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Tenured professors get fired for criticizing their schools

Earlier this month, Shakespeare scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner received a substantive settlement in a whistleblower lawsuit against his former employer, Linfield University. Given the Oregon private school’s infamous record in faculty speeches, this is certainly an accomplishment worthy of celebration, but not without remaining vigilant about the continued threats to outspoken faculty on college campuses.

Pollack-Pelzner’s colleagues elected him a faculty adviser in 2019, a post that involved “speaking[ing] to matters of interest to the faculty and … search[ing] and promot[ing] opportunities for teacher-trustee interaction and cooperation”. The then-tenured English professor deftly assumed this role by challenging the Board of Trustees’ mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations, as well as bringing to light reports of anti-Semitism.

Namely, Pollack-Pelzner spoke out against chairman Miles Davis and board chairman David Baca’s inaction on allegations of sexual harassment by faculty members and alumni against Linfield trustees. When Pollack-Pelzner referred to those allegations in a triennial report to the board, the president reportedly redacted pages of the document. Tensions rose when Pollack-Pelzner was barred from attending future executive sessions.

In light of the board’s apathy, Linfield’s faculty approved a vote of no confidence in Baca’s ability “to continue to provide leadership that promotes transparency, accountability, and responsiveness on issues of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.” In March 2021, amid continued administrative inertia and indications that the board was seeking to dissolve the faculty trustee post altogether, Pollack-Pelzner decided to Chirping to express your grievances.

The following month, the English professor’s work laptop shut down during an online meeting. Investigating, he sent an email from his personal address to his work address and received a troubling automated response: “Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is no longer an employee of Linfield University.”

Pioneer Hall at Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon.

Photo illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/DerRichter/Wikimeida Commons

Linfield justified the dismissal on the grounds that Pollack-Pelzner had been “insubordinate” and “interfered with the university’s administration of his responsibilities.” When pressed by The Chronicle of Higher Education about Linfield’s circumvention of the due process guidelines of his own faculty textbook, the president “said he was unaware of the guidelines, had not seen the more of the faculty manual, that he didn’t know who had updated it and didn’t think it had been approved by the administration.

In April 2021, the Linfield faculty approved a vote of no confidence in Davis and Baca and also called for their resignations for fostering “an intimidating and hostile work environment, harming members of the Linfield community, and damaging the reputation of Linfield”. (Baca resigned in September 2021.) At the time, Linfield’s actions drew the ire of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), student protesters and beyond 1,000 professors who signed a petition agreement denouncing the firing as “shooting the messenger.”

In June 2022, the AAUP released an extensive report on the Pollack-Pelzner affair, censuring Linfield for creating “deplorable” conditions for academic freedom and shared faculty governance. Linfield continues to deny wrongdoing on the part of the school.

The administration’s decision to tear up Linfield’s name by stifling criticism, rather than taking responsibility for the well-being of the Linfield community, is blatant demonstration of what political writer Jon Schwarz has coined, “The Iron Law of Institutions.” : Those at the helm of an institution tend to prioritize maintaining their position of power within the institution over the good of the institution itself.

One can only hope that Linfield’s expensive settlement terms will encourage his administration and others, particularly at non-First Amendment private institutions, to address wrongdoings rather than gag those who draw attention to them.

Yet it’s hard to view the deal as a single triumph in the face of sizable efforts, stemming largely from Republican-controlled statehouses and other public entities, to undermine tenure protections and limit faculty’s ability to speak up against their parents. employers.

Take, for example, the firing of 33 professors this fall at Emporia State University, a public university in Kansas. There, a pandemic-era “workforce management” framework approved by the Kansas Board of Regents granted President Ken Hush (a former Koch Industries executive whose appointment is obscure, despite a track record with no higher education experience, raised a few eyebrows) the ability to conduct mass layoffs of tenured faculty.

On September 13, 2022, Emporia State tenured professor Max McCoy criticized Hush’s implementation of the framework in a local paper, writing, “I could be fired for writing this,” and, ecce, McCoy was fired two days later.

According to the Popular Information newsletter, another Fire, Dan Colson, had been a vocal critic of Koch Industries during his 11 years at Emporia State. In a school with obvious ties to Koch organizations (see: the school’s “Koch Center for Leadership and Ethics”), tenure protections had previously provided Colson with vital intellectual armor.

These firings of longtime professors have raised suspicions of retaliation and ideological motivations, which Emporia has denied (and the AAUP is currently investigating).

Plumb Administration Building and Albert Taylor Hall at Emporia State University.

Photo illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Ethan James Scherrer/Wikimedia Commons

At present, the North Dakota state legislature is considering a troubling bill that aims to “accelerate workforce development” by giving the presidents of two public universities, Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University, more leeway in the fire tenured professors. The legislation was approved by Bismarck’s state president, but denounced by critics as an “anti-whistleblower bill in disguise.”

Among other fireable actions under the proposed bill, a tenured professor could be fired for “inadvertently harming the institution” by using social media platforms “to disparage campus staff or the institution.” The legislation would also limit the redress possibilities of dismissed professors, allowing “no complaints, lawsuits or other charges against a president or other administrator” for exercising their new power.

Such developments are indeed menacing, considering the direct relationship that exists between professors’ job security and their ability to denounce their institutions. Note, for example, how a Linfield professor shared allegations with Pollack-Pelzner but, according to the June 2022 AAUP report, was “reluctant to file a formal complaint” against a board member since she was not yet a member of the board. role and remained “acutely aware that the board had the final say on mandate recommendations.

As tenure erodes, the suffocating fear of retaliation is only becoming more common in academia.

But, of course, the mandate is already out of reach for most instructors in US higher education institutions. More than three-fifths of university professors, a precarious majority occupied with contingent tasks, know too well how the fear of clashing with one’s employer generates self-censorship. Problem legislation is therefore only part of the problem.

Unchallenged and conservative efforts to gut tenure, coupled with the mass casualization of the academic workforce, threaten to create an academy in which ever-irresponsible university administrations bully an ever-docile professor. Such trends require staunch opposition and academic solidarity, lest the brave ones like Pollack-Pelzner go from endangered species to extinct.

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