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?