FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Free Speech & Leadership at Sonoma State University

by SHEPHERD BLISS

The creation of the Mario Savio Speakers’ Corner this semester was my favorite event during my five years at Sonoma State University. It was a good example of what is taught in SSU’s Foundations of Leadership course, UNIV. 238, which I taught for three years.

The dynamic Savio was a beloved teacher at SSU from 1990-1996. He is best known as a leader of the Free Speech Movement in the mid-sixties, while a student at the University of California, Berkeley. That movement galvanized students around the U.S. against the American War in Vietnam. The Savio memorial committee wanted to inspire people, as Savio did, “to act upon conscience to insure justice.”

The sixties student movement, inspired by Savio, helped convince me to resign my commission as a young military officer and dedicate my life to the study, teaching, and practice of social justice. I also taught SSU’s “War and Peace” course for three years, as well as “Identity and Global Challenges” for six semesters. I am indebted to Mario and his collaborators. I wonder how Mario would be treated at SSU today, in spite of being recently honored. A professor informed me that on the day before he passed away Mario was critical about how lecturers are treated by the SSU administration.

Public higher education in the U.S. today, especially in California, is in a mess, for a variety of reasons. Student fees continue to rise, as do class sizes. Students who do graduate have huge debts. It is being further privatized and corporatized to meet the financial goals of the super-rich 1%, rather than the needs of students and the society as a whole. I’ve taught college for most of the last 40 years and can report that it is much worse today for students and teachers than it was in the sixties. What follows is a first-person account and case study of what is happening at one college.

After the Nov. 15 dedication of Mario’s corner, it remains to be seen if SSU’s administration will improve its respect for free speech, even for free press. One example last year was when the student newspaper published articles on the ShameOnSSU protest against banker Sandy Weill buying an honorary doctorate by giving $12 million to the Green Music Center. The newspaper suspiciously disappeared from newsstands, which SSU staff were seen taking away. I helped organize the protest and then wrote about them. Students, faculty, alumni, Occupy activists and community members participated in the dignified protest.

SSU’s Leadership course is well designed and will fortunately be offered again this spring, after being cut last year. For two of the years I taught it, the course was cancelled, until students, staff and faculty bravely protested its elimination. I helped lead those successful struggles, which resulted in over 200 students being able to take the course in ten separate sections, thus improving student leadership on campus and beyond.

The course’s excellent text, “Exploring Leadership,” teaches the Relational Leadership Model. It advocates being inclusive and ethical, empowerment, and diversity. SSU administrators would do well to read and practice these principles, rather than violate them. Being a college administrator is not easy, which I know from being one at Harvard for a decade. This book could help not only students and teachers, but also their leaders–administrators.

I applied to teach the course again next semester. I was disappointed when informed in a terse, curt email (anything but “relational”) by a likeable administrator, whom I know well, that I would not be offered one of the seven sections. Perhaps he has not read the text about the importance of relationships with those that one manages, empathy, the appropriate use of power, and good communications. The trend in higher education, as well as in other social institutions, is for administrators to be “removed, impersonal, and unaccountable,” writes a colleague.

I have asked for the reasons for my rejection, to which I have received no real response. I deserve an explanation of why I was not re-hired, which would be the relational way to communicate, as well as provide some needed transparency. This is not the only time this part-time instructor–as well as others of us–has received an unfair or disrespectful communication from an administrator, which seems to be a pattern.

It is one thing to advocate critical thinking for students, and another for administrators to allow it to be practiced without retaliation. There might be lessons in my situation to understand the corporate culture of administrative leadership at SSU, as well as at other colleges. SSU teaches one thing and then does its opposite. “It’s an old-fashioned abuse of power that communicates ‘do what I say, not what I do,’” one colleague notes.

I wonder what selection criteria were used for Leadership faculty. It is usual to consider things such as having a doctorate, especially from a prominent university, experience teaching the particular course and teaching in general, rank, publishing, and student evaluations, in which I score high. Those chosen teachers did not all have better academic qualifications than mine, especially since the deadline, which I met, was extended to get enough applications.

The decision not to re-hire me does not appear to be an academic decision but a political one, various students have suggested and published letters about in the student newspaper. This is unfortunately common in colleges, which are highly politicized, especially now as public higher education is threatened by further privatization and corporatization.

SSU teaches one thing and then does its opposite. “False advertising” is what one colleague calls it. I’ve dared to exercise “academic freedom” and do the critical thinking that I am charged to teach. How much real “freedom” is there at SSU, even to practice what we are supposed to teach? It’s ironic that I actually might have been punished for implementing the Relational Leadership Model described in the course textbook.

I extend my appreciation to the capable staff that has guided 238 through the years, especially Julie Greathouse and Bruce Peterson. And best wishes to the instructors and Teaching Assistants who will be guiding it next semester, as well as to the some 200 students who are enrolled in it.

Education in the U.S. changed with the Industrial Revolution and became based on a factory model of obedience to bosses. The abuse of power is common, even at our beloved SSU, as well as elsewhere in higher education. The military’s “command and control” top-down approach to leadership prevails in colleges, producing corporate cultures that discriminate, especially against part-time instructors. Higher education tends to be organized around a rigid class system, with part-timers at the bottom of the teaching peck order.

One reason I was hired to teach certain courses at SSU was because I studied in Latin America with the Brazilian philosopher of education Paulo Freire. He wrote the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” which affirms education for liberation and cultural action, which is the opposite of attempts to domesticate students. I love teaching undergraduates, using the Socratic Dialogue Method that I learned from Freire.

One of the saddest things is when an administrator comes up through the ranks of the teachers. Such administrators are sometimes more compassionate. Unfortunately, they are sometimes more harsh, as if they needed to prove something now that they are higher-up. That is what seems to have happened in my case, being hurt by a once-trusted colleague.

I may be gone as a teacher of the Leadership course, but not as a member of the SSU community. I plan to speak out at Mario’s Corner, even when it includes critical thinking about the administration and how it mistreats people. I welcome others to join me there and exercise free speech at SSU, even as it becomes more corporatized by the likes of banker Weill and MasterCard, prostrating public higher education to meet the financial goals of corporations, rather than the needs of students and our society.

Shepherd Bliss teaches college, has contributed to two-dozen books, and continues the organic farming that he has done for the last 20 years. He can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail