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Rachel Slocum was, until recently, not the kind of high-profile academic who typically turns up in news articles. As an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, her solid career path of teaching and research on urban food systems had a progressive bent that did not stand out too much in the relatively liberal climate of the University of Wisconsin system. And then she sent out an email to a class of online students complaining about how the government shutdown was holding up an assignment requiring access to the then-shuttered Census Bureau website. Folded into the brief memo was a flip negative comment about the Republican Party and the Tea Party.
Within days, the email was seen round the world, ricocheting through the conservative social media sphere as a case study of what commentators perceived as academia’s pervasive liberal bias. National political fallout rained down on the La Crosse campus. Students barraged Chancellor Joe Gow with angry complaints about Slocum’s alleged political polemicism, and Gow responded with an announcement to students that sternly disavowed Slocum’s “highly partisan” message.
The media frenzy has since died down, but the brouhaha is hardly an isolated one. When a surreptitiously recorded video of snarky anti-GOP comments by Michigan State creative writing professor William Penn was aired on YouTube, administrators suspended him from teaching duties on the grounds that his screed had “negatively affected the learning environment.” And earlier this year in New York, a public talk at the City University of New York about the pro-Palestinian boycott against Israel sparked a massive outcry from pro-Israeli activists both on campus and off, which led to faculty being vilified and denounced by local officials, and even threats from one City Councilman to cut the university’s funding. (Full disclosure: This author attends CUNY).
Working In These Times asked Slocum about her experience and how ethical and professional lines are being redrawn — and arguably blurred — in an age of instantaneous communication and volatile partisan tensions.
What was your initial reaction when you realized that you were getting repercussions for your statements to students — particularly statements that were not exactly part of your field of study? Did you originally think you were doing anything unusual in speaking about the census data access – or were you more surprised by the backlash?
Nothing like this had happened before, so I was quite surprised that my email to students was on the loose. I should have realized writing something about the shutdown and the Tea Party’s culpability would be controversial for some, but you don’t always think of these things. The assignment I had wanted them to do using Census data — gathering and analyzing stats on racial inequality — was, for me, the most important in the class, which is why some frustration got into my email. Even though the email was brief, I did do some research to make sure what I was saying was accurate and considered how to explain what was happening. After all, there were students who might have been unaware of the shutdown or why it was happening.
As a human geographer interested in the social relations of race, class and gender, it’s my responsibility to know something about the political context that affects people’s lives and to let my students know what’s going on.
Do you think this could have happened if you had just been expressing a political opinion not related to such a hot-button issue like the federal shutdown, or not directed at Republicans per se? Or do you feel like you were just caught up in a very fraught political moment?
Yes, this could have happened on other issues. Apparently any comment perceived as political or seen as contrary to what ‘ought’ to be taught in university could be grounds for the sort of outrage that greeted my email.
I think the reason there is heightened visibility for professors is because of the increased power of a militant right that is lurking in the shadows of the Internet waiting to pounce on anything that can be used to discredit left-leaning academics. The fact that the student’s Tweet about my email was picked up immediately by MediaTrackers and Fox News supports this point. Their efforts are part of a concerted attack on universities, which they view as bastions of left wing ideas.
In my case, the Chancellor was probably worried that my email, if unaddressed, would provide more fuel for those who would like to reduce university funding and autonomy. But it is in these times of greater scrutiny aimed at undermining academic freedom and the academy itself that administrators, faculty and university advocates have to stand firm in their support for academic freedom. Without that freedom, the university does not exist.
It seems there are two sides of the free speech issue at play here — one being the professor’s protection from harassment or career repercussions for being politically outspoken, another being how information given to students makes it into the public sphere. What do you think of the issue of students publicizing their professors’ statements?
I think you’re right that there are two free speech issues. … [Of] course students should be able to comment on what happens in class. It would be wonderful, in fact, if more actually did comment in class on the subject matter. But … for my particular case, this was much more about policing professors’ speech.
Untenured faculty in general — and specifically untenured women and people of color — face multiple barriers and threats to job security. One of these is how they are perceived by students and supported as teachers. As students become customers or clients, standardized student evaluations have come to count very highly in the retention and tenure process even though research has shown that women and of color faculty are held to a higher standard than the “typical” (\white, male) professor. Students annoyed at a grade, an email, a discussion topic and so forth have formal evaluations and a direct line to the Chancellor at UW‑L, in addition to sites like Rate my Professors, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. That an angry student could potentially undermine a career by posting something online is unconscionable, but it is the reality. Given this new reality, professors will self-censor or be censored.
And concerning the question of how to deal with the many ways that lectures, emails and so forth can become visible to everyone, Inside Higher Ed quotes Chancellor Gow, who suggests that professors could make up their own rules. But that ad hoc approach to policy avoids confronting the hard questions of how to protect professors’ right to privacy and academic freedom, support university employees and ensure students’ free speech. It is up to faculty decision-making bodies, like the Faculty Senate, to address the issue, particularly in this time when it appears that some university administrators see serving students’ needs, as opposed to those of the faculty, as their primary responsibility.
Do you think the incident has had any long-term ramifications for you or other professors in terms of how faculty members interact with students, express their opinions on politics or even teach their own subjects? Has it influenced you personally?
I felt terrible for a week — I felt I couldn’t trust my students and I was very worried they wouldn’t respect me after I was scolded by the Chancellor. I tried to figure out how I could engage with an online class in a way that would protect me from more of the same. Apart from being careful, there wasn’t much I could come up with. But after I publicly circulated a letter in response to the Chancellor’s remarks, I received a very nice note from a student telling me not to change how I engage with students because of this incident and not to fear that my students would not respect me. After that week, I went back to my typical emails to students offering guidance on the ideas we discuss. That’s my job.
Until a short while ago, your academic career was generally focused around social analysis and research on geography. How does it feel now that you’ve been placed in the spotlight in an academic freedom dispute?
Bizarre. I am the last person to want such attention. Though it’s an extremely important issue, academic freedom has never been something I thought much about except when cases came up where such freedom was at stake, like [the controversial activism of former University of Colorado Professor] Ward Churchill. Academic freedom is the basis for everything that we do as scholars and teachers— it’s the foundation of the university. I suppose it’s a luxury that I’ve taken for granted — and now I realize I shouldn’t have. As an untenured faculty member, it wasn’t something I could rely on, at least for teaching. As my superiors told me, academic freedom in the case of teaching doesn’t apply before tenure.
Chancellor Gow refused to remove me from my position, but the idea that he could have is frightening. Rather than tenure, we need labor law that protects faculty by providing permanent contracts after some minimal probationary period (like I believe is the case in Britain).
It’s interesting that the spat over your message about the shutdown comes at a time when professors/academics are increasingly treated as public figures or media figures, even when the opinions expressed don’t directly pertain to their work. How do you feel about the incident in light of what it represents about the way political speech is treated in the academy today?
On the one hand, some do make academics into public figures when they say the “wrong” thing, like in my case. Academics become lightning rods for the bolts of anger that people want to throw towards those they see as powerful, whose knowledge they don’t understand and whose work lives don’t conform to the same 9‑to‑5 restrictions that most live with. We’re suspected of not working hard enough, or of having unreasonable benefits.
But on the other hand, in this country I don’t think academics in the social sciences and humanities are sufficiently respected as public figures with important insights as to how the world works. There’s an NPR-listening, PBS-watching public that hears us occasionally. But apart from those, I don’t see much engagement by the mainstream media with academics. The roots of this are obviously complicated, and it would take someone who’s studied the media and the history of the American relationship to intellectuals to adequately discuss the subject. But to my mind, a lack of public understanding and engagement with academics comes from pervasive anti-intellectualism in the United States and concentration of media ownership.
It seems like this incident coincides with a trend toward commercialization of educational institutions. Does it trouble you that education, media and politics are so intertwined in this way?
The twin forces of inadequate funding and the commercialization of public higher education divide university administration from the faculty, making the former more attuned to (potentially unsympathetic) state-level politicians and a vocal conservative minority. In Wisconsin, the political climate is dangerous for higher education; naturally, administrators would be concerned about speech that draws negative attention.
Overall, do you think that professors should be okay with their private speech in the classroom becoming more public (in the media), as long as they were protected from ad hominem personal or professional attacks?
I don’t feel I know enough about the legal arguments for free speech and privacy to be able to draw that line to protect professors’ privacy, but this should be taken up by those who do. It would be important not to sweep this context under the rug. Going after [Pulitzer Prize nominee] Bill Cronon is not the same as humiliating an untenured professor.
Universities increasingly rely on adjunct labor that is paid unlivable wages with zero job security. They pay administrators and finance sports well, while humanities departments are eliminated. Those lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue tenure live in insecurity for six or more years, working nonstop and trying to satisfy all the powers that will decide whether or not they keep their jobs.
Privacy, labor rights and the university as a place to learn from all disciplines in ways that allow professors to challenge students beyond their comfort zone are all related. One can’t be addressed without the other.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.