FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
February 26, 2020
Matthew Hoh
Heaven Protect Us From Men Who Live the Illusion of Danger: Pete Buttigieg and the US Military
Jefferson Morley
How the US Intelligence Community is Interfering in the 2020 Elections
Patrick Cockburn
With Wikileaks, Julian Assange Did What All Journalists Should Do
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change and Voting 2020
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Russiagate: The Toxic Gift That Keeps on Giving
Andrew Bacevich
Going Off-Script in the Age of Trump
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Anti-Russian Xenophobia Reaches Ridiculous Levels
Ted Rall
Don’t Worry, Centrists. Bernie Isn’t Radical.
George Wuerthner
Whatever Happened to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition?
Scott Tucker
Democratic Socialism in the Twenty-First Century
Jonah Raskin
The Call of the Wild (2020): A Cinematic Fairy Tale for the Age of Environmental Disaster
George Ochenski
Why We Shouldn’t Run Government Like a Business
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange and the Imperium’s Face: Day One of the Extradition Hearings
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s Extradition Hearing Reveals Trump’s War on Free Press Is Targeting WikiLeaks Publisher
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
Max Moran
Meet Brad Karp, the Top Lawyer Bankrolling the Democrats
David Swanson
Nonviolent Action for Peace
Ed Sanders
The Ex-Terr GooGoo Eyes “The Russkies Did it!” Plot
February 25, 2020
Michael Hudson
The Democrats’ Quandary: In a Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy, Something Must Give
Paul Street
The “Liberal” Media’s Propaganda War on Bernie Sanders
Sheldon Richman
The Non-Intervention Principle
Nicholas Levis
The Real Meaning of Red Scare 3.0
John Feffer
Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess
David Swanson
How Are We Going to Pay for Saving Trillions of Dollars?
Ralph Nader
Three Major News Stories That Need To Be Exposed
John Eskow
What Will You Do If the Democrats Steal It from Sanders?
Dean Baker
What If Buttigieg Said That He Doesn’t Accept the “Fashionable” View That Climate Change is a Problem?
Jack Rasmus
The Nevada Caucus and the Desperation of Democrat Elites
Howard Lisnoff
The Powerful Are Going After Jane Fonda Again
Binoy Kampmark
Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed
John W. Whitehead
Gun-Toting Cops Endanger Students and Turn Schools into Prisons
Marshall Sahlins
David Brooks, Public Intellectual
February 24, 2020
Stephen Corry
New Deal for Nature: Paying the Emperor to Fence the Wind
M. K. Bhadrakumar
How India’s Modi is Playing on Trump’s Ego to His Advantage
Jennifer Matsui
Tycoon Battle-Bots Battle Bernie
Robert Fisk
There’s Little Chance for Change in Lebanon, Except for More Suffering
Rob Wallace
Connecting the Coronavirus to Agriculture
Bill Spence
Burning the Future: the Growing Anger of Young Australians
Eleanor Eagan
As the Primary Race Heats Up, Candidates Forget Principled Campaign Finance Stands
Binoy Kampmark
The Priorities of General Motors: Ditching Holden
George Wuerthner
Trojan Horse Timber Sales on the Bitterroot
Rick Meis
Public Lands “Collaboration” is Lousy Management
David Swanson
Bloomberg Has Spent Enough to Give a Nickel to Every Person Whose Life He’s Ever Damaged
Peter Cohen
What Tomorrow May Bring: Politics of the People
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail