The culture of fear in Higher Education


“Patricia Adler stunned her students in a popular course on deviance Thursday by announcing that she would be leaving her tenured position teaching sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder… Adler said that officials told her that one of the highlights of the course — popular year after year – had to go.”

–so much for thinking tenure matters. One of the points of tenure is academic freedom, but even with tenure, admin can fire a professor for discussing something admin doesn’t want discussed, and can casually make life miserable. I’m not wild about college courses on deviancy (Adler’s specialty), but I acknowledge that my opinions are quite irrelevant regarding what goes on in other classrooms. Admin doesn’t share such respect. Of course.

In many of my most recent posts, I’ve listed many casual, obvious, fixes to higher education. I acknowledge a huge problem in my simple fixes: they’ll never be implemented unless the current crop of administrators decides to implement them. In the “real world” there’s this belief that teachers in higher education have some sort of protection, that “due process” will keep a teacher from being unduly harassed and put upon.

“…She said that Leigh told her that there was “too much risk” in having such a lecture in the “post-Penn State environment,” alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Adler said that she was given the choice of accepting a buyout now, or staying but not teaching the course, and not giving the prostitution lecture, and to be aware that she could be fired and lose her retirement benefits if anyone complained about her teaching in the future.

–if tenure doesn’t protect against something that someone, somewhere, might, theoretically complain about, what is it for? It’s also a little weird that faculty are supposed to pay the price for the massive administrative failure at Penn State (failure to cover it up, or failure to stop it?).

Even with the supposed protections of tenure, administrators can still fire and remove retirement benefits from a professor that has been working at the institution for years. Now, I understand admin are just trying to avoid lawsuits in a typical very cowardly way, but with Adler teaching the course for years without any hint of complaint or legal action, such a fear seems excessive.

Unfortunately, the imbalance of power doesn’t just stop with admin jamming their noses into content of specific courses. “Integrity” is both literally and figuratively a four-letter word with these guys.

Faculty: “I was harassed for months by the dean and vice chancellor. I filed a formal complaint. The HR department, long term friends of the administrators harassing me, looked into it and said nothing untoward was going on.

–I’m not saying the harassment really happened, but I do note the vice chancellor could just fire the HR department and get people more able to find nothing untoward was going on. Conflicts of interest like this are very common.

Faculty, even tenured faculty, are pretty firmly cowed in higher education. With my own eyes I’ve witnessed some outrageous denials of due process against my colleagues…and I’ve seen a few terminated for even daring to suggest administrators lacked even a patina of integrity. I’ve also seen colleagues intimidated into engaging in very humiliating behavior; I apologize for them.

“…It is the fear of speaking freely. Reason 75 saw the 2,000th comment posted on 100 Reasons, and all but a tiny fraction of those comments were posted anonymously.

100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School is a fun read, and anyone thinking about going should check it out. Faculty posting know better than to use their real names.

I’ve seen administrators harass and punish faculty for tiny slights, retribution taking place over the course of years…faculty have no defense against it. Faculty are terrified, which is why most faculty posting online, post anonymously, even if they have tenure. Before setting up this site, I thought about using my real name, but, ultimately, thought better of it. Even though at this stage I have little to lose, I wanted to know just how long it would take before an administrator tracked me down and fired me…I figure it will still be a while, one blog on the internet is not a big deal, after all.

“…There is probably no American newspaper today that publishes more articles by writers using pseudonyms than the Chronicle of Higher of Education. Even Professor William Pannapacker, the patron saint of graduate-school realists (and a Harvard PhD), wrote his first columns warning people about graduate school using the pen name Thomas H. Benton. The author of a recent book about his experiences as a college instructor is known only as Professor X.”

–I’m hardly alone in writing under a pseudonym, although I, like Professor X, at least use an obvious one. The Chronicle is pretty respectable, and a professor’s prestige would be enhanced by writing for it…but the risk of offending out-of-control administration is such that most faculty are indeed scared out their mind of incurring it.

Even if the rules for tenure are explicit about security and protection, administrators have no difficulty getting around them, or even just ignoring them—administrators will just investigate themselves and clear themselves of wrongdoing in any event.

“…in the name of “strategic investment for the future vitality of the University,” president Julie Wollman announced that 42 teaching staff, including 18 tenured faculty, would be laid off, or “retrenched.”

–the purpose of the layoffs is to get more money to build student dorms. But who’s going to teach the students that will need those new dorms? The logical error here never seems to come up.

All tenure contracts allow for faculty to be removed for “financial exigency”, which is interpreted to mean “if admin needs the money for something else.” Such abuses are getting more common of late. Now, faculty can complain, but it can take years to resolve.

…filed a 91-page complaint with Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audit…The complaint alleges that [university president] Ms. Aldridge and her administration bought the silence of 23 university employees who had been forced out…The employees were fired for lapses in loyalty and challenging what they perceived as the administration’s attempts to water down UMUC’s academic rigor…

–now, one could say at least the faculty were paid off, but it’s well worth noting: the faculty with integrity are goners. All that are left are the sycophants that will do the bidding of administration.

Not just financial need, but a simple “lapse of loyalty” is enough justification to fire tenured faculty. How on earth can even simple fixes like “stop taking advantage of the mentally disabled for personal profit” occur with administration holding such a stranglehold over anyone with integrity?