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Begging the Question About Academic Freedom

David Lindorff’s column, “What Academic Freedom?” begs to be addressed, particularly the assertion that “freedom of academic expression on American university campuses is already virtually dead.” Because, it isn’t, at least not entirely.

While it is true that universities increasingly depend upon contract or adjunct hiring, and job security can be a fictional state of being, it is not necessarily the case that, as he says, “Clearly a person who has no job security has no freedom of expression.”

While teaching at that bastion of progressivism, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City from 2002-04, I helped organize the Wasatch Coalition for Peace & Justice, a coalition of over 25 city and state-wide groups opposed to the Iraq invasion, and the Campus Committee for Peace & Justice, a University-wide group composed of faculty, staff, and students also opposed to the invasion. In addition, I participated in and served as a spokesperson for Occupation NO!: Peace & Justice for Palestine, and the Salt Lake City Co-Op Miner’s Solidarity Support Committee. I was often in both Salt Lake City newspapers as well as local TV and radio. I wrote letters to the editor and opinion pieces to register a strident and unpopular opinion of the invasion, the skewed media representation of the Palestinian’s, an occupied people, as somehow the bad guys, and the injustice perpetrated upon immigrant miner workers seeking Union representation (in an unapologetic Right to Work state) by a politically powerful polygamous family in Utah. This political activity was not merely confined to the written word; no, we held numerous conferences, rallies, and protests with big name people (Phyllis Bennis, Robert Jensen, Naim Ateek, to name a few), and we were organizing like crazy. I heard, however, nary a word of protest from my colleagues, department, nor the University higher ups. In fact, I was applauded for my community involvement, and supported by my department when my “Communities & Organizations in Social Work” class of graduate students used the entire semester to work to help the exploited immigrant mine workers get what they wanted: a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that they had the right to vote for United Mine Workers of America representation AND back pay from striking. And, guess what? The NLRB did indeed rule in their favor. We made waves, and I am very proud of the part I (and my students) played.

I did all of this while under the assistant-professor-tenure-track gun. I am no longer at the University of Utah because I came back home to Texas. But, last semester I taught at Texas State University as adjunct professor (qualified for the next five years), that despised and feared, non-secure position Lindorff mentions. Again, I taught graduate social work students in “Communities and Organizations in Social Work”, and, again, devoted the entire semester to a real live issue: Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Calling ourselves CHIP in for Children, we worked with the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas to help convince the Texas Legislature to see to the health care needs of the thousands of Texas children who were either kicked off the program or found ineligible to participate due to requirement changes and loss of funding. We developed fact sheets, a PowerPoint presentation, filled out 600 “Restore CHIP” postcards, wrote ‘letters to the editor’, and visited with our Texas Legislative representatives to ascertain support. A number of bills have been filed already to restore funding and return to realistic and fair eligibility requirements. I know that we shared in making an impact.

All this experience in an university setting brings the realization that people who pursue a career in academia are stuck. What I mean is that when one goes through a PhD program one is being set up for continuing on that path, come what may. Once attaining that exalted level of education, it becomes a slippery slope to a job other than at a University. It’s almost as if one is tainted and not fit to serve the ‘real’ world. People who go into academia, especially on the tenure track, are forced to write volumes and volumes for obscure journals and books that no one but other academicians and students are required to read. People like Ward Churchill, who has always been outspoken and frankly critical of US foreign and domestic policy and who wrote that stuff three years ago, write with the intention of attracting attention; otherwise, what’s the point?

I believe he’s being singled out largely because he’s an Indian, or at least an Indian advocate with an affiliation to the radical AIM (American Indian Movement). Perhaps, that’s what’s so special about the Ward Churchill affair.

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