Last spring, I was awarded tenure at my university. I found myself with mixed feelings of relief, affirmation and doubt. Why would I doubt such a wonderful affirmation of my scholarship and teaching? Well . . . for two reasons. First, I’m not sure that I feel completely OK about the hierarchy that tenure and promotion represent at most universities. But that point is for a different blog post. Second, and most important to this blog post, is that having tenure puts me in a position that gives me clearer access to academic freedom than my colleagues who do not have tenure.
Let me be clear — I do not speak for my university. And this is critically important — having academic freedom means that I can talk about controversial topics in my classroom as long as they are relevant. It means that I can rant about topics that I find important in publications that I produce (or blog posts that I write), and that I should not be relieved of my employment for those rantings. But I cannot “represent my university” in those rants or discussions. One might ask if my discussion of controversial topics or my public rants have changed substantially with tenure — and I would say, no. Not really. But they COULD. And that is truly an important feeling.
I saw a communication piece recently that really bothered me, though. For those of you outside of California, you may be unfamiliar with a certain proposition on the ballot this November that increases tax revenue for the state. If we don’t pass the measure (Prop 30) the state has issued all kinds of threats about what further reductions in services and public education funding might have to happen to keep the state solvent. To me — it seems relevant to my students’ education since they attend a public university. I’ve talked about it in my classes and encouraged my students to vote. But organized efforts to facilitate those discussions by others have been discouraged!! I witnessed a memo warning faculty that because my university system was not allowed to take a stance on political issues, that they should not discuss those issues in their classes unless done without bias. But how can I not be biased about this? How can I refrain from telling my students that unless we pass Prop 30, their access to education will be devastated? And how does censoring my bias affect my own academic freedom — that concept that many believe is so important to learning in higher education?
While I have no plans to halt my own discussions, I think others might be scared. Scared to discuss the issues that so directly affect them and their students — even though they might speak without representing the university for which they work. Tenure does help me to feel safe in these discussions — but most of the folks in my department do not have tenure — and I fear that their voices are softer than they might wish.
Why are we so scared to speak? Even outside of the academy, are you holding your tongue because you worry that others may judge you harshly for it? That it might decrease your own social and economic security if you are heard? There are certainly plenty of fearless speakers out there, but many of us are holding back. The folks at “This Sh*t Matters” aren’t holding back, though. Their recent “get out the vote” ad is edgy, angry, convincing and inspiring — in part because it uses harsh language and highlights controversy in a way that we don’t see in most communication about politics. I’ve heard some criticism of their ad‘s language use — even a call for a censored version of the ad — and I wonder if part of those criticisms and calls are because we’re scared to just put it out there.
I hope that as we move closer toward the election that we both continue to educate ourselves and that we continue and encourage each other to TALK ABOUT IT. There is no reason that we need to be making such incredibly important decisions without the aid of talking them through. And while we do this, we could also try to make clear that we all are representing our own biases — that’s the point! But in listening to each other, we can also learn more and feel better informed about the decisions we make. Maybe these discussions are scary in part because they are so important. But have those discussions. Please! Don’t be too scared to speak . . .