Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Left-wing students don't get professors fired, but Republicans might

Last week, Vox published "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me". The actual facts in the article left me reassured that our jobs are safe from our left-wing students. I wish they were so safe from Republican state legislators.

The article begins by describing how its pseudonymous author received a formal complaint from a conservative student after noting that the financial crisis wasn't caused by overly generous lending to minorities. The student alleged "communistical sympathies", the professor wrote something about what had happened, and perhaps the administrators recalled Joe McCarthy before ignoring his ideological descendent's complaint. 

This had me bracing for a story about how complaints from the left had been taken more seriously. But no: "That was the first, and so far only, formal complaint a student has ever filed against me." There isn't a single concrete story of a professor losing a job due to left-wing student complaints anywhere in the article. There's nothing resembling the story of Steven Salaita, who lost a tenured appointment at Illinois for criticizing Israeli military policy on Twitter. I guess the article's headline is true -- the author is terrified of his students. He expresses his fears at length. But he never describes an actual case that makes such fear rational. 

Is the dismissed Title IX suit against Laura Kipnis supposed to be the sort of thing we're worried about? I think it shouldn't have been investigated in the first place, and I'm sure it was a scary and unpleasant hassle for Kipnis, but an instance of a complaint going a step too far before being dismissed isn't exactly chilling my blood. The explanation of why we need this form of Title IX enforcement by Josh Marshall's correspondent seems to basically answer Josh Marshall's argument-free invective against Justin Weinberg.

At worst, left-wing students can do some things that scare left-wing professors: make them feel bad, and scare away their friends. If conservatives called me "communistical", I'd laugh, and not just because it gets the little red dashes from the spell checker. I know that accusations of communism in America are generally ridiculous. You get them for supporting the economic policies of our NATO allies. But there's plenty of sexism and racism around (the implicit bias research suggests that it's in me too). I can't so easily brush off charges of that sort, and neither can others if they hear students making them against me. Even if the accusations were completely unfair, they could cost me well-meaning friends and they'd definitely make me feel bad. But I don't see any reason to think jobs are at risk. 

Fear of your right-wing state government makes more sense. In North Carolina, Republican state legislators have closed research centers on the environment, voting rights, and poverty -- the last of these after threatening the director with the closure of his center if he kept writing newspaper editorials. The right-wing think tank director who seems to be designing academic policy speaks negatively of "collectivism" and positively of Ayn Rand

In Wisconsin, proposals are moving through the legislature to allow the firing of tenured faculty “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” If Scott Walker decides that Wisconsin requires program modification and Republican legislators agree, does tenure still count there? Gratuitous advertisement: philosophers in North Carolina and Wisconsin seeking more academic freedom may find it at the National University of Singapore.

We've had passionate left-wing students for a long time. Sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but either way the risk that you'll lose your job because of their political complaints is basically zero. Amanda Taub writes, "Students, after all, have been complaining about their professors and just about everything else since time immemorial." If left-wing students haven't gotten their professors fired in the past, why would it start now? But the rise of right-wing state governments trying to eliminate the politically troublesome aspects of their state universities is new. They have the formal power to make funding decisions and change policy, and they're just starting to use it.