Colleges Should Quit Trying to Appease the RightRoundup
tags: academic freedom, colleges and universities
Silke-Maria Weineck is a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Someone must have slandered K., because without having done anything wrong, he one morning received an email from the associate dean.
K. (not his real name) had indeed been denounced. A retweet of his had, so the email said, “prompted” a student’s mother to write to Mary Sue Coleman, the interim president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who in turn handed the matter over to the dean of the School of Literature, Science, and the Arts, who was to communicate with the parent. The task of “touching base” with my colleague was delegated to the associate dean of the humanities, who was on her way out at the time. Thus, three highly accomplished women (respective base salaries: $927,000, $483,000, $176,000) spent at least some amount of their time engaging a parent who had convinced herself that my colleague’s retweet had revealed that he was unfit to teach students of conservative persuasion such as her daughter. The letter was, he learned, quite intemperate, which I take to be Dean for unhinged.
It took several days for K. to learn what his precise offense had been: endorsing, by retweet, the suggestion that the Republican Party engage in an auto-erotic act. The meeting was friendly: He was assured that the principles of free speech protected him, that this had been conveyed to the parent as well, that the dean’s office did not doubt his professionalism, and that he should feel free to do as he pleased. The school had simply wanted to inform him of the complaint. Possibly to the parent’s disappointment, he was not to be strangled at dusk, a knife twisted in his heart, his shame to outlive him.
What to make of this odd and anti-climactic episode? First, we are staring at an almost comically ill-considered allocation of resources. Second, whatever the substance of the conversation, this was a clear if gentle act of intimidation — you do not spend three days on the bench of the principal’s office without experiencing some degree of inchoate worry. K. tells me he now finds himself reluctant to freely tweet his mind. If that was not the goal, a simple email surely would have sufficed: “Just fyi, a right-wing parent wrote a crazy email about something you said on Twitter; we don’t care, carry on.”
Last, and most important, the university’s response indulges as legitimate the sort of orchestrated, bad-faith fury conservatives are currently weaponizing against public schools and public libraries, which are, like colleges and universities, an intrinsic and ideally constitutive part of pluralist liberal democracy, the current GOP’s ultimate target. I do not know where and how the parent who objected to K. was radicalized, but as organized, vociferous groups of parents and those who purport to be increasingly succeed in removing books and teaching materials from school libraries — despite a Supreme Court ruling that declared similar content-based removals unconstitutional in the 1980s — colleges can expect to see an accelerating uptick in such attacks on the right to speak and read freely. While not all Republicans engage in these bêtises, few of their leaders have condemned them. Under the circumstances, it is not merely acceptable to denounce the GOP — clearly, loudly, profanely. It is our ethical and professional duty.
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