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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

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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).

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