Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Administrative Overreaching: Threats, Social Media, and Academic Freedom

I have also proposed policy changes for universities, at least respecting social media.  (Proposing a Set of Social Media Policy Guidelines For Penn State University (March 17, 2014)).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

But the problem not only persists but appears to be increasingly embedded in university governance cultures. It seems that the answer for many university administrators faced with controversy in political and social spaces that are traditionally dynamic is to (1) declare a broad authority to regulate, (2) produce regulations to confer an unconstrained discretion on administrators charged with carrying out its "objective", and (3) treat these regulations as trumping academic freedom, shared governance and the personal and human rights of the regulated class. While their motives, from an institutional perspective, are rational, their application becomes obsessively irrational. 

These issues were recently nicely discussed by academic and social commentator Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor.  Professor Reynolds suggests a combination of culturally institutional paranoia plus isolation may account for the problem.  I think that he is basically correct but that the culprit is the system in place to reward institutional paranoia in the form of rigidity and risk aversion. Until  universities stop being rewarded for producing (and universities stop rewarding) the administrators described in the article, this problem will only increase.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds,
U.S.A. Today, April 22, 2014.

Like most professors, I hate doing administrative work. And since somebody has to do it, universities have increasingly built up a corps of full-time administrators. That's fine, but lately, the administrative class has grown too numerous and too heavy-handed. As colleges and universities increasingly face financial pressures, it's time to rethink.

Full-time administrators now outnumber full-time faculty. And when times get tough, schools have a disturbing tendency to shrink faculty numbers while keeping administrators on the payroll. Teaching gets done by low-paid, nontenured adjuncts, but nobody ever heard of an "adjunct administrator."

But it's not just the fat that is worrisome. It's administrators' obsession with -- and all too often, abuse of -- security that raises serious concerns. At the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Clyde W. Barrow, a leading professor, has just quit, complaining of an administration that isolates itself from students and faculty behind keypads and security doors.

Isolation is bad. But worse still is the growing tendency of administrators to stifle critics by shamelessly interpreting even obviously harmless statements as "threats." A recent example took place at Bergen Community College, where Professor Francis Schmidt was suspended, and ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination over a "threat" that consisted of posting a picture of his 9-year old daughter wearing a Game Of Thrones T-shirt. The shirt bore a quote from the show, reading: "I will take what is mine with fire & blood." Bergen administrator Jim Miller apparently thought the picture, which was posted to Schmidt's Google Plus account, was somehow intended as a threat to him. (Schmidt had filed a labor grievance a couple of months earlier.)

What kind of person claims that a picture of a 9-year-old girl wearing an HBO T-shirt is a threat? The kind of person who runs America's colleges, apparently. And Miller, alas, is not alone in his cluelessness and, apparently, paranoia.

Last year at the University of Wisconsin at Stout, theater professor James Miller had a poster from the television series Firefly on his door. It included a picture of Captain Mal Reynolds, a character played by Nathan Fillion, and a quote from the show: "You don't know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed."

Campus police chief Lisa Walter removed the poster, regarding it as a "threat." After Stout complained to no avail, he replaced the poster with one reading: "Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets."

This poster, too, was interpreted as a threat, which led to a visit from the campus "threat assessment team." After nationwide mockery (Fillion, and fellow Firefly cast member Adam Baldwin, joined in, as did many of the show's fans), the university retreated, and promised to change its approach in the future. Presumably, Chief Lisa Walter carries a gun, and I wonder if that's a good idea in someone so skittish that she sees a movie poster as a "threat."

Meanwhile, at the University of Colorado, the American Association of University Professors has produced a report on the university's running "roughshod" over academic freedom as part of an anti-sexual-harassment campaign in its philosophy department and -- again -- using campus police to strongarm a faculty member over an obviously bogus threat. As Inside Higher Ed reports:
Dan Kaufman, an associate professor, in March was escorted by four police officers to the dean's office. According to the report, he was told he was being banned from campus indefinitely for making a comment to [department chair] Cowell about killing him. The report finds that the comment was far from a threat, but rather a 'philosopher's joke' and standard fare for any philosophy textbook: that they wouldn't kill each other, "unless Cowell were truly evil, like Adolf Hitler."

Events like these call into question both the judgment of academic administrators and the existence of campus police forces as a separate institution. In his book, The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins Professor Benjamin Ginsberg talks about the profusion of "deanlets" that has overtaken higher education. But it's even worse when those deanlets not only eat up the substance of institutions, but also command armed force. It's extremely doubtful that any outside law enforcement agency would have responded to any of the "threats" listed above, but campus police, called in by insecure deanlets, have little choice. This sort of behavior, though, is unfair, bad for morale, and likely to spur expensive and embarrassing litigation. (Note that some of these cases were resolved when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an academic civil liberties group, intervened and posed a threat of legal action.)

With college enrollment falling and budgets under pressure, legislatures, donors and alumni will be looking at ways to restructure schools in the future. The profusion of self-important deanlets and the abuse of campus police forces ought to be looked at as part of this process. It's just another symptom of the now-imploding higher education bubble.

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