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Academic freedom and diversity in higher education (opinion)

On the eve of Thanksgiving, just as many Americans were relaxing into a significantly diminished holiday shadowed by the many crises roiling the United States and the world right now, a long-respected colleague of mine sent an email to members of my university, drawing our attention to an opinion piece he’d just published in Inside Higher Ed. In his email, addressed to university leaders and members of the Towson University Academic Senate, which I chair, he urged that “it is critical for those who abjure academic freedom to reconsider their ways,” under which was a link to his opinion piece.

As Richard Vatz is undoubtedly aware, the Latin roots of “abjure” combine a prefix (ab-) that signifies a movement of rejection (“away” or “off”) with the verb jurare, “to swear” or “to witness.” Following his demand, I feel compelled to bear witness against several troubling points in his essay, claims he makes that reflect directly upon important issues of academic freedom and diversity in the university.

In his opinion article, Vatz criticizes the Academic Senate (our faculty senate) for not supporting his proposal to include “ideological perspectives” in the categories protected in the hiring and treatment of Towson employees because, he contends, conservatism is “under attack.” Opting not to cite the definition of academic freedom that the 1940 American Association of University Professors Statement on Academic Freedom describes — a definition that confines the parameters of academic freedom to research, publication and the classroom — Vatz in his editorial instead quotes the AAUP’s language on the value of academic freedom. Since institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good, therefore academic freedom is necessary and important in order to ensure “the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

It is, in fact, this aspect of academic freedom that subverts Vatz’s claim that conservatives aren’t welcome in universities today by revealing the flaw in his argument. Our ideological values frame who we are, often without us knowing it. That is how ideology works, as Karl Marx noted nearly two centuries ago. We absorb ideological values from many contexts: our parents and other authority figures and — most of all — the cultural products we consume. Every person, therefore, has a distinct idiolect (as Roland Barthes terms the lexicon of ideological values that we each possess) that frames their perspective.

Seen in this way, the phrase “ideological perspective” appears somewhat redundant. One’s perspective is framed by ideology — again, most often in ways that we’re unaware of. Our ideological values often determine our political perspective, and Vatz makes it clear, in his conflation of “ideological perspective” with conservatism, that political perspective is what he has in mind.

This is a crucial difference, as political perspective should not be a factor in faculty hiring or any other aspect of being a faculty member, because the expression of political perspective shuts down the free inquiry and exchange that academic freedom protects — as Vatz himself notes. Rather than a reluctance to include conservatives, we are seeing a reluctance to hire or include anyone of any ilk who is not going to listen and be open-minded and have respectful exchange; that is, the resistance to conservatives that Vatz identifies is rather a desire to protect academic freedom, to protect free exchange. What he interprets as a resistance to conservatives is rather a resistance to ideologues — which in today’s political climate are more present than ever.

I would not express my political perspective in a job interview, in a meeting or in the classroom. How would anyone know if I’m conservative or liberal? That is an inner mind-set, and if I’m a good teacher or leader, I’m not going to show it on the outside, because that claim to “right” values — which is what we are claiming when we choose one political position over another — shuts down dialogue. At the point that one claims a political position, one makes a claim upon what is true or right in terms of the city (literally) or society (more broadly); and once we lay claim to truth, we are no longer seeking it. Making a claim to being right defeats the purpose of higher education as Vatz describes it in his editorial, which is the “search for truth” protected by academic freedom. For that reason, despite what our current U.S. president and his followers say about higher education these days, I spend my days teaching students not what they should think, but rather how to think critically, to think for themselves, and to examine the foundations of their assumptions.

Levels of Victimhood

Examining the foundations of Vatz’s assumptions of bias against conservatives in that senate meeting reveals a troubling motivation of his that, like ideology, subsists beneath his more overt claims. He claims that “the most conspicuous discrimination in the academy” is that “against conservatives and conservative thought” — as he puts it in a recent Maryland Reporter editorial written in response to our university’s recently issued Strategic Diversity Plan. This argument is echoed by Vatz’s assertion, in his Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, that conservatives are “the most discriminated-against employees in higher education.”

By using the superlative adverb “most,” Vatz is making a point of comparison, elevating the plight of conservatives above any other forms of discrimination. This point is obvious in his claim that public colleges and universities are “ostensibly but falsely obsessed with diversity.” The motivation for his recent Maryland Reporter editorial makes this issue even more clear, since that piece was written to criticize a plan aimed at increasing all modes of diversity in the university, particularly racial diversity. Vatz’s claim that programs to increase diversity in higher education are “false” (and in claiming what is false he is thereby making another claim to “truth”) emerges from his feeling that increasing racial diversity in colleges and universities should not be a primary concern, that it’s overemphasized. As he sees it, the bias against conservatives is much more dire and “conspicuous.”

This is simply an impossible claim. While ideology and politics, conservative or liberal, may be somewhat manifest in one’s fashion choices (cf., Cambridge Analytica), in large part our ideologies are not “conspicuous” at all, to ourselves or others. Even the political perspectives that we claim are not visible or knowable to others until we speak them aloud. By contrast, as Frantz Fanon and many others have noted, the color of a person’s skin is always obvious. In the first paragraphs of his essay “The Fact of Blackness,” Fanon describes his own experience of being objectified, at first sight, on the basis of his skin color. Such immediate objectification simply isn’t going to happen on the basis of ideology, because ideology is not conspicuous by definition.

Fanon explores this difference further by means of a similar comparison between racial prejudice and bias against those who are Jewish or Catholic. He grieves the persecution which the Jewish people have suffered throughout history, particularly the Holocaust that occurred just a few years before he wrote this 1952 essay. But in empathizing, he also notes a difference: “I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance.” Fanon is suggesting here that his appearance immediately influences what others think of him, allows bias against him long before he might open his mouth and express his thoughts or ideological views.

Discrimination against a race is, in other words, vastly different from discrimination against an ideological viewpoint, which can happen only once one expresses that perspective to others.

I am old enough to recognize that, over the course of time, sometimes conservatives are in power, and sometimes liberals may seem to rule the day. This variability, this give and take, is the greatest flaw in the comparison Vatz makes between his perceived discrimination against conservatives and the racial discrimination that our university is working hard to rectify, leading the way toward greater racial diversity (among other forms of diversity) in higher education.

For, as far as I know, we’ve never had any actual laws that prevented conservatives — or liberals — from marrying the men who impregnated them, from inheriting property or from attending schools of quality equal to the schools of those in power. These legal prohibitions inscribed a wealth, property and educational disparity that continues to resonate today. Those laws made it not only acceptable but mandatory that certain races couldn’t build the kind of wealth that comes with real estate and social position, maturing over generations. In other words, the resonances of those legal decisions continue to present real and significant economic hurdles to our students of color — students who deserve as American citizens to have the same potential for achievement as anyone else in this country.

It is because of these historic legally imposed and intentionally hobbling limitations aimed particularly at people of color that we have a responsibility to address the dearth of racial diversity in the academy. We have a responsibility not just to profess support but also to be proactive in working to rectify the legal wrongs of the past that still have a profound impact upon the economic status, social position and opportunities of people of color today, particularly African Americans. Any comparison between racial discrimination and ideological bias or political perspective falls flat in the face of such facts. That is why there was no second to Vatz’s motion in the Academic Senate. In fact, I think most people in the room that day were astounded at the blind audacity of his implicit comparison.

Comparing levels of victimhood, of course, is never productive. That there is bias at all, against anyone, is beyond regrettable. As academics and scholars engaged in the search for truth, we all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to address and ameliorate bias whenever possible, to the best of our abilities. Agree or disagree, we must continue to listen to each other and to have a dialogue. That means including differing opinions in the conversation, including both liberals and conservatives.

Indeed, in his recent Maryland Reporter piece, Vatz cites as a proof of bias against conservatives a Pew study that actually doesn’t demonstrate such a claim at all. Rather the study reviews Republican and Democrat perceptions of higher education. What it “proves” — if it proves anything — is not that there is a bias against conservatives, but rather that there is a conservative bias against Vatz’s very profession. That bias should concern all of us in higher education. It is in making claims to truth — to being “right” — that we open ourselves up to the kind of criticism that President Trump and other conservatives have been making against higher ed, and education in general. The claim to truth is the end of the search for truth — which, one might argue, portends the end of freedom itself.

Jennifer Ballengee is named professor of the liberal arts, director of the graduate program in global humanities and chair of the Academic Senate at Towson University.

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