On Academic Freedom and Not Being a Jerk

I spent this weekend at the North Central Sociological Association meetings in Cleveland. It was a joy to once again take a group of my sociological theory students and let them see sociologists in action. This is a picture of the Arcade, which is part of the Hyatt Regency.Arcade

This year I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on “Freedom of Expression in the Classroom: Challenges in the Changing Political Climate“. Moderated by Fayyaz Hussain from Michigan State, the panel was made up of Brendan Mullan from MSU (and next year’s NCSA president), Peter Blum from Hillsdale College, and me. Our session was in one of the rooms opening onto the arcade.

The topic was prompted by a situation with an MSU professor a year or so ago where he had made derogatory in-class comments about the Republican Party which were videotaped and became an internet sensation about liberal professors. He wound up being suspended from his teaching duties. We didn’t talk about last fall’s Marquette situation but could have.

We each opened with our own stories. The differences between a state school, a Christian university, and a politically conservative liberal arts college seemed to fade away once we got into the conversation.

As the discussion moved on, the conversation seemed to shift from the right to say whatever one thinks to how one properly interacts with one’s students. In short, there was agreement that just because a professor COULD take a political or theological position based upon one’s scholarship, it doesn’t follow that one MUST.

Toward the end of my remarks, I suggested that we needed a good operational definition of “being a jerk”. There is an important distinction between sharing a viewpoint and being a jerk about it.

There also seemed to be some agreement that pushing too hard would simply result in students closing down intellectually and emotionally. This isn’t effective either pedagogically or interpersonally.

As I reflected on situations I’ve been aware of where someone’s scholarship raised difficulty or challenging questions, especially for administrators, I found that the relationship with the students seemed to be central. If the faculty member puts a priority on  the long-term learning of students, it moderates how hard to push. On the other hand, it’s often the case that a disrespectful comment or a position directly attacking a group of students will trigger responses well beyond simple academic disagreement. Students who perceive that possibility may be far more likely to think about recording the professor in future interactions.

The discussion, while good, was more personal than academic. During the conversation part of my brain was focused on my friend Tom Oord, whose position was eliminated at Northwest Nazarene University under circumstances that are nearly impossible to explain. Tom’s scholarship has raised questions that some quarters of the denomination and conservative factions (and maybe some administrators) have been disagreeing with for some time.

OordBut at the center of Tom’s scholarship is a belief that love is pre-eminent. It is that love that allows hard questions to be asked. It is that love that makes him one of the warmest and most hospitable colleagues I have ever met. There are few people you can meet at a conference who will be more inviting and inclusive. His comment after receiving the news (now the Facebook meme above) was “I plan to live a life of love.

This is why there is such an outcry over Tom’s firing. The way the institution treated Tom seems to be the negation of everything he has been committed to as a scholar and a colleague. It was done in ways that, while defensible in only the most legalistic sense, were clearly damaging to Tom, his colleagues, and his students.

It’s not that everyone agrees with Tom’s positions. His supporters — colleagues, former students, current students, and social media contacts — just know that he would never act in ways that did harm to others.

We can manage a tremendous amount of ambiguity and uncertainty in Christian higher education if we keep love and community at the center of what we do. If we act in ways that cause faculty to be the center of attention, that minimize others in the process, or that accentuate power imbalances, we wind up in much darker places.

Putting priority on operating in love and community affirmation, even in the face of power differences (maybe especially there) is key to the proper exercise of academic freedom within a Christian educational setting. That’s what is missing when faculty members disrespect their students. It’s also what’s missing when administrators look to exercise power in ways that, while legitimate, damage their communities in the process.

3 thoughts on “On Academic Freedom and Not Being a Jerk

  1. I was reflecting on the “Marquette situation” earlier the week and had similar thoughts. “Being a jerk” is often the poly-partisan equal-opportunity cause of faculty “free speech” dramas. But then comes a further thought: do jerks just drop out of the sky, or are they made? Are they a result of defective hiring processes, a lack of healthy mentoring, toxic and alienating departmental cultures, stress from overwork, personal life problems, possible undiagnosed mental issues, or perhaps more than one? Do they come from people who feel they are trapped or bound to be ejected, or from people who feel secure and all but invincible? Even — and maybe especially — with the jerkiest jerks don’t they point back to possible failures in their culture and leadership or just simple human needs that could be addressed at a key time but weren’t?

  2. “Are they a result of defective hiring processes, a lack of healthy mentoring, toxic and alienating departmental cultures, stress from overwork, personal life problems, possible undiagnosed mental issues, or perhaps more than one?”

    The easy answer, in my experience, is yes. Without getting too specific, it seemed to me in my administrative days that the jerks were likely to a) be using academic status as a compensation for other life challenges or b) bought into a mindset that suggested “critical thinking” was about demolishing the others’ arguments.

    Mentoring can go a long way toward the solution, especially when lovingly addressing behaviors when they first appear. A new position or a new administrator become some of the few times when it can be addressed. Otherwise is comes off as capricious (“I’ve done the same things in the past and nobody said anything”).

    Thanks for engaging!

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