Academic Freedom v. Radio Silence

The latest Twitstorm arising out of the University of Wisconsin’s budget/tenure/ governance crisis features Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at UW-Madison, and an outspoken critic of the leadership of Chancellor Rebecca Blank. Goldrick-Rab, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “acknowledges that she searched Twitter for future Badgers … to inform them of changes to faculty tenure and shared governance that were about to become part of state law — changes that she believes would hurt the quality of their education, but that the university wasn’t telling them about.” That exchange from early June didn’t get much attention until she tweeted, on July 1, “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many — it’s terrifying.”

One of the students Goldrick-Rab had contacted then asked the University to address the matter, resulting in a formal reprimand from UW-Madison’s University Committee, which concludes that “While claiming to stand for academic freedom, [Professor Goldrick-Rab] has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations. We stand with our fellow faculty, staff, and students who have devoted themselves to maintaining and building on our university’s extraordinary and distinguished record of teaching, research, and service to the people of Wisconsin and beyond.”

The statement is peculiar, wrong-headed, and disturbing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Sara (full disclosure: a Facebook friend I have never met in person) is neither here nor there; ironically, it is this committee’s statements, not hers, that threaten to damage the principle of academic freedom. And having risen to the rank of Professor at Madison, Sara has by definition been deemed to have an “extraordinary and distinguished record of teaching, research, and service to the people of Wisconsin and beyond.” That’s no less true today than it was before all of this started.

And where is Chancellor Blank in all of this? Oddly, an earlier version of the Journal-Sentinel story included a quote from her, now deleted, to the effect that this incident shows that the loudest voices often aren’t the ones that are right: a platitude that avoids addressing either the content of Sara’s statements or the broader principle of academic freedom. (Perhaps, speculates my UWM colleague Richard Grusin, she got the university committee to do her dirty work “so as not to hurt her own chances for a new university presidency?”) Her near-silence represents a missed opportunity—and one that other chancellors and presidents, at places like Illinois, Memphis, and Boston, keep missing as well. So I’m going to try stepping into Becky Blank’s shoes for a moment, and imagine what she could say that would show true leadership:

“In recent days, a heated controversy has emerged regarding statements made by one of my faculty members, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who has expressed her criticism of this institution in tweets directed at incoming freshmen, and made connections, via a statement she attributes to her grandfather, between the psychology of Governor Scott Walker and Adolph Hitler.

“Today I neither endorse Professor Goldrick-Rab’s statements nor censure them. Instead, and more important, I support her right to make them, for this incident gets to the very heart of the place of the university in a free society.

“Before I go on, though, let me say this in the interest of full disclosure: Sara Goldrick-Rab has been a tough critic of mine since even before I became Chancellor. While her critiques have not always been comfortable to hear, I welcome them, for they come from her professional training and expertise, and are made with the aim of strengthening this institution. A strong leader listens to critics perhaps more than to supporters, and draws upon the best ideas of both.

“Setting aside this personal history, we must understand that great colleges and universities, however well-groomed and picturesque their campuses, are often quite messy in other ways. First-rate universities, and those that aspire to that level, seek to attract, retain, and nurture the finest minds in their fields. That such people will at times court controversy is a given; it is also desirable. For no great discoveries are made without intellectual friction, and the meaning of those discoveries often generates further debate—sometimes centuries of it.

“This controversy isn’t the first of its kind, and it won’t be the last. While each case is unique, some basic characteristics connect Steven Salaita in Illinois, Saida Grundy in Boston, Zandria Robinson in Memphis, and now Sara Goldrick-Rab. Controversies over one or more public statements by these professors arose out of highly emotional topics in the national spotlight: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, race, gender, violence, education policy. It’s no accident that we’re not seeing viral stories featuring scientists angrily debating the life cycle of molluscs.

“When faculty members with a stake in these issues bring their expertise and/or their personal backgrounds to the table, tweet about them in the heat of the moment, and then have those statements scrutinized in the harsh light cast by the internet, it’s inevitable that hackles will get raised, sensibilities inflamed, feelings hurt. It is exactly at such moments that our principles of academic freedom are most precious.”

Instead, Becky Blank has gone radio silence. Her most recent tweets—wishing a UW student luck in the Miss America pageant and talking about her July 4th plans—are as American and uncontroversial as apple pie. What has filled the void left by her silence on more pressing matters are (1) a reprimand that gets the idea of academic freedom exactly backward, and (2) a cyber-firestorm filled both with calls for Sara’s dismissal and—surprise, surprise!—a stream of personal, misogynistic vitriol that has no place in any discussion. The latter, sadly, has become commonplace in our Age of Toxicity. The former was avoidable. The absence of leadership from the very top is, once again, more than lamentable.

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About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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