Wednesday, September 26, 2007

 

Freedom of Speech in Administration


(The confusion evident in this post isn't just a function of sloppy editing; it's an accurate reflection of my actual confusion on this issue.)

The recent dustup over the hiring, then non-hiring, then hiring of a law school dean who had published an op-ed critical of the Bush administration got me thinking about academic freedom, and freedom of speech more generally, for administrators.

Faculty are supposed – rightly – to have considerable leeway in expressing views on controversial issues. In the classroom, that's supposed to be restricted to topics that are relevant to the course, though in practice most of us give “relevant” a pretty loose reading. Outside of the classroom, the standard freedom of speech protections are supposed to apply. The idea is that educators have to be free to follow their inquiries to what appears to them to be truth, even if that truth is unpopular or even silly. Given the speed with which popular opinion can change – those of us who opposed the Iraq war even before it started have gone from 'hippies' and 'paleo-liberals' to 'prescient' in just a few short years – and given the stubborn tenacity of truth, the policy of shielding good-faith inquiry from political interference strikes me as wise.

(I don't buy the usual argument that tenure is a prerequisite for academic freedom, but that's another post altogether. There's also another set of issues around academic freedom at denominational colleges, but I'll just confess being out of my element there.)

If academic freedom, broadly conceived, is a prerequisite for the pursuit of truth, then it seems to me that one of two conclusions must follow: either administrators have academic freedom too, or administrators aren't supposed to be bound to the truth.

I prefer the first option.

One hitch, of course, is that management requires discretion and even, in many cases, confidentiality. Confidentiality and academic freedom co-exist tensely at best. Many of the issues we deal with involve personnel matters, where confidentiality has to hold sway, even when it's inconvenient. (The bane of my existence is the persistent rumor that I know to be false, but can't refute without violating confidentiality. What the rumor mill paints as “the administration knows about this, but is covering it up” is often really “the administration knows this rumor is crap, but can't reveal why it's crap without violating confidentiality.”) Given the realities of how shared governance actually works (as opposed to its ideal, theoretical workings), a dean who thinks out loud will have his musings held against him later, even if he himself eventually came down on the other side. (This is the single most compelling reason I maintain a pseudonym for my blog. Given some of what I've written about tenure, I'd fully expect the faculty union to crusade to have me fired at the first opportunity. They'd read my “in my ideal world” musings, incorrectly, as concrete plans for action.)

A second hitch has to do with the 'ambassador' or 'public face' function of administrators. I've been attacked by faculty for having political bumper stickers on my car. I've been told that the bumper stickers revealed my 'real' agenda, which was presumed to include some sort of ideological purge of the tenured ranks. (As if!) To the extent that there's an argument in there, I think, it's that it can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works. On the fringes, there's some truth to that. If I declared in public that I supported the Klan, it would be difficult for my college to keep me around. (I don't, btw.) Even if I managed to keep my views separate from my official decisions, the suspicion of contamination would probably eventually prove prohibitive. That said, I've decided that I didn't give up my rights as a citizen when I took this job, so if I want to have a sign on my lawn or my car for my favored candidate, that's my call. I've contributed to campaigns, distributed leaflets door-to-door, and voted on a regular basis, and I make no apology for any of those.

As annoying as it is, the reality of the situation is that the 'public face' side of administration carries a burden of prudence when it comes to public opinion. It would be naive to think that a local college's leadership could go around picking fights with the local government and not bring unwelcome consequences. It would also be naive to think that a local college's leadership could be wildly out of touch with local culture and still enjoy broad political support. If the voters decide that we're just a nest of vipers, the fiscal consequences are likely to be swift and severe. That's not to say that I'm about to go peel off the bumper stickers -- I'm not -- but it is to say that some bumper stickers are within the realm of tolerable disagreement, and some probably aren't. In my perfect world, we'd all be sophisticated enough to separate personal views from job performance, but it's not a perfect world.

Anyway, those are my first, somewhat confused, thoughts on the subject. Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think?



Comments:
Good thoughts! My first stab at a response is over on my blog.
 
I think you have it about right DD - the key being "prudence." Administrators can't give up their rights to free speech, and certainly not with respect to the broader political world. But one has to exercise them with much more self-awareness than as a faculty member.

The trickier cases I faced as an associate dean were with respect to on-campus issues. After I was named to my position but before I officially started, there was an incident on campus where I thought a faculty colleague had engaged in some irresponsible pedagogy. I said so in a semi-public forum. Of course said faculty member was about to become part of the program that was my administrative domain and immediately took my comments as a rebuke from "the administration." (He was untenured at the time as well.) I hadn't even considered it would be read that way, accustomed as I was to the normal give and take among colleagues.

So Lesson One (call it the Alan Greenspan Lesson): what you say as an administrator matters way more than when you were faculty, hence the need for prudence.

During my six years in admin, I did not shy away from debates on our faculty listserv, but I also tried to pick my battles and be very careful in how I spoke about issues and colleagues that might be seen as part of my administrative domain.

As for one's personal politics being seen as a conflict for the work one has to do as an administrator... I think if one agrees to become an administrator, one's first obligation is to what is best for the institution. That doesn't mean one has to shut one's mouth in the fact of institutional decisions that one has deep objections to, but it does mean that after such decisions are made, one has to be a team player.

Prudence. It's an old-fashioned word that many folks could use more of.
 
[I]t can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works. On the fringes, there's some truth to that.

I think the truly difficult thing here is saying exactly where the fringe is. And there seems to be an impression among many people that the acceptable fringe in academia goes a lot further out on the left than it does on the right. This can definitely lead to a lot of tension and resentment.
 
Thoughts on political advertising.

My faculty position has an extension component (I am at a land grant university). As such, I drive my vehicle often to meet with stake holders as part of my official duties. I came to the conclusion that I would not put political bumper stickers on my vehicle as that could create a barrier between myself and those who I was attempting to educate.
 
Your attitude in some way determines how much freedom you have to express yourself. I can't imagine that you are an ideological pedant and because of that, you can probably more freely express yourself than someone with less tolerance for disagreement. That said, if the people you promote or appear to favor are all those who agree with your political leanings, you could run into trouble because of the perception of favoritism.

Reminds me of the old rule about not discussing religion and politics in polite conversation – this has always struck me as good advice.
 
Your attitude in some way determines how much freedom you have to express yourself. I can't imagine that you are an ideological pedant and because of that, you can probably more freely express yourself than someone with less tolerance for disagreement. That said, if the people you promote or appear to favor are all those who agree with your political leanings, you could run into trouble because of the perception of favoritism.

Reminds me of the old rule about not discussing religion and politics in polite conversation – this has always struck me as good advice.
 
[E]ither administrators have academic freedom too, or administrators aren't supposed to be bound to the truth. I prefer the first option.

So do I, but I also recognize that some administrators have a marketing role where "truth" might have to take a back seat to the sales pitch, even if the pitch is fact based.

The important consideration in that second case is to be sure the pitch directed at one constituency does not wildly mislead others, such as the college faculty.

I also agree that anyone who presents a public face for the institution has a responsibility to represent it well, but only in direct proportion to their salary as a fraction of the President's salary. That cuts a lot of slack for most faculty. ;-)
 
If academic freedom, broadly conceived, is a prerequisite for the pursuit of truth, then it seems to me that one of two conclusions must follow: either administrators have academic freedom too, or administrators aren't supposed to be bound to the truth.

Not that I disagree with any of your substantive points in the essay, but you're making something of an unfounded leap here. Even in your own terms, I think you can agree that "pursuing" truth is different from being "bound" to the truth.

Administrators should be considered bound to the truth, as are all people in any professional or public setting.

But the philosophical justification for the strong form of "academic" freedom is that professors have a professional duty to research -- to discover new and original truths. (Possibly doesn't directly apply to a community college setting, but then, the norm of academic freedom probably didn't arise in a cc setting). Administrators have a professional duty to... administer. While I agree that nobody should hassle you about a bumper sticker, your job is to get things done, not to investigate and challenge conventional thought*.

Again, administrators and everyone else deserve the freedom of political expression, particularly in their private lives. But there is an argument that academics deserve a special and stronger freedom, due to the nature of their jobs. Whether or not you agree with this -- I'm guessing you do, for the most part -- you're conflating different issues when you suggest that a commitment to honesty implies the need for "academic freedom".



*I know, I know -- you'll say that sometimes getting things done requires challenging conventional wisdom. And it does, of course. But this is a substantially different issue from academic freedom, and I don't think anything is gained from mixing up the two concepts.

--Alex F
 
I'm sort of baffled that this discussion has gone this far without looking at the limits to decanal expression revealed by Larry Summers' firing.
It's sort of complicated: Summers clearly had ENEMIES on whose toes he had trodden, and folks on his faculty who wished for his scalp were delighted to have a pretext to lift it off his skull. Still, the precipitating factor was a speculation about ongoing research.
 
I think the problem with Summer's statements was that he stereotyped a group of people (women) as being less willing or able to perform well in the sciences at a research institution like Harvard. He drew this conclusion based on his observations about his daughter’s preferences during play as a young child. Treating his comments as political speech mocks the progress women have made in the academe and hints at underlying prejudice against a group based on evidence which can be charitably described as anecdotal. Whatever you might think about his comments, as an administrator with at least theoretical influence over tenure and promotion of faculty he should never have expressed a lack of confidence that a particular group was less able to succeed at his institution or in science generally solely because of their gender and because they simply didn't want high-powered jobs.
 
I had the Summers thing in the back of my mind as I wrote the original post. It's a tricky case, since the position he took was on a subject far from his area of professional expertise. I think that Bitch, Ph.D.'s characterization of it as an amateurish one-off is spot-on.

The question I keep coming back to is the dean who believes, having spent years ensconced in the tenure system, that the tenure system is dysfunctional and should be swept away by judicial fiat.

It seems to me that the "amateurish one-off" objection wouldn't hold in that case. In fact, the "well, administering" that we do gives us tremendous and very specific insights into the dysfunctions of tenure.

If we withhold those insights from public debate to save our own keisters, while others who have little to no knowledge of the system are left to opine with impunity, I see neither the pursuit of truth nor anyone holding to it.

But does anybody out there seriously believe that the faculty union wouldn't have the offending dean keel-hauled, and invoke academic freedom in doing it?

In a perfect world, the argument over tenure could be had in the open. Instead, I write under a pseudonym, while people who have never had to manage people with tenure can spout off with impunity.
 
That's fair, but isn't the logical rejoinder that if one wants to be a public intellectual, then one should be, well, a public intellectual? That the very act of advocating for systemic change is really outside the role in the system you've chosen for yourself? Unless, of course, you've been specifically hired for those views . . . but even then, it seems like one needs to step over to advocacy, then back to administration.

And yes, it's a cop-out, because academics can advocate without having to switch jobs, but administrators can't. That's the point of being an academic, though -- that the sacrifices associated with life in the ivory tower do grant certain privileges, and one of them is the right to advocate.
 
The question I keep coming back to is the dean who believes, having spent years ensconced in the tenure system, that the tenure system is dysfunctional and should be swept away by judicial fiat. But does anybody out there seriously believe that the faculty union wouldn't have the offending dean keel-hauled, and invoke academic freedom in doing it?

As one of them there faculty union activists, maybe I can have a go at this: If you were a dean at my institution, I'd vigorously disagree, but the reaction would rest largely on how the rest of your relationship is with faculty, and whether there's evidence of your defending academic freedom for the non-tenured.

In Florida, the former Regent and member of the Board of Governors who wanted to eliminate tenure had lousy relationships with faculty, no inclination to support academic freedom as far as I could tell, a poor record in terms of personal integrity by the time he left the Board of Governors, and fully deserved the opprobrium tossed his way.

On the other hand, if one of the administrators I respect stood up in some forum and suggested rethinking tenure, I'd vigorously explain why that's a poor idea, but I wouldn't call for her or his head, and I'd argue with my fellow members that it would be a poor choice to make. If someone's defended academic freedom for the non-tenured and says that we don't need tenure to protect academic freedom, at least you're being consistent.

(That's no guarantee of how all unions will react, of course, but it's my first impression.)
 
Sherman -- Thanks for a thoughtful response. I get the sense that, were our paths to cross, we could actually work together.

Kimmitt -- I can see the argument, but I need to point out where it leads. The topics on which I'm least able to speak freely are the ones I know the most about. If I wanted to opine about Britney Spears' weight, I could do so with impunity. But if I wanted to share the fruit of both my experience and my research, I'd be in trouble.

That strikes me as exactly backwards. I think it also explains the quality of much of our public debate.
 
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