Educating the Powerful

Historians in the News
tags: free speech, academic freedom, LD Burnett, Campus Reform

I’ve been following the story of L. D. Burnett, a history professor at Collin College, with a mix of fascination and horror. (Full disclosure: Although we don’t know each other personally, and have never corresponded directly, we’ve followed each other on Twitter for some time.) She had tweeted some snarky criticism of Vice President Pence in the context of his debate with Senator Harris; it was nothing worse than what one would hear in a hallway, if we still heard things in hallways. It was neither profane nor hateful toward any particular group, and it was far less inflammatory than President Trump’s response to the same debate. Having seen the tweets themselves, I consider them unremarkable.

The president of Collin College, Neil Matkin, saw them differently. In a public statement, he referred to the tweets as “hateful” and “vile” -- a bit pearl-clutchy for my taste, but within bounds -- and implied that they “resort to profanity.” Maybe it’s a regional thing, but by New Jersey standards, absolutely nothing in her tweets even approached profanity. So that’s odd.

But it gets darker. In an all-campus email sent before he even contacted Burnett, President Matkin wrote the following:

We are not aware of an issue with academic freedom nor is the scholarship of the faculty member in question. The college’s execution of its personnel policies will not be played out in a public manner …

Again, maybe it’s a regional thing. From here, it reads like “that sure is a nice job you have there. It sure would be a shame if something happened to it.” Although there’s technically some ambiguity in the language, any culturally fluent reader would interpret it as a threat. The choice of the word “execution” is particularly striking.


A college president -- whether community college, research university or whatever else -- should have a big-picture understanding of some key concepts. Those should include free speech, free inquiry, academic freedom, the notion of a public good and the fundamental truth that higher education is more than just the personnel office for the economy. These are more than just pretty words to trot out in graduation speeches; they’re the point of the entire enterprise. They’re worth sacrifice.

In some contexts, that may require educating the powerful. That’s much harder than it sounds. Powerful people have a lot to do and are often quite sure that they’re right. They often stick with what got them there. Presidents need to be able to tell the story of higher education to people from all sorts of backgrounds, and to do so before crises hit. Ideally, that might head off some unproductive conflicts before they happen. Even when it doesn’t do that, it can build enough trust for the leader to be able to pull the muckety-mucks aside when something flares up and say something to the effect of “trust me on this one.” But to do that, you have to build trust first.

In the wake of a political movement consciously designed to denigrate any expertise outside of making money, that’s an uphill battle. It’s hard, and getting harder. But it’s necessary. Anyone with a grasp of history knows that there’s no appeasing a purity movement; one kill simply whets its appetite for the next one. You can’t split the difference with thought police, and it’s foolish even to try. Matters of principle may seem abstract, but when principles are missing, the gap is palpable. Higher education needs leaders who can speak that language clearly, before it’s too late.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed

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