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By David L. Kirp
ot since the 1970 contretemps over Angela Davis,
the onetime Black Panther fired by the California
Regents, and maybe not since the days of Joe McCarthy,
has academic freedom been so prominently in the news.
Larry Summers, Ward Churchill—the media are drawn to
these controversies like the children of Hamlin heeding the
Pied Piper’s call. But almost no one is paying attention to a
more pervasive assault on academic freedom: the muzzling
(and consequent self-silencing) of those whose jobs hold no
promise of tenure.
For the Rip VanWinkles who slept through the recent
goings-on, here’s a quick recap. Last winter featured Harvard
President Larry Summers’ ill-considered foray into gender
and genetics. When the remarks were made public, there were
calls from the Left for Summers’ head and a “no confidence”
vote by the Harvard faculty. “Let the man speak,” the Right
Soon thereafter, Ward Churchill, a Native American
professor at the University of Colorado, was lifted out of
obscurity and into the hall of shame for having described
the victims of the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns.”
Defenders of academic freedom bemoaned the fact that
several colleges withdrew speaking invitations once these
vituperative remarks came to light. Meanwhile conservative
critics took time off from vigorously defending Summers to
demand Churchill’s head; on Fox TV, Bill O’Reilly feasted
on the hapless Native American for days on end. Then Lee
Bollinger, president of Columbia, ventured a Solomonic
resolution of a clash between pro-Israeli students and a
Palestinian professor who had supposedly denigrated them.
OnMorningside Heights, both sides cried foul—and, of
course, demanded Bollinger’s head.
These events prompted noisy debates over this vexed and
vital matter: How should professors’ right to speak their minds
be distinguished from professorial abusiveness, proselytizing
and sheer quackery? “Tyranny of the enlightened” versus
“the newMcCarthyism”—from both sides of this ideological
divide the insults flew.
There ought to be no debate about the proposition that
college teachers can assign challenging readings, pose tough
and controversial questions, set high standards and resist
grade inflation. To tenured professors, these matters are as
taken for granted as air. Yet in many institutions it’s risky
business for anyone who is not on the tenure track to behave
in this way.
The number of such instructors is substantial. In 2001, full-
time non-tenure-track faculty accounted for a third of all full-
time faculty, and those numbers are growing rapidly. Half of
the newly minted Ph.D.s who go into full-time teaching hold
jobs with no prospect of tenure—and this doesn’t count the
Fall 2005
Killing Academic Freedom Softly
The muzzling of professors who do not enjoy the luxury of tenure
Ph.D.s who can only secure part-time
teaching assignments. Many of these
no-hopers, it appears, enjoy precious
little academic freedom.
I say “appears” because there is no
way to know howmany instructors
are in this parlous situation. Deans
and department heads, schooled by
campus lawyers in the litigious ways
of the world, are rarely foolish enough
to fire someone on the grounds that
the instructor is too intellectually
challenging—that would risk, if not a
lawsuit, at least embarrassing publicity.
Rather, as the British say, these teachers
are made redundant, told that their
courses will no longer be offered, or
simply informed, with no reason given, that there’s no longer
any need for their services.
Why might this happen? Perhaps a student with a heady
sense of self-entitlement has complained about having been
put upon in class; perhaps the instructor has gotten mixed
reviews for being overly demanding; or perhaps a parent has
complained that the topic of the day should be off limits for
impressionable undergraduates. In an environment in which
students are treated as customers and the customers know
best, there are many reasons why an administrator might
decide to show an adjunct the door. It’s easy enough to hand
out pink slips, since these jobs come with no guarantees; and
college teaching remains a buyers’ market, with unemployed
Ph.D.s looking for piecework.
What’s more, fear of such treatment prompts instructors
to censor themselves—to give inflated
grades, make anodyne assignments,
hand out reading lists composed
of pablum and keep those readings
short. After all, why should a lecturer
risk losing a teaching gig by saying
something that might cause trouble?
Speak truth to power is the mantra
in academe, but these instructors are
obliged to cower before power.
The American Association of
University Professors, long-time
guardians of academic freedom, can’t
count these cases. And because of the long odds and fear of
being blackballed, adjuncts rarely file lawsuits against a school
that has issued a long goodbye. A few years back, a
of Higher Education
article recounted a fistful of examples.
There were tales of instructors who had lost their jobs after
talking about pornography in an ethics class, using racist
In 2001, full-time non-
tenure-track faculty
accounted for a third
of all full-time faculty,
and those numbers
are growing rapidly.