Early last year I picked up Christopher Priest’s 1974 science fiction novel The Inverted World. Briefly, The Inverted World takes place in a city whose survival depends on the work of a secretive guild whose members winch the city forward on rails, deconstructing and reconstructing the system as they go along, to keep the city safe from an impending and ruinous gravitational field. The city aims for something called the optimum, a theoretical point at which gravity is more or less normal, but which is doomed to fall further out of reach as the city, despite its workers’ best efforts, inches towards its own oblivion.
The world reveals itself to Helward Mann, the novel’s protagonist, when he is sent south of the city on assignment. As he ventures away from the optimum and the crush of the world’s gravity magnifies, the mountains around him become hills, and the hills become flatlands. His traveling companions take on monstrous proportions, grotesquely fat and short, and he has no choice but to give himself in to forces far beyond his understanding or control as the negative curvature of the world is exposed, the terrain on which he stands grows nearly vertical, and gravity verges on infinity.
The professor’s autonomy is increasingly under threat.
The idea of inversion has recurred in my thinking as I’ve evaluated the landscape of academic freedom in the past few years and defended the rights of faculty members trying to chart its terrain. In this climate the professor’s autonomy is increasingly under threat—from non-academic administrators, progressively more emboldened students, and, more and more, the federal government. Where once the faculty’s central role in everything from the setting of curricula to the tenor of discussion they prefer in their classroom was taken as given, the faculty today can have shockingly little agency in conducting even their most basic functions. In short, things we once understood to be as fundamental to the life of the academy as gravity or the curvature of the earth, we no longer can. The classroom is being inverted, to the benefit of none.
If a single case may exemplify this trend, it may be that of Professor Andrea Quenette at the University of Kansas. Quenette’s case occurred in the shadow of student protests at the University of Missouri, which triggered similar protests in solidarity at dozens of major campuses nationwide. In the fall of 2015 at Mizzou, students mounted increasingly visible protests against perceived racial harassment and discrimination endemic in Mizzou’s campus atmosphere, and what they viewed as a lackluster response from the Mizzou administration to their concerns. One graduate student launched a hunger strike and vowed to carry it on so long as Timothy Wolfe remained president of the University of Missouri System. Members of Mizzou’s football team threatened to boycott the program in solidarity with the protesters. In one particularly notorious incident, a since-terminated professor named Melissa Click recruited students to remove a student journalist filming events on the quad. In a video since seen millions of times, Click called out, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here. Help me get him out.”
The University of Kansas was one of the many campuses feeling the reverberations of the Mizzou protests when Andrea Quenette entered her classroom on November 12. The previous evening, in fact, the university had held an impromptu town hall meeting addressing some of the Mizzou protesters’ same concerns about racism and discrimination, attended by roughly one thousand community members. Quenette, an assistant professor of communications, had planned to use her own graduate seminar to discuss similar issues, and saw the Mizzou protests as the perfect launching point.
Quenette, as a white woman, had not known firsthand the forms of racism, harassment, and discrimination that some others had, and made a point of saying so, allegedly stating, “As a white woman I just have never seen the racism. . . . It’s not like I see ‘Nigger’ spray painted on walls . . . .” For simplicity’s sake we’ll take this characterization of her words at face value, even though there is reason to question the fairness of the testimony, given it was posted online by one of her graduate students in a blog post titled “An Open Letter Calling for the Termination of Dr. Andrea Quenette for Racial Discrimination.” Even as recounted by her student antagonists, however, it seems clear that Quenette was inviting other students to share their perspectives by being upfront about the limitations of her own.
The open letter, signed by eleven graduate students, including one who was not present during the discussion, called Quenette’s remarks “an active denial of institutional, structural, and individual racism” that “perpetuates racism in and of itself.” The letter characterized her very use of “the n-word”—no matter its critical context—as “inhospitable, anti-Black, and unacceptable” and “terroristic and threatening to the cultivation of a safe learning environment.” The signees argued further that Quenette’s words “not only create[d] a non-inclusive environment in opposition to one of the University of Kansas’ core tenets, but actively destroy[ed] the very possibility of realizing those values and goals.” More to the point, the students claimed that her very words violated KU’s anti-harassment policy. Six of them filed discrimination complaints against her, and all of them refused to attend class so long as she was its instructor. Quenette took a “voluntary” leave of absence and stayed away from the KU campus for four months before finally being cleared of the charges.
At my employer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (fire), we have been observing for some time that while for years the biggest threat to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses came from their swelling administrative ranks, the strongest voices in favor of censorship on campus now come from the students themselves. We’ve seen this drive manifested in numerous ways, from troublesome demands for trigger warnings on class syllabi to campaigns demanding universities disinvite speakers they dislike to increased emphasis on microaggressions and demands for bias reporting systems that allow them to report speech including professors’ in-class speech, instantly, and anonymously, for investigation by campus authorities or even by law enforcement.
The demands made by students in solidarity with the Mizzou protesters embodied this trend, offering several explicit calls for censorship and policing of student and faculty expression: Protesters at Missouri State University demanded a “commitment to differentiating ‘hate speech’ from ‘freedom of speech’ ”; Duke University protesters called for professors and other staff to be put “in danger of losing their jobs, and non-tenure track faculty will lose tenure status [sic] if they perpetuate hate speech that threatens the safety of students of color”; Students at Kennesaw State University demanded “strong repercussions . . . for offenders of racist actions and racial bias on campus”; Simmons College protesters called for “repercussions for racist actions performed by professors and staff” and demanded “micro- and macro-aggressions . . . be taken seriously and met with the highest level of urgency and care.”
The faculty role in university governance is continuing to weaken.
Perhaps more important than the fact of these widespread student protests and the demands they generated, however, is the moment at which they arrived, and what that timing means for the future of the faculty. If this were a time when the faculty role in university governance was robust and secure, that would be one thing. But it is not. It is weaker than it was previously, and it is continuing to weaken—the result of both internal and external pressures.
Historians, social scientists, journalists, and other observers have spent years documenting the changes in the academy that have fundamentally altered the role of the faculty in various levels of decision-making and policy-setting. Anyone who has read dispatches from academic conventions of recent years knows that tenured professorships are increasingly hard to come by, while the ranks of college administrators have exploded by comparison—with persons in such positions sometimes earning twice or three times as much as the best-compensated full professors. While universities spend millions on amenities having nothing to do with education, they increasingly rely on contingent faculty earning only a few thousand dollars per course, with no prospects of tenure. And while universities claim the contrary, it is a simple fact that as their job security goes down, so do their academic freedom protections. The natural effect has been that administrators have usurped more and more decision-making ability from the faculty. But it is not simply that the traditional faculty role in university governance has been watered down as universities have become bigger, more sprawling, and more corporatized. It is also that university administrations are increasingly willing to disregard faculty input even in areas where faculty expertise has traditionally been given deference.
If several factors over the past few decades have contributed to the diminished circumstances of the faculty, it seems safe to say that in recent years few actors from outside the academy have had a more dramatic effect on academic freedom and faculty governance than the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (ocr), beginning with the promulgation of its 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter (dcl).
From the beginning, fire has led the national charge against ocr’s overreach on a number of fronts. Among the most important of them is its mandate that, when trying cases of alleged sexual assault, universities use the perilously low “preponderance of the evidence” standard. The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly criticized this lowered standard—requiring only a roughly 50.01 percent degree of certainty—as well. The dcl’s faults are myriad and fundamental, down to the fact that it was unlawfully issued—that while ocr claims it is merely providing guidance it is in fact implementing policy, and doing so without the required notice-and-comment period for policymaking. (At the time of this writing, fire is sponsoring a lawsuit against the Department of Education, which challenges the dcl’s legality on this point.)
Even as ocr has mandated sweeping, troubling changes in the way universities approach matters of due process, universities have often gone beyond what ocr deemed necessary even if they privately chafed at the burdens of the new requirements. Given ocr’s ability to cut off a university’s federal funding—effectively a death sentence—for falling out of compliance, they have a strong incentive to do so. It is this culture of fear among university administrators that may prove to have a longer-lasting effect than ocr’s mandates or the punitive resolutions it has come to with the universities it has investigated. (As of October 2016, ocr reports that it has 283 open investigations at 215 institutions.) Under universities’ revamped procedures, a single investigator may be appointed to serve as both judge and jury. The right to active participation of counsel is often seriously constrained. The right to cross-examination is strongly discouraged. The recording of proceedings may be prohibited, and key evidence may be withheld or rejected at the university’s discretion. The pretense of neutrality is eviscerated by the pressure to take a harder line against sexual assault and harassment, and a “not guilty” finding can be all that is necessary to expose a university to an invasive investigation of its practices. Universities know this well, and act accordingly.
Where this culture has been imported into the classroom, its effect on academic freedom has been profound. The University of Denver suspended the longtime professor Arthur Gilbert and banished him from its campus for more than one hundred days after anonymous complaints were filed by two graduate students in a course Gilbert taught on the history of America’s drug wars, which covered such topics as “purity crusades” and their attacks on vices such as masturbation and prostitution. The tenured Appalachian State University sociology professor Jammie Price was removed from teaching over complaints regarding, among other matters, her screening of a documentary critical of the adult film industry. Louisiana State University fired the education professor Teresa Buchanan, just as she was at the threshold of being promoted to full professor, arguing that her occasional use of profanity and vulgarity in the company of her students violated its sexual harassment policy, in particular its ocr-inspired language prohibiting “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical behavior of a sexual nature.”
A “not guilty” finding can expose a university to an invasive investigation of its practices.
It is not a coincidence that all of these cases involve speech or curricular material touching on sexual topics. fire and the aaup, among other organizations, have pointed out for years now that the perilously low protections for due process and academic freedom wrought by ocr’s demands all but guarantee we will see more cases like theirs. What has gone less observed is how their universities responded to the objections of faculty when they weighed in on academic freedom and free speech grounds. At the University of Denver, a faculty investigative committee and the faculty senate both faulted the university for refusing to consider Gilbert’s case from an academic freedom perspective. (The university’s Title IX investigators, in fact, had acted appropriately and purposefully left this question open, calling on more qualified decision-makers to evaluate its findings in this regard.) Appalachian State declared that its faculty committees had no jurisdiction to hear Price’s grievance over her treatment, claiming that Price’s involuntary leave somehow did not constitute a “serious sanction.” The faculty retorted that this was such a vast departure from Appalachian State’s written policies as to effectively constitute new policy enacted without faculty input. At lsu, a faculty investigative panel convened by the university was unanimous in its recommendation that termination for Teresa Buchanan not be considered.
In all cases, the faculty’s input was rejected, and the universities took their own preferred course. Of this environment, the aaup concluded in a report on “The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX” that ocr’s increasingly activist and punitive posturing threatens “academic discussion of sex and sexuality,” faculty members’ “protected speech in teaching, research, and extramural contexts,” and “robust faculty governance.”
As ocr as well as the Department of Justice have continued muddying the waters for free speech and due process—with settlements at the University of Montana in 2013 and the University of New Mexico in 2016 effectively requiring universities to impose unconstitutional speech codes and conduct investigations of even clearly protected expression—universities have become ever more brazen and less self-aware. The case of one professor I worked with recently at one Texas institution may sum it up best. This professor, a longtime tenured performing arts faculty member, was reported to have made one of his students uncomfortable with some of his in-class remarks. He was removed from class, lost a semester of teaching while his case was investigated, was forbidden from having a recording of his hearing, and was initially allowed only to review a summary of the written notes taken by the investigators. He wasn’t given any useful information about the reason for the complaint against him, precluding the possibility of mounting an effective defense. At the end of this process, he was found responsible for violating his university’s policy on sexual harassment. fire helped him appeal his case, in part on academic freedom grounds, because the charges against him directly implicated speech both in his faculty and his personal capacities.
Maybe not surprisingly, the university rejected his appeal, but one of the grounds it gave for doing so was stunning. The letter, from the university’s Title IX officer, stated, “academic freedom rights do not apply to violations of [University System] Policy and regulation.” Such is the devaluation of academic freedom that a non-academic administrator can argue, without irony, that academic freedom rights do not apply when considering complaints directly stemming from remarks made in one’s academic role. We might find another such example in the realm of “trigger warnings,” a cause of considerable trepidation even among sympathetic faculty. For all the well-placed concerns about their use being made compulsory, universities have by and large left the decision on whether and how to use them with individual faculty, where it belongs. But there are exceptions, Drexel University being one of them. Drexel’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Misconduct Policy states that “[i]t is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning and accommodation regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used,” a fact fire discovered when conducting its routine annual survey of the institution’s speech codes. When fire publicly called attention to this fact, it may well have marked the first time the majority of Drexel’s faculty was alerted to its existence.
While I think there is some evidence to suggest universities are starting to get wise to the perilous environment for free speech, few have been brave enough actually to take a strong stance in the hopes of correcting course. The University of Chicago is one of the rare outliers. In January 2015, Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, led by the law professor Geoffrey Stone, gave a ringing endorsement of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Among its many laudable sentiments, it declares:
Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. . . . [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.
The Chicago Statement deserves to become a national model, and versions of the statement have been passed at several other institutions since, including Princeton, Purdue, Johns Hopkins, and Washington University. This year Chicago took its commitment one step further with a letter to incoming freshmen saying that “[o]ur commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives.” If the letter’s strident tone alienated some, the message was clear: students come to Chicago to experience an atmosphere of intellectual rigor, and unreflective demands for such protections risk dampening that rigor.
Few universities have been brave enough to take a strong stance in the hopes of correcting course.
Chicago is still, however, an outlier. One doesn’t even have to leave the area to find university leaders fully embracing the rhetoric of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and their kin. At Northwestern University’s convocation this year, President Morton Schapiro dismissed critics of trigger warnings and microaggressions as “idiots” and “lunatics,” not thinking, apparently, of those who might feel microaggressed by such insults. (He is also, of course, the same Morton Schapiro who was presiding at Northwestern when it put Professor Laura Kipnis through a seventy-two-day Title IX investigation—later scathingly exposed by Kipnis for the Chronicle of Higher Education—for her criticisms of the “sexual paranoia” pervading academic culture.)
I do not think that it is a coincidence that several university faculties have initiated efforts to pass the Chicago Statement amidst the current wave of student demands for censorship. Furthermore, several university leaders have used the student protests as an occasion to make laudable statements on the power of free speech and the necessity for exposure to opposing views and the ability to tolerate those who see things differently. Even President Obama has on multiple occasions publicly chided the mentality behind student calls for censorship and disinvitations. More universities should follow such examples. Passing the Chicago Statement would be a fine place to start, both as a recommitment to first principles and as a reminder of the faculty’s proper place in the governance of the university.
I return here to Professor Andrea Quenette’s story, because I haven’t given the full account of how it ended. Ultimately, it isn’t a happy ending. While she was cleared of discrimination charges at the end of a four-month investigation, KU, following a separate review, rejected her application for a research extension in advance of her pre-tenure review. In plain English, the effect of this rejection is to deny her tenure bid preemptively, making her days at KU officially numbered. It’s not for me or fire to judge KU’s decision on the merits, but it seems difficult to imagine this coming about had not her students first made a concerted attempt to drive her from the classroom by deluging the university with discrimination complaints, casting a pall over everything that followed. While the discrimination complaints ultimately failed, it feels that the students are nonetheless getting their wish. No doubt many of Quenette’s tenured and untenured colleagues alike have noted her case as a measure of the potential cost of tackling controversial and difficult issues in the classroom.
With stories like Quenette’s and the others shared in this essay, hopefully the point has been driven home that both strong academic freedom protections and a strong governance model are necessary for the future of the faculty. As they mutually reinforce each other, so too can they wither when they come unraveled. In evaluating the current landscape, I’m reminded of the paradox of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, not because it is accurate but because it is not. I do not necessarily believe the pressures on faculty governance and academic freedom I’ve described constitute such a force. Given the fragility of the institutions they act upon, they do not need to.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5 , on page 23
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