Eyes and Ears

I’ve had some strange encounters with university administrators in my day, but a recent conversation ranks high on the list. For various reasons, I hesitated to write about it, but the chill wind blowing across American college campuses keeps reminding of a broader context for the conversation in question that makes it that much more troubling.

When we last heard from our blogger, he posted a sharp critique of his chancellor’s performance at a town-hall-style meeting on the budget crisis. Preferring that he get the critique directly from me rather than secondhand, I sent it to him directly. Before I could hear back from him (he sent a cordial reply shortly thereafter), another senior emailed me and asked to meet. A couple of days later, Administrator X, as I’ll call him or her, met me in the campus library’s coffee shop to talk things over.

The meeting got weird quickly. “The Chancellor told me you wrote something about the budget meeting on your blog. He appreciated your sending it to him, but he thinks you made some mistakes. I haven’t read it myself; why don’t you tell me what you wrote?” Cue those old New Yorker pieces that had fun playing with the divide between how we respond in the moment, and what we might have said had we not been caught like a deer in the headlights:

What I Said: “I’d like to know what he thinks I got wrong.  I try to be very careful with the facts.”

What I Wish I’d SaidYou didn’t read it?! You know it’s only about 750 words, right? Do you usually come to meetings completely unprepared?

Also unvoiced was another thought I couldn’t avoid: “Of course you read the blog post! It’s absurd to think that you wouldn’t have.” If I were a betting man, I’d bet that X did read it. If so, why lie about it? I’m not that good at, and not that interested in, parsing the chess moves of people who play these sorts of games, but my guess is that it’s supposed to be some sort of technique to catch one’s opponents off guard so you can more effectively manipulate them. How tedious, and how unproductive.

The weirdness did not end there, though. “We’re all in this together,” X lip-serviced. How to work together? In future, I was asked—a gesture my wife later deemed “polite censorship”—to run any critiques of the administration by them before airing them in public.

What I Said: “Um, hmm, I—well, hmm.”

What I Wish I’d Said: I’ll tell you what: think of me like a theatre critic. I’m using my professional judgment to comment on the subject at hand, and share it with my readers. The critic doesn’t run a draft of his review by the playwright and director before sending it out into the world, and I’m not going to do the equivalent.

And then came the moment of recruitment. “You’re my eyes and ears,” crooned Admin X.

What I Said: “Ah, bah, mm, hmm.”

What I Wish I’d SaidEyes and ears?! I guess you don’t realize how ominous that sounds, but you’re scaring me. And now I wonder who has agreed to be your ‘eyes and ears.

Once out of the headlights, though, I was able to gather my thoughts and respond in more articulate fashion. Here’s the relevant portion of an email message I sent the next day to X, copied to Chancellor Mone:

I appreciate that you value my input, and my sense of what’s being discussed among faculty, staff, and students. As for being “your eyes and ears,” as you put it, that depends on what you mean. I’ll be happy to convey issues and ideas to you if I think that might be productive, but not to be the administration’s point man in sussing out campus climate. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for, but just want to be clear. The best way to gauge that climate is by talking with many different people and constituencies on campus, which it sounds as if you are doing.

I will also continue to be constructively critical; if that were to stop, I wouldn’t be much use to the University. And I’m not promising to run critiques of the administration by either of you first. As I said yesterday, I don’t criticize gratuitously, and I work hard to get my facts straight. But besides feeling that I have something valuable to say, I’ve seen that my demoralized colleagues need to hear my voice.

To be fair to the administration, in writing X quickly endorsed the more benign interpretation of the meeting:

Thx Joel…I also thought it was a good discussion and we will continue our dialogue at the university – as it should be!

And you’re right on your interpretation of eyes and ears…and I continue meeting people and listening…It is important.

So should we conclude, “No story here—move along”? That’s possible; only time will tell. In the meantime, there are reasons to be vigilant, parse administrators’ words and actions carefully, and call them out whenever they stifle academic speech and academic freedom:

  1. The UW System no longer provides tenure protections for its faculty. That doesn’t need a lot of commentary, except to add that the UW system no longer provides tenure protections for its faculty.
  1. Though administrators have tried to reassure faculty that those protections will be replicated in Board of Regents language, there are numerous reasons to be skeptical about the prospect of that ever happening, as many commentators have observed in recent months.
  1. I would love to be reassured that the administration is not trying to co-opt me, but then why all the language signaling a concerted effort to do just that? I can’t take issue with the email reply I received, but I’m also aware that no sane administrator would say in an email, “We’d like you to report any seditious words or actions by your colleagues.”
  1. None of this is happening in a vacuum. Even in universities where faculty still have an opportunity to earn and then retain tenure protections, administrators sometimes do an end run around those protections, and sanction, stifle, or even fire faculty members who do not toe the line. A spate of stories along these lines has surfaced in recent months, with faculty members’ public comments, statements in class, and scholarly work leading to their jobs being rescinded, their scholarly work censored and monitored—and even to their being fired from a tenured position for using four-letter words in class. The Nation, reporting on the latter incident in the context of some of the others, refers to “what some say is a growing intellectual chill and sexual panic on campus.”

So administrators, take note: even if you consider yourself a vigorous champion of academic freedom—a title you must earn, not just claim—be aware of the wider context when you make any statements to your faculty and staff that might reasonably be perceived as an effort to rein them in. It’s simple, really: if you want to stand up for academic freedom, then do so, consistently and unwaveringly, with both your actions and your words.

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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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One Response to Eyes and Ears

  1. Steve Hill says:

    “I haven’t read it myself; why don’t you tell me what you wrote?”

    That would have thrown me for a loop, too. And responses like “Um, hmmm …” have kept me out of a lot of trouble over the years when people who ought to know better say the most outrageous things. It’s only later when my brain says things like, “Well, then, you’re either not telling the truth or you’re just not very capable.”

    I think most university administrators are generally pretty good people who find themselves in tough situations when dealing with their rank-and-file faculty colleagues. Most of them would do well, though, to drop the patronizing approach to “communicating” and just speak frankly.

    Then again, speaking frankly is probably a hindrance to moving into an administrative job in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

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