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The Point: Speech! Speech!


Greetings, Colleagues:

Those of you who have been reading these weekly email blasts know that as the Communications Director of the FSU I regularly use this opportunity (as spokesperson for the Executive Committee) to reflect on issues of the most local concern: I haven’t done a content analysis but my guess is that at least 75% of my writing here has been tightly focused on UMB issues: I try to use the space to comment in an informed and honest way about matters unfolding on our own campus. I will likely continue at this rate and with this focus.  But today I want to pull the camera back to call attention to some major contours of national activity that are working to suppress faculty speech.

Fortunately, here in Massachusetts—and here at UMB more particularly—we have been relatively exempt from the kind of concerted national effort to intimidate college and university faculty that have become epidemic.  But we know of at least a few cases where faculty at UMB faculty have ended up in the crosshairs of these frightening onslaughts. And, as our recently retired colleague, Professor Maurice Cunningham has been making clear for years, the warping force of billionaire oligarchs’ dark money is sure at play here in the K-12 sphere; this brand of organized social engineering almost always develops a related and sustained higher ed. dimension. We cannot, in short, grow complacent: who knows when one of our own colleagues will come under the kind of disciplinary attack that has afflicted academic workers around the nation?

Here's my sense of some of the main trajectories of efforts to suppress free speech on campus.

1. Casualization: Of course there is no more devastating threat to higher education faculty truly exercising free speech than the casualization of university teaching—the concerted effort to staff  our courses with overworked and underpaid non-tenure track colleagues who (obviously) do not enjoy the same security to speak and act freely as tenure-stream colleagues do. This represents a kind of “regressive tax” on free speech: for reasons of precarity and the sheer realities of bandwidth, NTT colleagues struggle to find the time to engage in political issues on and off campus in a context where position often translates into privilege.  And the contemporary immiseration of graduate students, as we  discussed here last week, also contributes to creating a landscape where it become more difficult to find the time to engage fully as citizens and activists. Casualization has hit UMB and there is no indication that the current administration is interested in fighting against its devastating effects. Hand-in-glove with these efforts is a direct attack on tenure, first in Georgia and just this week in Texas where the Lieutenant Governor has announced a plan to abolish tenure for all new hires in the state higher education system.  In this same moment the Lt. Governor also announced that the state has plans to revoke tenure for those teaching certain banned methods and topics, which brings us to…

2. Anti-CRT and Other Political Gag Orders:  PEN America is usefully updating us, in real time, about efforts to directly legislate and control what classroom teachers are allowed to teach in their courses (see the devasting index here).  Even a cursory look through the chart underscores that these attacks on educators are a major weapon in an ongoing effort to install and sustain white supremacy at the heart of our educational system.  The warping of what critical race theory actually is and the gaslighting attempts to misrepresent how it makes its way into K-12 curricula (or rather, if it makes its way into K-12 curricula), has formed a surprising nexus for all kinds of efforts to silence teachers, limit curricular possibilities and generally terrorize individual instructors. These direct efforts on what we teach have been joined with other efforts to silence faculty, include attempts to bar University of Florida professors from testifying in voting rights cases, and so on.  It can seem daunting to figure out how to begin fighting back against these concerted and well-funded attacks but if you are feeling disempowered, I would urge you to take a visit to the Call to Action section of the African American Policy Forum website.  Here you will find fantastic, practical advice on ways university faculty can forcefully insert themselves into these consequential political conversations.  Given the activity across the river in the past few weeks, I would be remiss if I did not mention that while attacks on free speech are coalescing around race right now, as always they skew along gender lines as well: the Comaroff case at Harvard has many tales to tell, but one is certainly about how women are driven from academia through a purposeful unwillingness on the part of administrators to take sexual assault and harassment charges lodged against senior faculty seriously.

3. Scapegoating: Evidence for the existence of structural racism rarely manifest on the level of individual action (this is why scholars and activists insist on locutions like “systemic” or “institutional” racism” as opposed to older language about “bias” or “prejudice”).  But increasingly, attacks on the classroom efforts and public speech of colleagues working in controversial areas have become standard operating procedure for well-orchestrated campaigns of disinformation and intimidation.  This isn’t new: many of us will remember the concerted effort to silence Professor Zandria Robinson a few years back, largely in response to her social media presence.  (This case, of course, a reminder that such attacks often have a racialized and gendered dimension.)  Another recent target of this kind of campaign resulted in the firing of Professor Garrett Felber, a very public abolitionist and critic of the university at Ole Miss. Students are being cynically manipulated in all kinds of ways, in these efforts, most usually by being enlisted by right wing groups to record and report on classroom speech. These direct attacks are joined with surreptitious and systemic campaigns to marginalize the work of scholars inhabiting marginalized subject positions (often through hiring protocols or personnel review processes).  One frightening new dimension of all this can be indexed as “the call is coming from inside the house”—sometimes now these anti-faculty efforts are being led by college and university administrators themselves. The canary in the coal mine here might be Collin College in Texas, where upper administrators seem to be regularly firing professors for their oppositional speech.  These emerging regimes of in-house surveillance and discipline are likely not going to disappear on their own: faculty will have to remain diligent in naming and pushing back hard against them. 

This is your union! Let us know at what your concerns are around free speech issues and how you think we can best combat efforts to silence faculty here, and around the country


Jeff Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage