Monday, July 27, 2009

Almost Academic Freedom Almost on Trial

In 1991, shortly after my return from teaching in China, I was assigned a seminar at SJSU in the history department. The Seminar was entitled "America in the 20th Century." Since this was my specialty I had an affinity for it and I looked forward to meeting with the students who enrolled and to reading their papers. But first I had to assign a limited reading list. Among the books I selected was one I had recently completed reading, "Goodbye Darkness" by William Manchester. The author, a Pulitzer prize winner had also written a book on the JFK assassination. "Darkness" covered his enlistement in the Marine Corps and his service in Guadalcanal and other campaigns up until the time he was wounded at Okinawa. But it was also a nicely structured book with the elderly historian carrying on a dialogue with his younger self. I thought it might be an excellent way to look at the experience of WWII for some of these students. So I assigned it. The discussions and the reading went very well and I was pleased with the result. The story was eye opening, as well it should be, to many of the students enrolled in the seminar.

Now jump ahead to 1995. In the Spring of 1995 invitations had gone out from China for women to attend the International Women's Conference in Huairou in China. The conference was to take place in the summer. The invitation came to SJSU, a school of unusual diversity. This diversity had always been, I felt, one of the unique and special and wonderful things about SJSU. But the China invitation went from the university administration to the Women's Center on campus. Two delegates from the Women's Center were selected to attend the conference and the trip was to be paid for with student fees. I read a story about this assignment, saw the student names, and wondered to myself why in the world, given the diversity of our campus, that diversity was not to be represented in our delegates. So I sent off a brief note to the campus newspaper, the Spartan Daily, asking about the selection process by the Women's Center and asking why no Asian or Asian-American student was included and wondered in print also why no bilingual student was to be sent. Given the very large size of our Mandarin and Cantonese speaking student body, as well of course as of the Vietnamese and Khmer speaking students, why were these not even considered in the selection process. That was all. I asked a question. I challenged in a Letters-to-the-Editor Forum the judgement of the Women's Center, since the journey was to be paid for by the entire student body through their fees.

Bad move. No question that this mere inquiry could go unpunished in the hyper-political correctness of a university environment. One week later I received in the late afternoon a telephone call from the chairman of the history department of the university. The call was terse and straightforward. A woman had filed a very serious complaint against me, there would be a hearing before the dean of the faculty, and my job, I was told, was on the line. The accuser could not be identified except for the fact that she was affiliated with, you guessed it, the Women's Center. I was told I could bring an attorney to the hearing if I wished. And I was to call the Dean of Faculty to set up a hearing date.

I was at first unsettled by this. But I tried to figure it out on my own and thought I got a good handle on it. I decided no attorney. Just go with the chairman of my department. I called the Dean of Faculty and said I wanted a hearing as soon as possible. That week. Tomorrow. They cautioned me, again, that my job would be on the line but I said I want to get through this now. Fast. So a hearing was set in the afternoon for three days later.

Only at the hearing, in the Deans office, was I allowed to actually see the student complaint. And only then from a distance. The dean held it and read it to me. I could not see the charges or look at the signatures on it. The charges were this. A student in the Women's Center was suffering from what might be called Post Traumatic Historical Disorder. She had enrolled in my 1991 seminar where, she said, she had been "forced to read" William Manchester's Goodbye Darkness. Reading that book, and talking about it every week, she alleged, was "like being raped by the entire class." The dean was reading the charges to me. So she felt she was raped by a book 4 years earlier and now it was haunting her, right after my letter on the selection of the delegates. And why would she feel raped? She said -- and I recognized the student by the complaint, a Caucasian woman in her late 20s from San Francisco --she felt raped by being forced to read Manchester's constant use of the word "Jap" to refer to the enemy in the Pacific. For this transgression, for assigning this book, she demanded that I lose my position or at least that I be assigned to extensive "racial sensitivity counseling" with the Women's Center. It so happens that at that time I was married to a Chinese woman. I wondered to myself if she might take counseling with me.

Anyway, I could not help but laugh inside at this very somber reading. After the reading, the Dean looked up at me, he was a professor of mathematics in an earlier incarnation, and he asked, "Tell me, just who is this Manchester fellow." I remember those words as if spoken today. I felt like a character in a Camus or Kafka novel. I explained how Manchester was a respected and prized Brown University historian, but at the same time wondered to myself, Why am I explaining this to this man in this setting? After I finished my explanation there was utter silence. I was asked if that was all I had to say and I said yes. The Dean told me he would get back to me with his "decision" within a week.

On the way back to my office I walked with the chairman of the history department. I told him how humorous I thought this all was and what a genuine and clear violation of academic freedom. Why was I explaining my book assignments to a professor of Math who had absolutely no idea about historical literature, and defending myself before a "mouth" for the Women's Center. The chairman thought for a moment, a brief moment, and then said, "Well, if I were you, I would never assign Manchester to a class again." That was his defense of academic freedom. That was all.

I did not hear back from the Dean of Faculty. I heard nothing for weeks and weeks and then months. About ten months later, after the hearing, I got a call from the head of the University Academic Freedom Committee. He asked what had happened and said he had just heard about it and he wished I had contacted him because this was a clear violation of my academic freedom. Actually, I told him, I did not even know there was such an office.

Fourteen months after the hearing -- fourteen months! -- I got a call one afternoon from the secretary to the dean of faculty. She told me she was going through her files and found a letter to me that had never been sent. It was from the dean regarding my hearing. I asked her what it said. She said that the letter said the Dean found the complaint "without merit" and had dismissed it. It said that all documents and letters associated with the case and the complaint would therefore be destroyed. She said I was supposed to be notified of this one week after the hearing but the letter had been misplaced. She said she would mail it now if I wished. I said I wished.

A couple of days later I received the letter from the Dean of Faculty. It outlined the charges, repeated them, said a hearing had been held, the charge had been found to be without merit, and now all documents regarding the charge were to be destroyed so no record of it should exist.

At the bottom of the page was the Dean's signature. After it, I noticed "cc." and a list of each department chair in my college along with the Women's Center. I had to laugh at this. But I would not forget the advice not to assign Manchester. The goal of the school was not to teach what I thought needed to be taught and should be taught, not to assign a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and not to provoke discussion and understanding. The goal of the university was to rock no boats, to disturb no waters, to make no waves, and to collect tuition and distribute degrees.

I was never again assigned to supervise or teach a seminar by the history department.

A new president came to the university shortly after that and issued a statement of behavior for goals for the school and one of the top goals was "to provide a comfortable intellectual atmosphere for learning." I was a bit taken aback, since to challenge ideas and conventional wisdom meant always to create tensions. We learn by disagreements, by controversy. We do not learn by massaging each other's preconceptions and agreements. We were not a mere "feel good" sensitivity training group, I thought. But I was wrong. And the new president did not see it that way. The law was laid down. Do not assign certain books. Do not ask certain questions. Do not invite certain discussions. Do not use certain words or phrases. Obviously, the new President and the deans who served him, had become an Orwellian type of anti-university. There was a conscious effort to avoid anything and everything controversial and to jump through each and every politically correct hoop. To do so, clearly, meant promotion. Not to do so meant, well, no promotions, no raises, no recognition. Do not rock the boat. In other words, do not teach.

I expected voices of protest. There were none. A couple of years after these events, the faculty union published a list of the "rewards" in the form of "merit pay" issued by the President's office. It was shameless sycophancy. All of us for the entire year were required to fill out long and detailed forms regarding what we had written, what we had published, what we taught, what our student evaluations were, and so on. The charade was, in this mountain of paper, the President of the University would recommend to the higher State University authorities, pay raises, for those faculty members who had fulfilled, in a distinguished way, their duties as professionals and professors. In the spring I received a long letter congratulating me on my many accomplishments and at the bottom of the page was a blank. And in that blank penciled in was the number 1.8. I had been granted, for my great work, a raise of 1.8%. I thought to myself, well, this is better than nothing. But the union's list of pay raises pointed out that our President had granted pay raises about 10 times as great to every member of the academic senate, every dean and every department chair. The people he depended upon in establishing and defending his utterly banal and mediocre and unimaginative administration. There were some protests. But he had found the jugular of the university bureaucracy. Reward the mediocre and the obedient and the unimaginative. Reward the time servers. The rest are without power. A few years later, successful at the university, the president moved on to some other college that apparently required a massive infusion of mediocrity. And so the system held and so the system worked.

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