defense that I was constrained by two factors: One: that it was an article about the patently idiotic humbug our leftwing professoriate were proffering in Ward Churchill’s defense, not the putative merits of same. Two: that your argument was, excuse me for speaking frankly, patently idiotic humbug, and I therefore decided that by engaging it on its merits, such as they are, I would have been risking incalculable damage to my (already embarrassingly mean) intelligence.

Basically, professor, what it comes down to is this: A depressing number of academics may thrill to the notion that insert-your-leftwing-fad has a more deleterious effect on an institution of higher learning than the hiring of an academic fraud who boasts no obvious qualifications to teach a subject, and is thus compelled to turn his classes into a forum for anti-American indoctrination and conspiracy mongering. For the rest of us, however, the primary concern of a university should be serious teaching. The university must be nothing less, to borrow from Thomas Hardy, than a “school where we must give/our lives that we may learn to live.”

So you must excuse me for being more concerned about things that imperil this mission, like the Ward Churchill’s of the world, than the latest anti-corporate fashion to find an enthusiastic audience among academics like yourself.

All right. I was snarky in the e-mail. No question there. But I'm astounded at Laksin's biting and worrying at seven words out of an entry. Surely a conservative would agree that the athletics recruiting scandal at the University of Colorado is a serious danger to its main academic mission. A conservative just might take issue with my claim that there is a conflict between the university as moral conservator and the university as a place of ideas. A conservative who has read William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale should certainly have something to say about my comments on trustee politics. C'mon, Mr. Laskin. All I'm asking for is for some honest-to-goodness close reading of a source. So my latest epistle:

I'll take responsibility for misspelling your name, of course, and I apologize. I'm a little curious how you could miss everything except seven words in a piece of writing—surely there's more for a conservative to disagree with than my statement that the coverup of soliciting athletes with sex and other inducements is a greater threat to the educational mission of a university than Ward Churchill. I suppose it's your American right to focus on (or obsess about) any snippet you choose to. I just was hoping for a somewhat higher level of discussion, or at least an accurate reading. Darn it all, hurl calumny at what I actually wrote, not what you think I wrote!

Oh, and about his larger question about Churchill's qualifications and teachings: That's a separate post, but I think that's two allegations, only one of which have been made at the moment (except in this e-mail by Mr. Laskin).

On Nixon's enemies list at last!

Okay, I didn't quite make Nixon's list—far too young for that. But I've been excoriated on David Horowitz's Front page magazine article by Jacob Laksin about "supporters of Ward Churchill" for my blog entry about conservatives who defended academic freedom. Hmmmn... Now, I wish Laksin had taken issue with my analysis (that would have been interesting), but I guess he was too busy writing a slam piece. The most curious thing is that the article misspelled corporatization when referring to one piece of my entry. Did he mean to imply I couldn't spell (I certainly did spell it correctly) or that he couldn't? At least they spelled my name correctly.

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing me to this. I forgot to credit his blog earlier this morning as I was writing this up. Mea culpa (which, for those slang slingers among you, is Latin for "my bad").

Note (5 pm): Jacob Laksin has pointed out that I misspelled his name. My apologies! I'll let him have his own word in a separate post.

February 12, 2005

Churchill and standards

A friend from an educational psychology background wrote me last night,

It appears that Churchill is being revealed as an incompetent and likely dishonest historian. Is that grounds for dismissal, or merely rehabilitation?

Plenty of historians make mistakes about the factual record or misinterpret evidence, and it's not necessarily grounds for firing—that's what we call material for criticism and reevaluation of the record. It's a question of degree and circumstance. The devil's in the details, and that's best left up to faculty and administrators at UC to figure out.

Churchill's not an historian by discipline, as far as I understand, and it depends in part as well on whether he was blithely repeating myths that he had heard from others or was actively making up stories. The first is the historian's equivalent of practicing without a license (or training), and the second is deliberate fraud.

The other thing that's troubling here is that people who didn't like him went on a fishing expedition, obviously. The passive-voice phrasing, "is being revealed," is significant. People who are rankly incompetent or dishonest should be tossed out on their ears, but how many of our minor mistakes could be distorted into allegations of fraud in the heat of political conflict, with dozens of paid hype-masters focusing on every jot and tittle we've written? When I was looking up some materials cited in David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot's Learning Together, I discovered that their citations on one or two matters were incorrect. I don't think that's misconduct, since any historian's book has a few hundred citations, and it's likely that a few are incorrect. Then, a few years ago, a student pointed out that their interpretation of one photograph from a Washington, DC, algebra class was flawed. The student is absolutely right. Do those errors jointly make the book fraudulent? I don't think so, but if David Tyack weren't such a nice guy, he might've attracted those sorts of allegations for the everyday minor mistakes he's made in a generally stellar career.

February 5, 2005

Admirable consistency and the morality of universities

The Democracy Project entry on the Ward Churchill controversy is showing that several conservative academic bloggers are standing behind basic academic-freedom principles. Once Churchill was both hired and tenured, he has a property right to his position, and there needs to be due cause for hiring him—and controversial professional writings and public statements are generally insufficient cause. The University of Colorado non-action this week (setting up an investigatory committee) is an extraordinary action in the sense that most investigations of faculty misdeeds are by administrators or fellow faculty. (Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Bellesiles at Emory, administrators outsource the issue to off-campus faculty.) Whenever trustees get into the game, there is political pressure afoot. These days, it is as likely a politically astute way to defer pressure as it is to overrule faculty. The trustees could have taken the extraordinarily stupid step of trying to fire him this week, or asking administrators to—my own university took that step with Sami Al-Arian in December 2001. The fact that UC trustees didn't go down that path suggests that they understood the political problem they had both off- and on-campus. So they went from extraordinarily stupid to just extraordinary (if not too wise). The conservative commentators have correctly pointed out that the responsibility for giving tenure to Churchill (or any faculty member) resides with the faculty and administrators. In the end, great universities are larger than individual faculty members.

But I want to consider the ideas of those who call for Churchill's immediate dismissal based on what he has written and said. The general argument has been to acknowledge his first-amendment rights to his opinions but to claim that public funds should not be paying him at the University of Colorado. The assumption here is that a university has an obligation to conserve values, and that paying faculty a salary in essence endorses some part of what they write and say. One aspect of this moral argument for on-campus censorship concerns the educational mission of universities: we're teaching the young, in some sense, and have an obligation to make sure that their education is properly shepherded.

This moral argument conflicts violently with the definition of the university as a place to explore a diversity of views and create new knowledge. One cannot simultaneously define correct views and also explore new ones—unless you have the precognition of knowing who will be exploring the "right" ideas. (Please don't assume that I have a pragmatist's view of knowledge; that's a separate topic, though most of the problems with pragmatism stem from its early proponents' defense against the charge of relativism.)

At the same time, universities have a far greater moral crisis in its sponsorship of semi-professional athletics at the expense of academics and, for many, the corporatization of universities. Which is more corrosive of academic values at the University of Colorado, the continued salary of Ward Churchill or the coverup of the athletic-recruiting scandal?

February 3, 2005

Ward Churchill fallout

KC Johnson's post on the Ward Churchill imbroglio is showing far more sense than other outraged outlets I vaguely recall at this point. (Hey, my day job takes precedence over blogging, right?) I'm quite worried by the use of "security threat" as a reason for Hamilton College to cancel a campus speech, since that's allowing a heckler's veto to determine decisions on a campus.

At my campus, "security" became a convenient excuse in the December 2001 star-chamber hearing in front of our Board of Trustees. Yes, the university police were overburdened by the threats because of the controversy surrounding Sami Al-Arian, but the fundamental problem was not the immediate situation but the underfunding of that department in the first place. (Case in point: there are four patrols maximum at any point on the Tampa campus. We have dozens of labs with sensitive equipment, including medically hazaroud materials. And we have 40,000 students, along with 1500 or so faculty and 1500 or so staff. When have you known a town of 40,000-45,000 have only four patrols?

But I digress. I suspect the cancellation of the speech and Churchill's resignation as department chair will feed the frenzy a bit more for his removal as a faculty member—and if Colorado's politicians push the point, the university will suffer the consequences of the political interference. I'm coming to the conclusion that there is an interplay between broader institutional and political trends (see for example reports of Brown University's presidential speech about intellectual diversity, being spun in various ways), on the one hand, and specific events or crises that turn otherwise unknown academics into poster boys and girls for academic freedom violations. That's a mundane point, and I'm not sure how to make a more nuanced explanation at the moment. C'est la vie.

The shameful voting record of academics

Well, the bloom's off the rose, definitely, for the view of academics as politicized. It turns out that, if we trust the methods in one study of academe's party registrations, the greatest threat to the patriotism of universities is in the apathy of the faculty, not its politicization. Daniel Klein and Andrew Western's study of voter registrations at Stanford and Berkeley show that a surprising number of faculty aren't registered as either Republicans or Democrats! Almost 50% of academics for whom Klein and Western scoured records for were either not found or otherwise didn't fit into a Republican-Democratic dichotomy. From the accompanying Excel file, we find that the most apathetic departments must be in business disciplines. In the marketing and accounting departments at these two universities, for example, more than two-thirds of the faculty were either not found or didn't have major-party affiliations (19 just not found). In general, professional schools and disciplines are the "worst:" out of 346 faculty the study looked for, they couldn't find major-party registrations of 186 (or 54%). But the Music Department at Stanford shouldn't be cut any slack, either, as only 4 of 13 had major-party registrations. How awful!

Let's take a step back and look at the methods, though: this study relies on what social historians know quite well as the imperfect, often atrocious, attempts at matching individuals across different databases. In the 1970s, there was a small cottage industry in matching census records to city directories and other databases, and what historians found out is that matching is a very hard business indeed. Names change, they're listed in variant forms, and so forth. Other names are so common that you can't reliably assume that the Tom Smith you've seen in the census is the same person you found in the city directory.

Klein and Western acknowledge some of the difficulties, but they generally gloss over them (in part because they're not historians or from fields with similar work experience). The discussion that I found most painful to read is this not-quite-acknowledgment of the flaws when they discuss disciplines outside the liberal arts:

The matter of the business school is important because when claims of political lopsidedness are raised, people often suggest that the business school leans in the opposite direction and helps balance things out. Our investigation provides evidence to the contrary, but we did not get as good a reading as we had hoped to. (p. 24)

When the clear majority of faculty are simply not found, it's hard to make any claim, and certainly not anything like an "established fact" (p. 31) as the authors write at the end of the paper. I don't think anyone should be surprised that there is disproportionate party registration in fields, nor that liberal arts outside the sciences are disproportionately liberal at Berkeley and Stanford. That's a far cry from discussing "the campus" as a monolithic entity on such data, assuming that Berkeley and Stanford is representative of colleges and universities more broadly, or describing it in such quasi-conspiratorial ways as I've seen in the more hysterical forums. Why not conduct the same study (with more caveats about the matching, of course) at Santa Clara University (where Klein works)?

And, of course, I can't help but suggest folks read the far more witty comments on keeping conservatives out of academe and campus brainwashing" by Michael Bérubé.

January 31, 2005

The fake academic freedom debate?

From A.G. Rud's blog comes a link to an online debate of sorts between California AAUP official Graham Larkin (from Stanford) and Front Page Magazine's David Horowitz about academic freedom and the proposed Academic Bill of Rights. The set of links is useful primarily for documenting the shrill nature of this "debate."


Here's the substantive part of the linked text, as far as I can tell:

I'll skip the rest of the tit-for-tat from Larkin and Horowitz, since they essentially repeat their basic arguments. In many ways, it's very sad that David Horowitz has taken it upon himself to be the point person for changing higher education. He is a sloppy writer, and it's hard to take seriously his claim that he doesn't want ideological affirmative action in higher-ed when one of the slogans of his book (which reappears on the web site of Students for Academic Freedom) is "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story." The so-called studies of "liberal academe" are shamefully slipshod, as Larkin has pointed out as well.

Why sad? Because there are serious problems with universities as intellectual environments. Many of the causes are in proliferating adminstrative bureaucracies, some chunk from political grandstanding locally, and occasionally from some professors and students. When my liberal colleague Jonathan Zimmerman (at NYU) talks about the need for intellectual diversity in individual departments (emphasis added), I get the sense that he's not being brainwashed by Horowitz.

But analysis of universities is not advanced by Manichean claims by Horowitz or others. A good study of ideological propensities would probably show the liberal slant he claims in some disciplines and in some types of institutions, but not everywhere! I suspect that the greater cause of such slanting has to do with self-selection in disciplines and the disciplinary prejudices inherent in writing job announcements. The vast majority of academic jobs are in public state universities and colleges (not the Ivy Leagues or research flagships that Horowitz focusese his ire on), and there job ads are quasi-contractual in terms of requirements and fields. These are my seat-of-the-pants hypotheses, but I'll be happy to be shown evidence of different patterns. Any day I learn something is a good day.

The ABOR itself is generally a principled statement except for a few items that raise serious flags for me.

  • Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination. We shouldn't, but what constitutes sufficient evidence of indoctrination—counting the ideological leanings of readings in my syllabus? (Here we go back to the potential for ideological quotas, a la Lynn Cheney's ghostwriter who counted the appearances of Cheney's historical heroes in the first version of the national history standards guide.)
  • ...academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry. This clearly violates the academic freedom of disciplinary organizations, who are free to make statements about anything in their collective area of expertise or to make professional standards. If this had been in sway when the American Psychological Association first created standards to prohibit sexual relationships between psychotherapists and clients, it would never have passed because a minority of lechers could have blocked it. Should the American Historical Association have been able to take the Bancroft Prize away from Michael Bellesiles, even though he still has a few defenders? I think it has that power.

Maybe the ABOR would be entirely innocent in practice. But I think it's reasonable to be skeptical here when the sponsors of such bills in state legislators are neither educators nor bipartisan. David Horowitz should go watch 1776, especially the first musical number. He might end up improving the odds of agreement just by sitting down.

January 14, 2005

Columbia University

In the burgeoning controversy over Columbia University's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department (allegations that faculty have intimidated students who disagree with them politically, counter-allegations that this is a threat to academic freedom, counter-counterallegations that the counter-allegations are the real threat to academic freedom, etc.), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent an absolutely wonderful letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger. The letter gives institutional autonomy more weight vis-a-vis individual faculty academic freedom than I think appropriate, but on the whole the letter is coherent and very sensible.

January 2, 2005

Public intellectuals

In Favor of Thinking's commentary on Susan Sontag points out her role as a public intellectual. Is Sontag's death the end of an era? I suspect not, for several reasons?

First, there are already well-known public intellectuals who are as interesting as Sontag, more palatable than Mailer, less trite than Noam Chomsky, and who will outsurvive all of them. Second, there are others, waiting in the wings—perhaps among the many academic bloggers—who are public intellectuals but just not well-read. They will become so in the next few years. (No, not me—I suspect I'm destined to be recognized as a solid public mensch but no academic star. That's okay. I'll take well-earned local gravitas in the long run any day.)

But perhaps the most important reason for the survival of public intellectual life is that there will always be a demand for well-articulated, interesting writing on events and culture of the day. The reason why two of Michael Berube's books are in the top 100,000 sellers on Amazon.com this morning (as opposed to 400,000 and below) is partly because of his writing, but moreover because there are plenty of readers who are in search of good writing about interesting things. Not all academics will match those interests—and researchers should not in general worry about selling loads of books—but enough of them will always match the interests of voracious readers to provide a ground for public intellectuals.

November 2, 2004

Academic-freedom juggling

Yesterday morning, former USF adjunct professor Lynn Stratton called the St. Pete campus the University of Silence in Florida because an administrator called for faculty to "monitor" what they said in the classroom in terms of tomorrow's election. I suspect it's going to be a relatively hot topic over the next few days on this campus, in addition to the election. Part of the concern is the recent history of academic-freedom troubles at USF and elsewhere in Florida. But there's a more mundane issue at stake here.

From what I gather (and at the moment I don't have an electronic copy of the original memo to plug in here), Arts & Sciences dean Mark Durand received complaints from students about adjunct faculty using class as a forum to advance their political views. So he responded with a memo asking faculty to monitor their speech since politics and religion are sensitive topics, "especially in Florida."

Ouch. To many reading this memo (including Stratton), this smacked of politically-correct thought policing at worst and malodorous censorship at best. That interpretation has its origins in the recent history of censorship and attempted censorship around Florida (including the recent recalling of an invitation to a speaker at FGCU because of her political views), as well as the political pressures to fire three USF employees since Judy Genshaft was appointed president. (You thought Sami Al-Arian was the only one?)

Let's pretend, for a moment, that the original incidents weren't at USF but at Famous Private University, which doesn't answer to political masters in the same way. A few students go to a dean and complain about the politicking of an adjunct faculty member. What does the dean do? What should the dean do?

The dean should do nothing immediately except counsel the students to talk to the faculty member. Students have academic-freedom rights as well as faculty, but they need to assert them positively. (The same is true of faculty, by the way—if no faculty member complains, rights do get trampled on.) Trying to intervene in any way without requiring the student to talk to the faculty member is only acceptable in cases where the student clearly needs protection because of the nature of the allegation (such as sexual harrassment, and even there some coaching in assertiveness can provide at least documentation of intransigent behavior). Part of the reason for diffidence is because students can (and sometimes do) misunderstand what a teacher says, and that can be clarified by discussion. Part of the reason is because students can learn some useful skills by talking to faculty—it's a rare person who doesn't need to negotiate with a person in authority, and I'd like to think that college graduates have some experiences so they're not milquetoast in the workplace. But the main reason for putting the responsibility on students to talk to teachers about issues in the classroom is because the main relationship in a class should be between teachers and students. That's the way it is with concerns about grades, and it should be the same thing with regard to political or other issues in the classroom.

So should Durand have written anything? I suspect not. If he had to, this is what I would have written:

I have received some complaints recently from students upset that, in their view, adjunct faculty have used classes to evangelize about the current election. In every case, I have told the student in question to talk directly with the teacher to clarify and, as appropriate, ask for time to present alternative viewpoints. In my view, the primary relationship in a classroom is between teacher and student.

I am writing about this to all of you because you should be aware of how administrators handle these types of complaints and what my attitude is. I trust USF faculty to bring their expertise to the classroom, and I trust that they will use their academic freedom in the classroom to maximize what students learn about the subject matter. I trust departments to supervise and provide feedback appropriately for both adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants. I trust that faculty will reflect thoughtfully on any concerns that students raise about a class. And, most of all, I trust that the faculty we hire are competent and should not be second-guessed for their everyday decisions.

But I guess that's why I'm not an administrator.

December 26, 2003

Sabbatical proposal

Over the rest of break, I'll be writing a sabbatical proposal for a book on academic freedom, using USF's controversy over the firing of Sami Al-Arian as one of several cases of academic-freedom controversies since September 11, 2001.

Supplementing the larger examination of national issues by the American Association of University Professors, this project will focus on the issues raised by specific cases:

  1. How have attitudes towards Islam shaped academic-freedom cases since 9/11?
  2. How has media attention (and university responses to media attention) shaped academic-freedom cases since 9/11?
  3. How have the changing structure of American universities shaped academic-freedom cases since 9/11?
  4. How has the changing politics of higher education shaped academic-freedom cases since 9/11?

Each core case involves attitudes towards Islam and provoked considerable media attention. With institutions ranging from a community college to one of the most famous public research universities in the country and from several regions of the country, the academic-freedom controversies since 9/11 can tell us much about the changing structure and politics of higher education.

January 30, 2002


Where do I begin—the threat of the university to fire a tenured professor? The way that the attacks on September 11 and the war afterwards changed the semester (strangest term I've ever had, in terms of the rhythm of it)? I started the second semester behind, and the fact that I haven't written in several months is evidence of it!

And, of course, I don't have time to write anything more, as my evening class starts in a few minutes.