Consider the following scenario, a commonplace of academic life. A professor decides to devote part of his ethics class to the ethics and economics of higher education, with readings on the value of the BA degree, and on the place of athletics in higher education. To focus the conversation, the professor cites examples drawn from the students’ experience at their home institution. In the course of doing so, the students give voice to complaints about the institution. The professor acknowledges the complaints, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with them.
Taking the acknowledgement as agreement, students give voice to their grievances against the university on social media, citing what they take to be their professor’s support for those grievances. The university’s administration, sensitive to PR issues, catches wind of the student’s claims, and notes the apparent support for those claims offered by members of the faculty. The faculty member is then called before the Dean and a witness to give an accounting of the affair.
The Dean, citing the Faculty Handbook (which itself cites the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure) questions whether the faculty member’s classroom behavior comports with the following provision from the Faculty Handbook, which is in turn taken as a binding clause in the faculty member’s employment contract:
Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.
At this point, some version of the following scenarios takes place.
- The faculty member gives an acceptable account of his classroom behavior. The Dean is receptive to the faculty member’s message. The student is asked to delete the item from social media, and does. The matter is dropped. Life goes on.
- The faculty member fails to give an acceptable account of his classroom behavior, in large part because the Dean was unreceptive to the faculty member’s message at the outset. Lacking tenure, the faculty member is dropped, and life goes on–though not quite as it did.
Obviously, the preceding two options are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but they illustrate the dynamics of life in higher education.
As it happens, I was recently in the very situation I’ve described. Happily, and to the credit of my supervisors, things ended with outcome (1). But I have in the past worked at institutions (and with Deans) who could just as easily have put me in outcome (2).
The outcome turns as much on what you the faculty member have said or done, as on what students have made of it, and how reasonable or unreasonable your supervisors happen to be. A non-tenured academic job depends on how the relevant Dean, VP, or Provost construes the phrase “introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” It depends, in other words, on how an administrator understands controversy and relevance. If you introduce a topic that’s too controversial and insufficiently relevant in the administrator’s eyes, there’s a very real possibility that you’ll be put out on the street. Note that what makes something “too controversial” or “insufficiently relevant” need not be political, at least in the ordinary or colloquial sense of “political.” It could just be a matter of institutional PR. If you say something disparaging of your own institution—or something that could be construed as disparaging it, or even something that someone else uses to disparage it—you could be out of a job.
I make heavy weather of this rather ordinary scenario to raise the following question: how easily does this scenario fit the script of the political right, according to which free speech on campus is ubiquitously threatened by the left-wing forces of political correctness? The answer is: not at all. And yet things like this happen all the time. In fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg—that is, the tip of the iceberg of restrictions of or threats to academic freedom that have absolutely nothing to do with the politics of the left.
Why aren’t they discussed? The scenario itself should give the answer. The restrictions in question are contractual or quasi-contractual stipulations intended to keep the university’s internal matters confidential. The whole point of the stipulations is to restrict speech about those matters so that the university’s administration can control the message it wants to give about the university. The point of control is PR, not PC: every university (and really, every institution) wants to speak with a single consistent voice, putting the best face on its activities, burnishing its reputation, and encouraging a constant, ideally uninterrupted flow of revenue (or its functional equivalent), whether in the form of enrollment, subsidies, grants, donations, or whatever. If what one has to say is critical of one’s own institution, one can’t discuss the matter publicly for fear of losing one’s job: talk about internal matters at one’s own institution either violates one’s employment contract (usually a provision in the Faculty Handbook) or gives the appearance of doing so. So the risks are too high.
The paradoxical result is that those who know the most about the inner workings of academia are least able to discuss what they know. Meanwhile, those who know nothing or next to nothing feel free to express their ignorance. Though the restrictions on speech are most stringent in the case of those who lack tenure, they affect those who have it, as well: even tenured faculty are obliged to honor their employment contracts, so that the relevant restrictions on speech are as much a feature of their contracts as they are of the contracts of non-tenured faculty. In my experience, tenured faculty can afford to be bolder than non-tenured faculty, but the boldness in question is a matter of degree. The predictable result is that boldness is a commodity in short supply.
I say this less to complain about the restrictions per se (however objectionable I find them) than to complain about the false narrative we’ve come to inherit about “free speech on campus.” Judging by that narrative, the restrictions on free speech on university campuses arise from left-wing zealots intent on policing unfettered debate in the name of identity politics. I don’t deny that that happens, and is wrong when it does. But we need a more nuanced and informed conversation that acknowledges the fact that campus restrictions on free speech have a wider variety of sources than the political correctness of the left.
Free speech is, to be sure, restricted by politically correct speech codes and the administrators (and students and faculty) who love them. But it’s also restricted by other things. It’s restricted by corporate policies that restrict what can be said about the internal workings of one’s institution. It’s restricted by the requirements of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which restrict the sorts of questions you can ask students if you’d publicly like to discuss the answers (whether you identify the students individually or not). It’s restricted by regulations on confidentiality, whether contractual or a matter of state or federal law (e.g., FERPA). It’s restricted by anti-discrimination law like Title IX (including local interpretations of those laws, including right-wing interpretations of it). It’s even restricted by mundane things like administrative policies governing the use and placement of flyers, or the proper use of bulletin boards, electronic list-serves, or the use (or mention) of institutional names (or proper names or presumptively proprietary information) in public settings. It’s restricted as well by PR policies that limit contact with members of the media (e.g., without the written permission of the university’s administration).
Above all, speech on campus is restricted (or not) by the institutional culture of the diversity of institutions out there, which vary in their sensitivity and responsiveness to complaints about “insensitive” or “inappropriate” speech—in contexts where “insensitivity” or “inappropriateness” may have nothing to do with politics, much less identity politics. Consider some examples, one relatively minor, the other kind of egregious. (I’ve left out all identifying claims in these anecdotes, but even relating them in this form is regarded by most as untenably risky.)
Minor example: I once got in trouble for closing the door on and “prematurely” ending a conversation with a student who admitted to plagiarizing a paper: I ended the conversation because having admitted the plagiarism, the student insisted that it “didn’t mean anything,” and wanted to negotiate a passing grade on the assignment. I was uninterested in continuing that particular conversation, and was becoming aware of the fact that the student was trying hard to manipulate me and waste my time. So I told her, gently but firmly, that the conversation was over, and quietly closed my door.
The student complained to a faculty member who had no supervisory role over me, and no investigative jurisdiction over the matter itself; the faculty member then made a written complaint to my Dean without ever having consulted me about the charges he was making. The complaint was of a kind calculated to derail one’s career: the charge was that I had screamed profanities at the student for no reason, and slammed the door in her face–a set of claims with literally no factual relation whatsoever to what had actually happened, but which, if true, might have spelled trouble. As it happens, the charges were dismissed by the Dean as lacking merit, and the case went no further, but change a few inferences here and there, and things could have happened very differently.
I call this a “minor” example only because it ended up consuming relatively little of my time, and ended up having a relatively benign outcome, but bear in mind that what was at stake throughout was the very real possibility of being dismissed from my job on the basis of a false claim, made by a confessed plagiarist, amplified by a credulous colleague, to a supervisor with the authority to recommend my dismissal.
Major example: I got in trouble with another Dean for telling another confessed student plagiarist that she didn’t belong in higher education—a taboo claim, apparently, because everyone belongs in higher education, regardless of their behavior or fitness for academic life.
My comment was a response to the student’s confession, during questioning about an assignment, that yes, of course she had plagiarized that particular assignment as well as every other assignment she had done in my class; after all, she had plagiarized her way through the entirety of her college career, and no one had “made a big deal of it before,” so why was I making a big deal of it now, just as she was about to graduate cum laude? What were one, or two, or three plagiarized assignments in the face of four years’ worth of plagiarized assignments? And what better proof of Khawaja’s essentially pedantic fixations that he should bring this matter up in the context of so trifling and irrelevant a subject as philosophy? Was it really conceivable that philosophy could hold up her graduation?
Having told her that with an attitude like that, she didn’t deserve to graduate, I had, I was told, “usurped the role” of the Dean’s office in saying so. I’m not really sure what the “role” of the Dean’s office was supposed to be, over and above getting the Dean a secretary even dumber than he was, and getting him a salary two or three times larger than mine. As far as I could see, the role of the Dean’s office, such as it was, seemed to consist in losing a case that a ham sandwich might successfully have prosecuted.
Having received a confession through me of the students’ four years’ worth of plagiarism, it was insinuated to me by the Dean’s office (without a determinate allegation, much less determinate evidence) that I had sexually harassed (or assaulted) the student in question.* Evidently, the student had, on reflection, changed her story somewhat when questioned by the Dean’s crack team of investigators.
When I asked for particulars, the staff member who made the insinuation took on a stricken look, as though the bare recounting of them would overwhelm her capacities of narrative and endurance. When I persisted, I was told to talk to the Dean about them–it being above her pay-grade to explain allegations, though decidedly within it to make them. When I asked to talk to the Dean about the insinuations made to and about me by his staff, he was just never available. (The one time I saw him on the street, he pretended not to see me, then walked away in the reverse direction.) I was then told to wait for the case to be adjudicated after summer break. (I had made the report to the Dean’s office in early June.)
I waited until mid-September of that year, asked again about the case, and was told to be patient. And so the semester rolled on, flowing into the following year, and then into the following semester–October, November, December, January, February. Finally, in February of the year following the report, I was told that the case had been dropped “for lack of evidence.” How, I asked, was a confession “lack of evidence”? “These things,” the Dean told me, “are not written in stone.” I guess not. But surely they are written somewhere? Well, I was told, the student had brought an attorney with her–as though that disposed of the matter. What difference did that make?, I asked, but got no answer.
It was relevant that the student had actually confessed to having her papers written by her brother, who was a law student at the time. Obvious possibility: a student who, with the collusion of her brother, had confessed to lying her way through four years of school might well have dressed that same law student brother up as a lawyer and intimidated a mind-blowingly credulous (and craven) Dean with fake threats of litigation. I offered that hypothesis for the Dean’s consideration, but got no response; apparently no one had bothered to look at the “lawyer’s” credentials, so I suppose evidence was “lacking” on that count, too. It later turned out that the Dean had overlooked the fact that the statute of limitations on adjudication of cases of this sort had run out some time in August of the previous year, that is, six months prior to his telling me that the case had been “dismissed for lack of evidence.”
In other words, the “lack of evidence” turned out to be his dereliction of duty. Capitalizing on the “lack of evidence,” the student then put in a grade appeal (where, given that “lack of evidence,” claims about her plagiarism were ruled out of court), got an A in the class, and graduated cum laude. She’s now a real estate broker in New York. I’m sure she makes more than I do. My only hope at this point is that she makes more than the Dean. (I later discovered that years later, this student was arrested, tried, and convicted for tax fraud in a case worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So yes, she did make more than the Dean.)
I could go on. Neither of the preceding episodes had anything to do with political correctness or identity politics. Neither student was interested in politics. The relevant issue in both cases concerned the relationship between plagiarism and moral desert—the stuff of academic life, but not exactly the stuff of headline news or contemporary ideological quarrels.
I haven’t done a systematic study or survey of the literature on campus free speech, but my impression is that much of the discussion of that topic focuses on left-wing political correctness as a restriction on speech, ignoring just about every other source of restrictions. Memo to the people conducting this debate: there are lots of other unrelated restrictions on speech. It’s an open empirical question which source produces the greatest number or the most onerous or problematic restrictions on unfettered speech on campus. Something to keep in mind the next time someone holds out the likes of Milo Yiannapolous as an expert on life at our universities.
Consider the possibility that when it comes to academic life, the system is set up so that the people who know the most end up saying the least. That restriction stares some of us in the face–while going entirely under the radar screen of everyone else. The result gives new meaning to what the punk band Discharge once called “Free Speech for the Dumb.” It also draws needed attention to something they didn’t sing about, namely, the absence of free speech for the contractually and uncomfortably mum.**
*I don’t know whether the allegation was that I had harassed her or assaulted her. Indeed, I don’t really know whether the allegation was sexual at all. That’s just what I heard in the tone of voice of the person tasked (by her superior, the Dean) with relaying the insinuation to me.
As is often the case with “allegations” of this sort, one is asked to defend oneself against them before one knows anything about the content of the allegation. And often enough, one never knows. To be told the content of an allegation is thought to be poor form. It’s also thought to give one an unjust advantage: for if you know the content of an allegation ahead of time, you can know ahead of time that it’s rubbish; if you know that, you can’t be knocked off balance during an interrogation; and if that’s the case, you cannot successfully be interrogated. The technique comes straight out of the interrogation scenes in Orwell’s 1984. If you think that such techniques couldn’t possibly be used on a college campus, you have a lot to learn.
Just to be absolutely clear (one can never be too clear): I had no sexual contact of any kind with the student. We were physically separated by about ten feet with a desk between us. Not a single word of the conversation we had bore even the slightest relation to anything sexual. There was literally no truth whatsoever to the insinuation–if the concept of “truth” can even be said to apply to an insinuation too lacking in specificity to be put in words, but is conveyed instead by arched eyebrows and a hushed, anguished tone of voice.
**NB: A reader privately confessed to some confusion about when and where the events described in the text took place. To belabor the obvious: I never said when or where they took place, and never intended to. I’ve been teaching at the university level since 1994, and have taught at lots of places. That’s about as specific as I intend to get.
Postscript, December 13, 2017: I deleted two sentences from the original post that struck me as redundant.