FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Academic Freedom?

 

Amid all the controversy over the observations of University of Colorado professor and leftist Indian political activist Ward Churchill concerning the military justifiability of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, it’s easy to overlook the fact that freedom of academic expression on American university campuses is already virtually dead.

Churchill, who holds a tenured position at his university, is actually in an unusually strong position. With his tenure, the only way that the lynch mob out to fire him can get rid of him without facing a huge damage suit in court for breach of contract would be to prove a case of moral turpitude or dereliction of teaching duties or something equally heinous.

But for many teachers on American campuses–indeed for most teachers on some campuses and all at some–tenure is a thing of the past. Increasingly, universities large and small, famous and unknown, are turning to contract hires to do the teaching. These virtual professors are only offered “folding chairs” that carry a contract–one year, two years, three years, or maybe five years. At that point, they have to be renewed. They cannot be considered for tenure. Many other teachers are simply adjuncts, hired on a year-to-year or semester-to-semester basis to teach one or two classes. They have no contract at all to protect them.

Clearly, a person who has no job security has no freedom of expression. Such professors and adjuncts are no better off than the worker in a Wal-Mart or a General Electric factory–which means they have no more freedom of speech than a 12th century serf. They speak out at their own risk. If any adjunct or contract-hire teachers spoke out politically the way Churchill did and roused the wrath of the unwashed masses and the loofahed and lathered Bill O’Reilly, they’d be gone in a flash–if not the next day, then certainly at the end of the term.

At Temple University, a unionized urban institution here in Philadelphia, for instance (where teachers have been working almost a year without a contract because of management intransigence and demands for givebacks in the area of faculty governance), increasing numbers of professors are working on a contract basis. At Alfred University, where I taught journalism for a year, tenure is a bad joke. Although awarded after a typically exacting process of peer review, it has to be renewed every five years following a new peer review, thus providing as much academic freedom protection as a felt body-armor vest.

There is no question that the lack of tenure makes for less outspokenness, iconoclasm and strength of conviction. I remember when I was working as an adjunct journalism instructor at Cornell University back in 1989, going to an assistant professor colleague who was on the tenure track, looking for support for a proposal I wanted to make regarding the department’s minority students, whom I had found were having trouble with my and other teachers’ coursework and were then being asked to leave the school, instead of being offered remedial or preparatory assistance. He said, “Oh, that’s a controversy I can’t get involved in until I get my tenure.”

With the bloodhounds of the right getting into full McCarthy lynching mode these days, including organized groups of student yahoos who monitor their teachers’ lectures and backed by a phalanx of right-wing media mouths ready to amplify any complaint about non-mainstream viewpoints expressed by teachers in or outside the classroom, the fight for academic freedom has become more than academic. Yet instead of working to strengthen this important and historic tradition not just of tenure but of the very culture of free expression on campus, administrators are caving in to political pressure and undermining both.

Ward Churchill is a fighter, and will go down slugging. Most academics, I’m afraid, will just shut up and become conventional thinkers.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com

More articles by:

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail