Apathy: Death by a Thousand Cuts

Academia is supposed to be the bastion of free speech with the academic freedom to engage controversial and unpopular ideas, and faculty are supposed to be the stalwarts who protect the free expression of those ideas. Despite the ever present forces trying to silence those expressions, faculty are endowed with the protections and responsibilities to ensure that free speech is not stifled in any way. Yet, these harbors of free thought and speech have become compromised in unexpected and surprising ways.

We would expect that with the development of modern communication (e.g.: email, blogs, distribution lists, Facebook, etc…), faculty would have ensured the rights of the denizens of the academic community to express themselves so that freedom of thought would not be restricted in either perceived or real nefarious ways. The purpose of doing so, for those who might have forgotten, is to engage each other in what should be spirited academic discussions about a wide range of topics both academic and regarding the college. Whether this is done within departments and disciplines or college-wide on larger issues, the principle is that the faculty is supposed to be in control of the institution.

However, the faculty at some colleges have surrendered that control or in other ways lost it to administrations that have become the dictators of what can and cannot be said publicly. Frequently, this is guised under the inauspicious terms of civility, yet censorship by any other name still smells as rotten. At some colleges, as email distribution lists were created, fear of “what might be said” resulted in restrictive college policies constructed by district lawyers. In these colleges, civility is touted as more important than anything that might be construed as controversial (and so the sheep march merrily along I might add). Sadly, in my experience as a state faculty leader, I hear about faculty at these colleges fighting administrative intrusions into far more than just email. The faculty are frequently fighting for control over their classrooms, their college service, and their ability to have a say in college operations; in fact, many times, the administrations simply make decisions while the faculty and staff are left to find out what was done. Still, while the faculty bar the classroom door, the administration has gained ground by regulating the electronic conversations amongst faculty. I seriously doubt that it won’t be long before the administrations are in the classroom; for profit colleges and private universities are already evidence of this.

Conversely, other colleges have what are labeled public distribution list where faculty, staff, and administrators can voice opinions and engage in the academic discourse that colleges are supposed to embody. One notable difference is that the administrations did not create the Internet Use Policies; rather, the Academic Senates did, in consultation with the administration and the union (working condition issue), so when an issue of concern arises, the entire academic community can engage. This has resulted in spirited conversations when administrators have attempted to control curriculum or full-time faculty are not being hired or even prioritized or faculty have been excluded from administrative hiring committees. Granted, it only takes one outlandish temper-tantrum on the list-serve to make people question whether it should still exist, but given the greater benefit to academic debate, I would ere on the side of keeping it—without censure I might add.

In a culture that constitutionally protects the rights of free speech, and particularly in a profession that is supposed to embrace the continued practice of intellectual engagement, the need to call for faculty to consider speaking up seems odious, but in the twenty-first century, that call now seems more than necessary if not too late. For too long, faculty and departments have permitted administrations to corporatize academia, and some have bought into the idea that the faculty role should be much more limited. This is evident in the dwindling numbers of tenured faculty, the explosion of part-time faculty, and the lack of a unified call for more hiring, particularly in districts where beginning balances are typically in the double digits—teens, twenties, and thirties—in other words, where the colleges are clearly not spending all of their annual budgets and putting that extra money into reserves or other hidden places (peruse your college’s personnel rosters for retired and/or dead people still being budgeted for). Even more glaringly evident is the lack of academic discourse taking place on college campuses about serious issues affecting the academic community: student learning outcomes and assessments; work load; student bullying of faculty; replacing and adding full-time faculty; integrating part-time faculty; accreditation issues.

In fact, any issue that affects the college should be the purview of the faculty because, to use the principle espoused by a well-respected colleague: “Tenured faculty are the trustees of the institution.” Specifically, the tenured faculty is charged with and responsible for the academic integrity of the institution: its curriculum, standards, AND effective operation in attaining those standards. Administration supports that role, and faculty is supposed to choose those administrators, evaluate them, and ensure they perform their roles as support for faculty. The Academic Senate is the unified voice for the faculty on the Ten plus one in Title 5, and matters of curriculum development, program development or discontinuance, and all other issues related to the function of the college as they relate to the classroom are supposed to be generated through the Senate. In other words, administration is not supposed to function as its own entity, but it does when faculty are cowed, or self-invested, and silent. The first step to being herded is limiting academic debate and the principles of free speech that are embodied in it.

By John Sullivan, English; District E Director, CCA Board of Directors/CTA/NEA