By James F. Tracy
Are faculty at FAU and universities across America pristine embodiments of integrity and truth? Do they support a flourishing of scholarly perspectives, or are they political ideologues who carefully police their own ranks?
Flashback to Spring 2013: A liberal instructor and Democratic Party activist is under fire by conservative groups for a classroom exercise that at least one student claimed was offensive to his religious faith. He put in a kick and local media leapt on the event. After an outcry in the blogosphere FAU administrators responded apologetically to the student and public, stating instructors would never repeat such an experiment with students. Even Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott, ever the opportunist, responded by chiding FAU administrators.
This was the famous, “Stomp on Jesus” incident, where FAU instructor Deandre Poole, an African American, was carrying out an exercise published in a widely-circulated communication studies textbook that asked students to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper, then see if they could draw themselves to drop the paper to the ground and place their foot over it.
After the incident was called out by conservative groups and Poole received death threats there was an outpouring by progressive left faculty members, students and community members, who placed pressure on the administration to defend Poole by publicly demonstrating in defense of “academic freedom.”
“So consequently I think we’ve all been put on this alert now,” commented FAU Communication and Media Studies Professor Manjunath Pendakur.
“It’s like a light goes off. Everytime you’re in the classroom, you’re thinking, ‘OK. What’s going to happen to me if I did this?'”
Among strumming guitars and choruses of familiar 60s folk songs the “defenders of academic freedom” marched across campus and demonstrated in front of Florida Atlantic’s administration building.
“What we want [as representatives of] the faculty and the students is [for] the administration to finally stand up and make a statement regarding academic freedoms, sooner rather than later,” FAU faculty union president and professor Chris Robé declared to reporters.
Five years later, in 2018, a tenured and self-avowed politically conservative FAU professor who’s researched the Confederacy for over 30 years chooses to participate in a subsidized program where he teaches history and civics to an underprivileged and predominantly black prison population.
In this instance the professor is similarly targeted by foundation-funded political activists and organs (here, here, and here) with vicious smears of being a “Neo-Confederate” and “white supremacist.” The campaign involves intimidation and encourages vigilante-style action, as suggested by inflammatory placards strewn throughout the FAU campus. It is intense enough for the professor to fear for his family’s safety.
Although many of the same faculty members are well-aware of the above professor’s persecution, they are silent, thereby suggesting more-than-tacit approval of such behavior. The target’s personal views and beliefs, as defined and publicized by overtly political “research” and “opinion” outlets, are designated as suspect and labelled accordingly. This calls for mob-style tactics, including off-the-cuff analyses of the professor’s writings by undergraduate students with almost no knowledge of scholar’s discipline.
The message is clear. “We’re seeing red. Our political vanguard tells us so. This warrants an all-out-attack. Our ranks must be purged of the heretic. His message, which we haven’t examined but could be really bad, must be suppressed so students don’t hear it.”
The fact remains that students still attend college to “broaden their horizons”–to gain exposure to a variety of insights and perspectives–some of which will be unusual and disturbing. Education is like that. This is, after all, what theoretically justifies the public subsidization of the country’s universities, and what so many families idealize when they see their children off to university.
Today, however, tenure and academic freedom of the professoriate are privileges reserved for those who can escape notice of universities’ de facto ideological censors on campus and throughout the community. Established following a conservative professor’s pronouncements on important public issues of the day, tenure was intended to protect faculty from formal and even certain extracurricular persecution. The above suggests how in the 2010s tenure and academic freedom are now rewards for correct political thinking and action; aberrant and unfashionable ideas be damned.