Score One More for Conformity in Academia

By on August 18, 2009

Today’s Inside Higher Ed features a story about Joe Manfredi, an alumnus of New Jersey Institute of Technology who had been expecting to teach there as an adjunct professor again next fall. But Manfredi made a mistakehe is an active alumnus. In fact, he is a vice president of the school’s alumni association, which is currently involved in a dispute with NJIT about control of itself. In a sad but predictable turn of events, he was recently told that his services as a teacher were no longer wanted. Inside Higher Ed reports:

While the department head didn’t put in writing the reason for Manfredi losing his adjunct job at the last minute, he sent Manfredi an e-mail, which Manfredi provided to Inside Higher Ed. In it, he said that he was sorry for having to take back the teaching assignment they had discussed, that he was told by his superiors that he no longer had "the authority to hire you," and that he assumed this ban on his hiring Manfredi would extend "for the foreseeable future."

It’s debatable whether NJIT has done anything unlawful or even that unusual in this situation. What it does remind observers of academia, though, is that universities are increasingly hostile places for those who dissent from the "official" line on matters small or large. It’s hard to believe that Manfredi’s worth as a teacher has anything at all to do with his opinions about control of the alumni association.
Few employers like being disagreed with or challenged by their employees. And if this situation were taking place at, say, IBM or General Electric, it wouldn’t matter too much to anyone besides Mr. Manfredi. Universities, however, are not just any old business and are in fact harmed when they are operated like one. Higher education institutions are in the "business" of the search for truth–and in that process, dissension is important and unavoidable, something that is recognized by both tradition and law. NJIT, however, is sending a strong signal that disagreement even on something as tangential to education as control of an alumni group is enough to disqualify a person from teaching. Doesn’t exactly build confidence in NJIT as a "free marketplace of ideas," does it?