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‘Tenured’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Elitist’

In response to my post “Job Security = Academic Freedom?” David Mazel, an assistant professor of English at Adams State College, wrote in with the following comments about freedom of speech on campus:

I’m a FIRE fan and an opponent of speech codes. I have defended students accused of harassment (for example, a student DJ here at Adams State College whose handle was “Pimp-Smackin’ McCracken” and whose fliers were taken down by campus housing authorities who found the word “pimp” inherently demeaning to women). I have worked with students and administrators here to develop a new campus “poster policy” that respects both the spirit of the First Amendment and the specifics of applicable case law.

In other words, I’m on your side.

It’s great to hear about faculty activism in defending students’ rights, and we’d like more professors like Mazel to write in about their experiences! As we have seen numerous cases of censorship and retaliation against faculty for expressing or defending controversial viewpoints deemed unacceptable by authoritarian campus administrators, we know how difficult it can be to stand up for others when you could risk putting your own job on the line (remember Professor Lisa Church at Rhode Island College?). We hope more professors will join Mazel in his efforts to oppose speech codes, defend students, and stay active in keeping college policies in line with the First Amendment.

Mazel also shared some concerns with us about some language in my post that he felt might alienate FIRE supporters like him. He wrote:

I’m also a tenured faculty member who’s getting tired of reading about how “Ironically, the same academic
establishment that vigorously protects tenure for the entrenched elite also uses mass numbers of untenured, at-will employee graduate students to do much of the teaching and research that tenured faculty members are no longer willing to do.”

What puts me off, of course, is the way such formulations fail to discriminate between tenured faculty like me, who work at second-tier state institutions and do all our own teaching and research, and those who teach at more elite institutions. I teach four courses per semester and do not have a research assistant. My status is typical of thousands of other tenured faculty--perhaps even the majority of tenured faculty. It would be nice if references to “tenured faculty” did not so routinely strengthen the stereotype of the elitist who
hypocritically exploits others in order to maintain their own privileges. I can understand why, say, Bill O’Reilly might want to so egregiously misrepresent me, but I can’t understand why FIRE would want to do so.

Point well taken. To clarify, however, my comments about the “entrenched elite” with regards to the graduate student strikes at Columbia and Yale were specifically referring to those institutions and others like them, where many graduate students are doing professor-level work without professor-level privileges or protections, such as tenure. Of course, as we’ve seen in the case of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, tenure doesn’t always shield professors from potential punishment for controversial or unpalatable expression—not initially anyway. And as we’ve seen in the case of Larry Summers at Harvard University, being part of the elite might not always do so either.

Professors like Mazel, who teaches eight courses a year while doing his own research and making time to stand up for students’ rights, are probably hard to come by (see Alan’s post on “Unsung Heroes”). If the majority of tenured faculty indeed were as active as Mazel—not only in his efforts in scholarship and teaching but also in upholding First Amendment freedoms on campus—they would probably put FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program out of business.

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