Halloween Special: Fear in the Ivory Tower and a Duty to Rebuke

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Cover of the pulp magazine Ghost Stories (August 1928, vol. 5, no. 2. Wikimedia Commons.

I recently had the opportunity to craft a position paper critical of a university plan that reflected not only my views but the views of other faculty members. I knew there was general concern and agreement on the matters and their possible consequences because I’d talked with them in a workshop and later in informal meetings. I had a draft well under way with the intention to publish it internally when I reached out to colleagues to see if they were interested in adding views and their name to the paper. Many were, that is until they saw it was critical. One by one they backed out. Some citied their tenuous status as part time faculty, others were afraid they had gained a reputation for stirring the pot and didn’t want to do more, others said their department had been getting a lot of pressure from administration and that in a climate of budget cuts they didn’t want to take chances. I saw, both to my shock and dismay, what I can characterize as a deep pervasive fear. This in itself is strange because I’ve generally found faculty are quick to snipe and criticize, evidently so long as it’s not codified.

Now recognize: We have a strong faculty union and we have an outstanding academic freedom policy that includes the right to criticize the institution and institutional decisions, without exception. So of course the reluctance on the part of other faculty to criticize seemingly has no factual foundation.

Are faculty really this afraid?

There are two issues here. The first is clear. There are “generally recognized principles of academic freedom, as approved by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and more than two hundred and fifty other professional and educational organizations which have endorsed the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” (1) The body strongly advocates for academic freedom and it has voted to impose censure on a number of colleges who suppress it. As an example, one college was found to have “violated the faculty member’s academic freedom to speak on institutional matters without fear of reprisal” and one was censured in which in the university the climate, “general conditions for academic freedom…were ‘abysmal,’” characterized by “fear and demoralization” among the faculty. (2) I can’t imagine one would want one’s university on the AAUP’s growing list of censured institutions. (3)

So I decided to do some snooping around. I was sure that a cursory internet search would reveal hundreds if not thousands of articles addressing faculty fear and their reluctance to criticize institutional decisions. Oddly, I found nothing. Huh? I checked Google Scholar. Nothing. I checked Academic Complete. Nothing. I tried various keywords and phrases. Little to none. I find this strange.

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Dancing Elves, 1866. August Malmström. Nationalmuseum. Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, at one end of the continuum is the overt enactment of policies to discourage free speech as outlined in the article about Liberty University that appeared in the Washington Post titled Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’ How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics. (4). In which an earlier quote by President Jerry Falwell, Jr was mentioned: “The big victory was finding a way to tame faculty.” In the words of the article’s author, “The dissent that did exist — from off-message campus speakers, insufficiently sycophantic board members, student activists and our newspaper staff — was ruthlessly neutralized.” Chilling. One can imagine faculty fear in this scenario.

I had to work harder to find other instances and discovered that most issues were located around faculty criticisms and following overt penalizations, which is why they made the news. Edward Schlosser presents a quote in an article about a professor terrified of the students, “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain.” (5) I suppose Twain used the N word and Said offered discourse on exoticizing and Orientalism or simply presented an exposure of patronizing representations and normative narratives.

In the article Can the Adjunct Speak? Precarity and academic unfreedom, Eva Swinder and Jan Clausen, who outlined a series of academic “unfreedoms” wrote, “We pointed out the potential for direct censorship of adjunct faculty speech in the classroom through faculty hiring and firing decisions made by individual department chairs. We lamented the self-censorship that reigns as contingent faculty members shield themselves from incurring disfavor.” (6) This was closer to my theme, faculty who were perceiving some sort of retribution if they spoke freely.

Peter Wylie at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan evidently outlined what he saw as a “sweetheart unison deal going on that both the faculty association and university don’t want disrupted,” he claimed was to the detriment of faculty members. (7) According to the article he had his email contact list blocked and was accused of harassing the staff. Peter Wylie says free speech was stifled by ‘academic mobbing.’

The New York Times ran an article about the university searching staff emails in which I found this: “Most professors who agreed to discuss the matter on Monday insisted on anonymity, not wanting to run afoul of the administration.” (8). Clearly the fear seems justified in their minds.

An article about Radford University’s vote of no confidence was listed a view that “‘a culture of fear’ among faculty existed.” (9)

At Drake University was the perception of “widespread ‘fear, anxiety and distrust.’” (10)

The AAUP list offers more examples of universities censured for not observing academic freedom but still I had not found articles about the culture of fear that I think exists in many universities and which was hinted at by some of these articles.

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Free speech = reason = progress. March 25, 2005. Simon Gibbs. London, UK. Wikimedia Commons.

We can guess that there are many subtle ways in which parrhesia may be curbed in pernicious ways that may be perceived as real as the overt violation. For example, faculty may be cherry picked for or simply not assigned to certain committees. They may be asked to redo reports, questioned about curricular decisions, looked over for department roles or funding, assigned TA’s or not, and so forth. Such subtle retributions lack substantial proof of intent to limit a critical voice or penalize for having voiced criticism. If the faculty member is non-tenure track, or part time, a contract may not be renewed, with no reason necessary at many institutions. More broadly, faculty meetings may be taken over and directed by administration in a top down, presentation manner, or done away with altogether.

And we all have experienced the joke in which “consultation” means a presentation, the rudimentary acknowledgement of questions without interest, and a steamrolling ahead of the undiscussed idea. As a point of interest, although it is amazing that the issue of what constitutes consultation had to be contested, it is interesting that at least one court provided a view of consultation: “…the word ‘consultation’ must be used in its common everyday context which includes conferring about, deliberating upon, debating, discussing, and considering [33]. In other words, consultation must amount to considerably more than a form of lip service [34]. ….the minimum standard of consultation should not be less than a valid demonstration of good faith [37].”

A few years ago I asked a member of our faculty association negotiation committee about the inclusion in our contracts of a phrase that says faculty can be fired for “just cause” and I asked for clarification. His answer, “Just ‘cause.” Funny.

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Fair use.

With respect to my position paper, I wondered whether this glorious thing called parrhesia continued to exist within our formal learning institution. Of all places it should be here and I worry a good deal about it’s apparent loss because of my unshakeable bias for parrhesia. Often I recall the words of John Stuart Mill from On Liberty, and I’ll quote a passage at length:

“No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere an intellectually active people. Where any people has made a temporary approach to such a character, it has been because the dread of heterodox speculation was for a time suspended. Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.” (11)

Faculty, especially those with some degree of tenure, but also all faculty as protected by academic freedom, have a duty to engage in unbounded thought, and I dare say, we even have a duty to rebuke.

Therefore I appreciate what the Berkeley Faculty Association puts on their public website about their contributions to the institution that includes:

  • “Being a critical voice in administrative affairs, calling attention to troubling management decisions, dysfunctional organization, or bloat in administrative staff and salaries” (12)

The point here is simple we must confront and challenge obvious and surreptitious constraints upon academic freedom and free speech. In part, this means recognizing and calling out climates of fear within the ivory towers instead of running scared.


(1). The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) academic freedom document is found here: https://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure

(2). The Report of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, (A body of AAUP) 2018–19 by Henry Reichman, Academe, Summer 2019, Vol. 105

(3). The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) list of censured institutions is found here: https://www.caut.ca/latest/publications/academic-freedom/reports

(4). Young, Will, E., (July 24, 2019). Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear.’ The Washington Post. Found online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/07/24/inside-liberty-universitys-culture-fear-how-jerry-falwell-jr-silences-students-professors-who-reject-his-pro-trump-politics/?arc404=true

(5). Schlosser, E. (June 3, 2015). I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me. Vox. Found online at https://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid.

(6). Swindler, E., and Clausen, J. Can the Adjunct Speak? Precarity and academic unfreedom. American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Eva Swinder writes, By Eva Swidler and Jan Clausen. Found online at https://www.aaup.org/article/can-adjunct-speak#.XbTI6C3MyAw

(7). Gerding, P. (March 27, 2018). UBCO prof feels wrath of criticizing faculty executive. BC Local News. Found online at https://www.bclocalnews.com/news/ubco-prof-feels-wrath-of-criticizing-faculty-executive/

(8). Richard Pérez-Peña, R., and Bidgood, J. (March 11, 2013). Harvard Explains Why Staff E-Mails Were Searched” The New York Times. Found online at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/12/education/harvard-search-e-mail-accounts.html

(9). Wall, S. (September 14, 2019). Radford University faculty members approve of their president, but report other dissatisfactions. The Roanoke Times. Found online at https://www.roanoke.com/news/education/radford-university-faculty-members-approve-of-their-president-but-report/article_e939dae9-cd9e-5f68-a88f-264273c7fef7.html

(10). Charis-Carlson, J. (April 28, 2015). Outgoing president cites big challenges facing higher ed; says Drake in strong position. Iowa Press-Citizen. Found online at https://www.press-citizen.com/story/news/education/college/2015/04/28/drake-university-faculty-morale-low/26489241/

(11). Mill, J. On Liberty is available online here: https://eet.pixel-online.org/files/etranslation/original/Mill,%20On%20Liberty.pdf. A pdf version of All Minus One, John Stuart Mill’s Ideas on Free Speech Illustrated is found here: https://heterodoxacademy.org/mill/

(12). Berkeley’s Faculty Association website is found here: (https://ucbfa.org/who-we-are/)

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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