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Mar 8, 2004 1:28 pm

More on Academic Freedom

Depressing news on the academic freedom front over the past few days. This morning’s Chronicle details at the University of Southern Mississippi, where the administration, which seems to have a pattern of questionable behavior, has suspended and locked out of their offices two tenured professors who assisted an inquiry by the AAUP into allegations that a senior administrator on campus had falsified her academic credentials. The professors claim that the university has accused them of"defamation and misuse of university facilities" in connection with the AAUP investigation."For example, if we made a phone call about that issue, it would be considered a misuse of the phone. Or if we sent an e-mail about that issue using our computer, it would probably be construed as a misuse of the computer."

Meanwhile, at Penn State-Altoona, Erin O’Connor has reported on how the administration now seems to be launching a smear campaign against Professor Nona Gerard. (My Cliopatria colleague Ralph Luker has recently written about the Gerard case here.) The campus administration has countered in a form-lette response: “You should also know that when five members of the University community who heard over 40 hours of testimony in what was a quasi-legal proceeding would vote unanimously that the faculty member was guilty of grave misconduct, there is not just smoke but a lot of fire.”

In his blog, Brian Leiter has observed that this response is what one would have expected from an administration faced with such an apparently indefensible position. (Leiter adds that the statement itself is deceptive, because the vote to dismiss Gerard was only 3-2, with 2 of the 3 votes coming from administrators.) Altoona is, essentially, asking the outside world to believe that its administrators elected, for reasons unknown, to ensure that the least damaging charges against Gerard made it into the public arena, but that, because of their commitment to the “integrity” of the university’s judicial process, chose to keep secret the most serious of those allegations. Not exactly the most credible claim.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/8/2004

I think you have hit on something very important. So much of the discussion about academia is about "major" universities, and perhaps that is not unreasonable. But that world is not always the same as it is at smaller, less well-known, institutions.

That's not entirely bad. We can and do have our culture wars, but we get less pressure from the outside to take sides. If a regional campus has a good administrator and is emeshed in a state bureaucracy that is not utterly weird (or budgetarily strangled) , then the day-to-day work can be as rewarding and less politically fraught, than at more prestigious locations.

But Southern Mississippi alerts us to the downside. If things go bad, the inhabitants of regional campuses have fewer resources to combat them. I can just hear someone saying, "Well, that's Mississippi."

But it's not just Mississippi. And Mississippi does not have to be that bad. In fact, from what I can gather from my friend, this administration has damaged what was once a pretty good place to teach.

Timothy James Burke - 3/8/2004

In a way, this shows you why some of the discussions we have on academic weblogs are, though interesting, somewhat irrelevant. Because the frame of reference that matters isn't Swarthmore or Harvard or the University of Michigan. It's Southern Mississippi, which is more representative of the breadth of academic life by far...the tinpot dictatorship of its current president seems to me is widely typical of academic administration once you get past the places where there is some kind of wide public scrutiny. The key thing is that those of us in much better situations can't afford to wash our hands and look on with distant dismay: if ever there was a place that the thunderbolt of academic wrath should fall upon, it's this one. Every sanction that we collectively have in our quiver should be unloosed.

David T. Beito - 3/8/2004

I also spoke to someone there, who I know in a professional capacity. He confirms that this is very real. It sends a chill up my spine.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/8/2004

I know someone who served time at Southern Mississippi a few years back and still has connections. Apparently it is at least as bad as portrayed here if not worse. According to her, the current president is a person who will allow no questioning of his power and who will use all his power to harm the career of anyone who does so.

The unstated question here is what do the people who hired the current president--and apparently still support him--think he is accomplishing?