So this guy teaches a fiction class at Emory. He’s there for only two years, on a fellowship, which turned out to be fortunate for him.
Blunt and scabrous, he prides himself on being frank with his students. “My class is like a truth-telling, soothsaying class, and I tell them no one is going to talk to you like this, you will never have another class like this,” he says.
One student, he says, a freshman woman, sat besides him throughout the course, actively participating. At the end of the semester, he gave her a B+, because, although she worked hard, her writing wasn’t great. “They don’t really understand that they can do all of the work, and turn in perfectly typed up, typo-free papers and stories, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get an A, because quality matters, talent matters,” he says.
So, according to the story, she accused him of sexual harassment.
The director, he says, told him, “I know this is bullshit, you know this is total bullshit, since you’re gay, [but] you really don’t want to deal with this bullshit. Just give her the grade.” Asked about this, the director says, “I don’t recall that, but I do recall advising him that as with all faculty, per our policy, that this was up to his discretion and thus his decision to make.”
Spoiler: he gave her the grade, but then like The Lord he took it away again.
Recently, there’s been much discussion of what some say is a growing intellectual chill and sexual panic on campus. In the latest example, on June 19, Teresa Buchanan, a tenured associate professor of education at Louisiana State University, was fired from the school where she’d taught for twenty years for using off-color language. Her alleged offenses included saying, in class, “fuck no” and making a joke about sex declining in long-term relationships, as well as using the word “pussy” in an off-campus conversation with a teacher. Reached by phone, she says she had no memory of saying “pussy” to anyone, but said that, if she did, it likely would have been in a conversation about how teachers must learn to handle irate parents. “If a parent is very angry and says, ‘You need to do a better job, you little pussy,” you need to know how to react. I wasn’t calling anybody that word.”
Indeed, a faculty committee determined that there was no evidence that her words were “systematically directed at any individual.” Nevertheless, the committee said her language created a “hostile learning environment” that constituted sexual harassment. It recommended that she be censured and nothing more, concluding: “The stress already inflicted on Dr. Buchanan by the…hearing process itself is seen as an adequate punishment, given the nature and apparent infrequency of the noted behaviors.” The administration rejected that and decided to go further, dismissing her. She plans to sue.
I’m not surprised she plans to sue – she had tenure. Tenure is supposed to protect academics from being fired for trivial reasons. (Note: I’ve never thought Tim Hunt should have been fired from anything.)
There’s also Laura Kipnis, brought up on charges for writing an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Part of the problem is that administrators are now business people as opposed to academics. They think they’re doing customer relations.
Colleges and universities, says Hancock, are “increasing not run by faculty or former faculty. They’re run by professional administrators who have a customer service or client service attitude towards students, as opposed to an educational attitude.” Indeed, according to the Delta Cost Project, an American Institutes for Research program that studies the rising price of higher education, at most four years colleges and universities the average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by around 40 percent between 1990 and 2012.
Buchanan attributes her firing, in part, to a disjunction between the values of the administrators and those of the professoriate. Starting about 10 years ago, she says, “We noticed that every new administrator that came to LSU had the discourse and language of a business person. So, for example, my dean calls himself the CEO of his organization.”
They don’t know from freedom of inquiry or why philosophy must be argumentative. They know from customer satisfaction, which is a whole different thing. Running a hotel is different from running a university, or at least it ought to be.
Thus there’s a symbiosis between student demands for emotional safety and the risk-aversion of bloated bureaucracies. The students may be inspired by radical ideas, says Michael Bérubé, a literature professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, but “they wind up playing into the hands of a faceless and possibly pernicious bureaucracy.” The kind, for example, that orders investigations of feminist professors for writing inflammatory essays, or fires people for saying “fuck.”
And then there’s the whole “we’ll show you” problem.
Bagenstos describes a combination of bureaucratic caution and passive aggressiveness. The Obama administration has famously stepped up the use of Title IX against schools that have failed to respond adequately to the problem of campus rape, and in response, colleges are overcorrecting. “If you talk to administrators at universities around the country, they are really responding in a deeply overwrought way to the expansion of Title IX enforcement by the Obama administration,” says Bagenstos. “I think what’s going on in part is this reaction: You’re really going to make us do all this stuff we don’t want to do, we’ll show you it’s ridiculous by going the last mile and the next mile beyond that.”
Sulky babies running the hotel – not ideal. Academics should be worried.
That is, if they care about advancement in academia. Levinson, who just finished his stint at Emory, does not. He says he never wants to teach undergraduates again, and thus sounds almost merry as he unloads his disgust with the whole process. “The academic world can go shove itself up my ass,” he says. “I’d rather dig ditches than have to deal with a bunch of spoiled rich white kids.”
Ultimately, Levinson says, he gave in to a combination of administrative pressure and fear of being forced to endure the bureaucratic gauntlet of a sexual-harassment investigation. One administrator, he says, told him that while he could fight the potential charges, “at the end of the day he was like don’t bother, it doesn’t even matter. It’s just a stupid grade.” Levinson changed it.
Then, when his fellowship was over and he’d left campus, he logged back in the system and changed it back.
Digging ditches is not a bad gig.