Sunday, March 20, 2016

Mount St. Mary's and Hanging Together

As I watched the debacle at Mount St. Mary's unfold, I was waiting for my tenure decision to come through. As a result, I found that the biggest source of anxiety for me was not the question of whether I would get tenure, but whether tenure would mean anything if I got it. After all, if a business-minded, bunny-drowning president could unilaterally fire not just a provost but a tenured faculty member with no due process, then it seemed like all the work I had done and all the time I had put in to gain tenure might have been a wasted effort, at least as far as the dream of job security went. As I've watched the dust settle, however, I've come to conclusion that Mount St. Mary's and other similar situations, while a loss for particular individuals--and that's not a matter to be brushed aside--may also be wins for faculty generally, insofar as they've demonstrated that the academic community can still fight back.

Watching a tenured faculty member be fired for disagreeing with a university president, I was inclined to agree with Rebecca Schuman's position that, to quote her title, "Tenure Protects Nothing." And to a certain extent, I know this is right. Squid, who left academia to work in the labor movement, has said to me more than once that tenure (at least outside of union contracts) is little more than a gentleman's agreement: there's not a lot to back up the job protections tenure is supposed to provide, beyond university administrations' desire to avoid looking bad in the eyes of the academic community. Even in cases where courts might side with wrongfully-dismissed faculty, it can take years for such cases to work their way through the courts--enough time that the faculty member will likely have needed to move on and find other employment. Steven Salaita very well could have won his case in the courts, particularly since the university's claim that Salaita had not officially been "hired" when he was fired was struck down. But how long would it have taken? Labor law doesn't protect wronged employees while the case is being litigated. How many people can afford to wait around, unemployed, for a year or more for the courts to make them whole?

Legally, then, tenure doesn't offer much protection. But the law is not the only recourse faculty have. As both the Salaita and Mount St. Mary's cases make clear, organized, public outcry from the academic community (particularly when students participate in that outcry) has power. The response to the firing of a tenured faculty member without due process at Mount St. Mary's was immediate and multifaceted. As the Chronicle of Higher Ed reported:
The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Mr. Newman on Tuesday that sharply criticized his dismissal of a tenured professor without a hearing. By Tuesday evening more than 3,000 scholars, administrators, and graduate students had signed a statement condemning the university’s actions. The Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have also weighed in.
This response from the academic community, both inside and outside Mount St. Mary's, got almost immediate results: Newman's office began backpedalling to an extent that was almost as hilarious as it was inept. Significantly, this backpedalling didn't work. The academic response to Newman's disregard of tenure brought too much negative attention to Mount St. Mary's, and so his head had to roll. Less than a month after he had fired (or tried to fire) a tenured professor without due process, he announced his resignation.

That Newman had to quit--as did the former UIC chancellor who fired Salaita, Phyllis Wise--is important. They were forced out of their positions not because they did something wrong but because the academic community reacted loudly to it--because faculty and students came together to make life difficult for bad administrators and those that protect them. Therein lies our leverage. The best way to stop academic administrations from behaving unethically and contrary to the academic mission of our universities is to make sure that these administrators face consequences for their mismanagement. When faculty are fired for speaking out, we tend to talk about a "chilling effect" that has on freedom of academic speech. But that's a sword that cuts both ways. We can create a "chilling effect" on bad management by holding them loudly and publicly accountable. Administrators will be a lot less likely to dismiss faculty for bad reasons if they know that doing so puts their own heads on the block.

In that sense, I think Mount St. Mary's was more a win for faculty than anything else, because it put other administrators who might be tempted to think like Newman on notice: you can try to fire us, but it might mean your job. But there's also an important lesson for faculty here, too. When we fight, we can win; but all that stands between us and the total domination of administrators like Newman is our willingness to fight. We have to stop acting like our contracts and the law will protect us. Schuman is right: tenure protects nothing. We--the members of the academic community--protect tenure, but only to the extent that we protect each other from wrongful dismissal by standing up against it when it happens. When we fail to do so is when tenure as an idea falls apart. We have to hang together, or we'll all hang separately.

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