Stifling Discourse in Academia

The constant pounding at academia by the David Horowitz’s and John Tierney’s is growing: another left-wing professor has been denied tenure, allegedly because of his open left-wing beliefs. This time it is Alan Temes , an assistant professor of health and physical education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (a school in the system I also teach for). Among other things, Temes had posted (and updated) the death counts of US soldiers in Iraq.

This isn’t an isolated case. Last spring, Yale decided not to renew anthropologist David Graeber’s contract, possibly because of his anarchist leanings.

As anyone who has kept up with my “Renovating Academia” series knows, I am concerned that we on the left aren’t doing enough to strengthen academia so that it can withstand such attacks. We become simply defensive… and often as simplistic as the right. To some extent, we are actually helping the right defeat us. Still, we can’t sit around and just express our woes and talk about how best to improve academia. There is a threat now, and it needs to be intelligently countered or we will lose more and more of our best as teachers as they decide that they can only remain in academia if they hide their political orientations—and there aren’t many who are willing to do that.

The comments on the story on Temes on InsideHigherEd.com are indicative of the problem.

Last time I checked, God didn’t give Mr. Temes the right to take control of the state’s property….
This professor was instructed to teach, eh, health, not lead leftist protests and make leftist attempts to change the world. As an employee of the university, he overstepped the bounderies. Another leftist loser….
I am always profoundly skeptical when folks claim they have been denied tenure because of “blogs” or public displays that fall clearly within first amendment parameters. My bet: the fellow did not meet the criteria for tenure at the institution….
because the professor is at a public institution, he should refrain from using that public space for political use….

Sure, there were as many (no, more) comments in support of Temes, but the impact of the Horowitz point of view (that teachers should stick to their subjects, bringing nothing more into the classroom—a point of view that he contradicts, by the way, by demanding greater “diversity” of political views in our universities) is clear: more and more people are accepting the view that it is “inappropriate” for college professors (especially at public universities) to express their views on campus.

Many of the posts mention Stanley Fish, retiring Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wrote an article on free speech in academia for The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring. Fish is used as a means for justifying the position that politics be kept out of our colleges and universities.

As usual, though, the right is simplifying a much more complex argument.

Fish, though he has never been one I’ve much admired, does make good points.

What you are free to say in some venues you are not free to say in all venues, and your lack of freedom is not a First Amendment matter; it is a matter, rather, of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain kinds of speech relative to certain contexts of employment or social interaction….

Before yielding to the impulse to yell “Free Speech, Free Speech,” we should first ask some questions. Who is doing the speaking? Where is he or she when doing it? Who is paying the freight?…

it is not the job of a senior administrator either to approve or disapprove of what a faculty member writes in a nonuniversity publication…

I am not saying that political matters can never be raised in an academic setting; such a draconian requirement would mean the end of departments of political science, philosophy, sociology, English, criminal justice, and more. I am just saying that when political matters do enter an academic setting, they must do so in academic terms. A few years ago, a national conference was held at my university on an important topic. A flier advertising the conference went out before I saw it. One sentence in that flier began, “Now that we are fighting a racist war in Afghanistan … ” Because the flier carried with it the imprimatur of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it seemed to be the university that was issuing that judgment.

Fish’s views are often reduced to “on your own time and with your own dime” as a definition of when and how free speech is legitimate—but it isn’t quite so simple. The right does see mention of dead US soldiers as a political statement (witness Sinclair Broadcast Group’s reaction to the reading of the names of US dead on Nightline), but doing so is not in itself perjorative or instistive of a political point of view. From an academic standpoint, it is simply an insistence that an issue of importance to all Americans be kept before contemporary students. That Temes is a teacher of health and physical education is beside the point: it is the responsibility of all teachers to keep the topics of the day before their students. Isolating them from the “real world” actually harms student growth into aware and active members of a democracy.

In addition, life cannot be compartmentalized. Politics has an impact on all decisions. We are denying reality when we try to argue that politics can be kept out of the classroom and from hiring and promotion decisions. By pretending to keep politics away, we are simply giving precedence to the politics of the status quo, an inherently conservative position (however much Horowitz may argue to the contrary).

Temes, as far as I know, was doing nothing that would not stimulate academic debate, nothing that would intimidate students into following his “party line.” Instead, he was insisting that we recognize, even inside academia, that we are political creatures living in a world where political decisions affect us all. In addition, he did not claim to be speaking for the university (as the flyer Fish mentions seems to have accidentally done) and could in no way have been mistaken for an “official” representative of university policy.

Temes was doing what a good teacher should. He was being honest and open—and was encouraging thought.

Instead of being denied tenure, he should be congratulated. He was doing his job.

Even were Temes an anti-choice advocate who posted pictures of aborted fetuses on his door, I would support his application for tenue (assuming all other criteria had been met—some of the posters on InsideHigherEd.com criticize him for not having published enough, but his, like mine, is an institution that focuses on teaching and service to the university with a somewhat lesser emphasis on scholarship). For any of us to hide our beliefs is a bit of dishonesty that teaches our students that it is best to present a false face if one wants to succeed.

Insisting that our politics be opaque within the academic institution not only promotes an acceptance of dishonesty, but it also flies in the face of one of the basic tenets of democracy, that each individual is able to make up his or her own mind within a milieu of open discussion. It shows a lack of respect for our students and a belief that they are so feeble that we can manipulate them at will. It is, in fact, an elitist view

We on the left need to reject this, clearly and forcefully—and publically.

FYI: The president of IUP is named Tony Atwater. His email address is tony.atwater@iup.edu.

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