Free Speech & Leadership at Sonoma State University


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.

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