July 17, 2008
Academic freedom's underbelly
We all know academic freedom is not something untenured faculty have. And most of us can agree that everyone teaching college courses should have academic freedom. So, there is a problem, especially when you consider that well over half of undergraduate courses are taught by non-tenure track faculty. There is a lot of debate about the nature of that problem--some think it's a by -product of tenure, which they see as an unsustainable institution that protects the privileged few at the expense of the many; others think it's proof tenure is necessary; still others think the answer is to create tenure-like protections for contingent faculty. Whatever you may think about it, it's important to refuse to let quarrels about the causes mask or marginalize the problem itself. I've seen that happen a lot, and it's ugly to watch, not least because of how quickly such quarrels convert the real people affected into abstractions. It's easy and inconsequential to play rhetorical volleyball with abstractions--and it can go a long way toward easing the consciences of tenured folks who just don't think the adjunct problem is their problem. But just because a rationalization feels good doesn't mean it is good.
You can see how badly adjuncts need the support of the tenured--and how poorly the tenured defend the academic freedom of adjuncts--in cases such as that of Thomas Klocek, the DePaul adjunct who was effectively fired after he offended the sensibilities of some pro-Palestinian students (not his students, not in his classroom). Klocek was hung out to dry by the DePaul administration--and while FIRE did its best to defend him, the DePaul faculty sat back and watched. Not their problem!
Now a new case is breaking, and it's an interesting companion piece to Klocek's. It might surprise some of the more cynical readers of this site, but I actually do think every college teacher, no matter what his views or politics, should get the same fair, procedurally neutral treatment. Always have. So, I was disturbed by this report about a visiting professor at North Carolina State who claims she was subjected to repeated violations of her academic freedom because of her pro-Palestinian viewpoints--and whose attempt to then use existing university procedure to address the situation was summarily dismissed by the Chancellor:
After filing a grievance against the University for violating her right to academic free speech, former film professor Terri Ginsberg had her case dismissed by Chancellor James Oblinger Wednesday in an act that Jim Martin, chair of the Faculty Senate called "very disturbing and an unwise practice for the University."
Ginsberg, who taught a film class focusing on media treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the spring, filed the grievance for a "number of administrative decisions" which took place last semester.
The grievance centered around her alleged violations of academic freedom by the University, and around her treatment by Marsha Orgeron, director of the film studies program, and Akram Khater, director of the Middle East studies program.
Ginsberg alleged the two program directors excluded her from the primary extra-curricular activity for which she was hired, helping curate a Middle Eastern film series, that Orgeron refused to purchase many of the requested materials - particularly pro-Palestinian materials - for Ginsberg's class, and that Orgeron submitted Ginsberg's teaching evaluation prematurely according to University rules.
All of the allegations, Ginsberg said, contributed to her not receiving an interview to remain at the University.
Oblinger dismissed Ginsberg's grievance based on a late filing, which had been cleared by Martin, and because Ginsberg is no longer employed by the University.
Oblinger, Orgeron and Khater all refused to comment, based on personnel matters, and on the issue of ensuring academic freedom in general, they said.
Martin, who had already met with the University's Legal Counsel, met with Oblinger on Monday regarding the timing issue.
Since there was no clear date of a triggering moment that Ginsberg would grieve, the timing of the filing should not be a reason to reject the grievance, Martin said.
"His dismissal was based on technicality arguments," Martin said. "The timing on the case was a common problem we've had with all the grievances that I have seen - what is a decision versus what is an action?"
Ginsberg asked the American Association of University Professors to file an appeal, but on Monday, the AAUP rejected the request, noting the group is not in a position to challenge Oblinger's ruling.
Now, professors from around the country have started sending letters to the AAUP, protesting the rejection, and concerned individuals have started a petition that they will send to Oblinger, urging him to reverse his decision and allow for a grievance trial.
If you read the rest of the article, you'll find stuff suggesting that Ginsberg was contentious in the classroom--but there is no way of telling at this point whether that contentiousness was just good old-fashioned, appropriately challenging pedagogy or whether it was a doctrinaire abuse of authority. And really, that's beside the point, at least at the moment; her students aren't the ones complaining about unfair treatment.
Ginsberg's superiors indicated that they had issues with her politics and her style; after she introduced a Palestinian film at a campus event, the directors of the film studies and Middle East Studies programs accused her of "bias" and of trying to "politicize" the campus. And who knows? Maybe she was biased, and maybe she did try to make a political splash. But that is her prerogative in that setting. Those overseeing her had no business responding by subjecting her to punitive double standards, if indeed they did--they ought to have treated her as they did every other professor, tenure-track and not. Likewise, Ginsberg ought to have had a means of registering a complaint about her treatment--the lack of options available to her, combined with the summary refusal to take her grievance seriously, are real problems.
Even if NC State does not want to reappoint Ginsberg (it has no obligation to do so, after all), it does have an obligation to determine if department and program heads are abusing their authority and imposing ideological litmus tests on faculty. There's a really big problem if they are--one far larger than one teacher's localized complaints. Does North Carolina State take academic freedom seriously? What is it doing to ensure that all teachers there have it--and to ensure that those with power don't violate it? Does the tenured faculty have a responsibility to stick up for those without job security?
To his credit, the chair of the Faculty Senate is defending Ginsberg. But as the case of Thomas Klocek reveals, adjuncts can't always count on that. And when the tenured faculty won't stand up for the academic freedom of their untenured colleagues, who will? Not the administration. And not, it appears, the AAUP.
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Actually, a much better analogy to the Klocek case is the Douglas Giles case at Roosevelt University. I write about both of them in my "Patriotic Correctness" book. The Ginsberg case is disturbing for how she was treated, and for the lack of university procedures to deal with her case, as I detail on my collegefreedom.org blog. However, this isn't exactly a standard non-reappointment case. NC State was creating a tenure-track line to replace Ginsberg position, and she complained that she wasn't even interviewed for the job because of these political objections. It's very, very hard to prove hiring bias cases without any solid evidence, and so that may explain the reluctance of the AAUP to get involved. I wish the AAUP would be more active in adjunct cases, but sometimes they are more difficult to pursue.
John -- Do you have a source for your point about the tenure-track position? That information is not in the article and I would love to know more.
This is not the proper test case for this issue. Professor Ginsberg's assertions about the situation are not substantiated or substantiatable. The issues about NCSU's grievance policies may be perfectly legitimate in the abstract, but this is not a case in which free speech was suppressed. Professor Ginsberg has every right to say whatever she feels about any political position she has, no one is preventing this, no one prevented this. She was not silenced, films were ordered for her courses within the budget constraints to which all faculty were subject, and the film series she coordinated in fall semester (including several excellent films) was neither part of her job description, nor was it a year long series in the past. These claims, as written in the Technician, are not true and cannot be refuted by the parties to the grievance because of legal issues, therefore the faculty who are truly being silenced and denied free speech are those who are constrained from responding to the public claims. Again, Prof. Ginsberg has a right to assert her views and NCSU's policies may well be flawed in this regard, but the situation is not as it has been presented by the Technician.
Anna -- You may be right in all you say. But the point here is that the issue should not be resolved on blogs, or in the student paper, and that it should be resolved through proper institutional procedure within NC State. That's fundamental academic freedom and due process. Ginsberg was denied that. Are you saying there is no problem with that?