Silence Won’t Protect You

Kelly J. Baker on academic freedom and the neoliberal academy

Almost 39 years ago, Audre Lorde gave a talk on silence, language, and action at the Modern Language Association. “I have come to believe over and over again,” she notes, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” When the inevitability of her own death appeared pressing and soon, she found that she regretted her silences most of all. Silence is not a cure-all for our hurts, ills, pains, or deaths. Remaining silent won’t soothe us or stop our suffering. She famously proclaimed, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

Silence, after all, feels antithetical to academic freedom, the ability to teach and research as scholars see fit. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, academic freedom “entitles” scholars “full freedom in research” and “freedom in classroom in discussing their subject.” Though, the AAUP does caution against inserting our opinions, those unrelated to course materials, into our classes. Academic freedom emerged as a crucial component of tenure along with economic security, yet, it was not limited to the tenured. Instead, the AAUP emphasized that academic freedom should protect the “full-time probationary teacher” (those on the tenure track), contingent faculty (part-time and full-time), and graduate students. Any scholar who taught should have academic freedom. Their vision of who was granted academic freedom was expansive and idealistic, which feels a far cry from where we are now.

Yet, the AAUP did not present a concept of limitless freedom. Academic freedom did not include all speech by faculty. Teacher scholars were citizens with rights of free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but they also had “special obligations” because of their affiliations with institutions (for better or worse). Academic freedom had to have limits. Faculty could write and speak as citizens, but they should “at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for their institution.” Scholars appeared as representatives of their institutions. Think about your name badge that you wear at conferences. Your name rests above the name of the college, university, seminary, or institution that employs you (unless like me, you lack affiliation). Affiliation requires teachers to make clear distinctions between their private selves and their public personas.

This AAUP document produced in 1940 and updated in 1970 doesn’t seem to mesh well with the environment scholars now find ourselves in. Academic freedom appears more complicated in the internet age with social media, blogs, comments sections, email, Google searches, and Wikipedia. What we say, tweet, post, or think online has a life and afterlife that we might not necessarily imagine. There’s a proliferation of places to speak, but it is hard to clearly demarcate online presence as solely private or public life. Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Donoghue cautions scholars about the dangers of social media to continued employment. Following high profile cases (including Steven Salaita’s firing by the University of Illinois) involving tenured and full-time faculty, he concludes that academic freedom “is in danger of becoming a hollow concept as academics are increasingly active, if naive, users of social media.” His conclusion is that tenure won’t necessarily protect you, so we should be cautious in our social media use and afraid of what might happen.

Donoghue’s advice bothers me because he offers a reiteration of the “keep your head down and stay silent until you’re tenured” line. Don’t exercise your academic freedom until it’s guaranteed. Don’t engage the public. Don’t be noticed. What this line of advice ignores is that silence becomes a habit, a bodily norm. You learn not to speak for your own protection. More pressingly, this common advice ignores is that most academics already lack the protection of tenure, including academic freedom.

Within academia, I only had contingent positions, the part-time and full-time non-tenure track jobs that are renewed either every semester or each year. 70% of faculty are in contingent positions. PrecariCorps documents that since 1975, part-time non-tenure track positions increased 286% and full-time non-tenure tracks jobs by 259%. Tenure track positions increased by 23%. The majority of instructional faculty in the U.S. are contingent and lack the protections that tenure is supposed to provide. The biggest threat to academic freedom, then, is not social media use or speaking out, but the over reliance on contingent labor by colleges and universities. When the corporate university removed tenure from its teachers, it also revoked academic freedom from most of its workforce. Contingent teachers are not guaranteed the ability to teach how they choose to or the resources needed to pursue research.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks takes up the question of whether education is about liberation or domination. The association of academic freedom with only the ranks of the tenured strongly suggests that liberation is not the goal of educational institutions anymore (if it ever was). The association of academic freedom with tenure, makes it a perk of one’s station rather than a right of all educators. Academic freedom is granted to those lucky enough to be part of the preferred system of labor in higher education, but only if their speech is deemed inoffensive and civil.

Eric Grollman, a sociologist who blogs at Conditionally Accepted, suggests that academic freedom won’t really protect us anyway. Academic freedom appears limited to comments, research, and teaching that don’t offend people. Institutions will protect themselves and their brands often before they protect their faculty. Part of problem, according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, is “how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.” She points out that doing scholarship in public “means pissing people off.” What do institutions owe scholars who engage in public? Should tweets, blog posts, and/or Facebook statuses be covered by academic freedom? Does academic freedom include protections for all of the speech acts of academics? Is that what we understand it to be? Is that how we should understand it?

The corporate university seeks compliance; it seeks to dominate. Who chooses to speak if your job is on the line? If voicing support of a union leads to the termination of your contact? The already-exploited contingent workers and graduate students face dire consequences for attempting to exercise the freedom to speak, teach, and research.

“To be audible,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “is to be credible.” To be heard, then, grants dignity, humanity, and recognition. When discussions of academic freedom pop up, I cannot help but wonder who we are supposed to listen to. Do academics have a certain expectation to be heard because of our expert status, training, or scholarship? Or are only certain academics granted the ability to be audible and protected? Why do we protect the words of the few rather than the many? More importantly, who consistently faces consequences for their “freedom”? Academic freedom, at its most basic level, is about liberation in the classroom and in our research. We should all be free to teach and research in the ways we want to.

If higher education is committed to liberation as a goal, then all academics should be granted academic freedom as a right, not as privilege of being tenured. The proliferation of contingent and graduate student labor means that academic freedom is contracting. Fewer people have its protections, and tenure no longer guarantees protection. Academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity, and simplified messages. Your speech is protected if your words fit neatly with the university’s brand, if your institution chooses to stand with you, or if your university cares about your tenure.

Graduate students, contingent workers, and tenure track faculty, then, are vulnerable to the whims of the leaders of our institutions. The corporate university curtails academic freedom to prevent dissent. Yet, we only seem to care about academic freedom when the tenured or the tenure track are denied it. Contingent workers lose their jobs too, but the whole of academia doesn’t seem to rally for their cause. Academic freedom is not actually freedom if it is limited by your rank at your institution.

Silence appears as a strategic option. I can’t blame you for your silence to protect yourself. Not really. I tried silence after all. Yet, silence never protected me, but it did allow me to keep my job until I was ready to quit. Lorde warns, “[W]e can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles and still we will be no less afraid.” My pedagogy was not improved by fearing I wouldn’t have a job that next semester. My research was not improved by worrying about how deans, department heads, and tenured colleagues would react to my book on the Klan. My life was not improved by my silence. Silence kept me miserable in a shit job with an aching jaw from clenching so tightly to keep my mouth shut.

I was silent. I was still afraid. Last year, I wrote, “I found that I could only truly speak and be heard when I left academia.” I didn’t realize how true this statement was until it stared back at me from the page. I was sometimes silent while I was in academia because the consequences of what I might say, teach, and research seemed high. The cost of silence proved higher than I was willing to pay.

What we need now is for people to speak up and be aware of the consequences that come from speaking. In her acceptance speech for the PEN USA Freedom to Write award, Roxane Gay explains:

We have this freedom to write, to speak, to express ourselves as we choose, but we are never free from consequences. With such a powerful right comes a powerful responsibility to express ourselves carefully, thoughtfully, and to consider the reach and repercussions of what we say and do in the name of freedom.

Gay is talking about the freedom to write and speak more generally, but I wish her vision of freedom was how scholars approached academic freedom.

If you care about academic freedom, then you should care about all of those who lack academic freedom. You should stand with them and support them. Use your academic freedom, while you still have it, to make academia a safer space for everyone or lose it in your silence. Use it to include more voices and protect more people. Don’t try to save your own academic freedom, but try to save it for all of us. That’s the only way it will continue. Silence nor complacency will save us from the increasing adjunctification of higher education, the corporatized university, the growth of the administrative class, or the continual devaluation of teaching. The neoliberal university will grind us down until there’s nothing left. Choose solidarity. Choose academic freedom for all scholars. Stand together.

Your silence won’t protect you, but solidarity might.


Feature image by Jemma D via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)