The source of true academic freedom

The University of California Board of Regents should be commended for enacting a strong statement affirming faculty rights in the area of academic freedom. The 2006 Garcetti decision asserted that faculty rights to speak about administrative issues were not necessarily protected.

Where previously academic freedom was seen as linked to classroom teaching or scholarly research, the California regents assured the faculty in the system that their First Amendments freedoms would be intact on campus. Further, they didn’t have to be a faculty senator or union rep to express an opinion publicly.

In another forum, I was responding to a 22-year Navy veteran who said he had earned his freedom of speech. I respectfully disagreed and said that he didn’t have to “earn” his freedom of speech. We were all born with it; he just went many extra miles to defend it for all of us.

I was raised as both a military brat and a Texan. I was taught to square my shoulders, look people in the eye and tell the truth. Granted, sometimes you have to know when to just say nothing, but I always thought I had nothing to fear from telling the truth.

Now, in higher education, it can be just as big a snake pit as government or big business. There are politics everywhere and you have to make mental notes of the invisible clout lines and who the key henchmen and weasels might be.

Even as a dean and associate professor, I was not invulnerable. When someone felt they could look me in the eye, smile, and shake my hand while lying to me, as if I didn’t know better … well, it’s time for me to go. No, thanks for the offer but I’m partial about who I take a drink with and I have better Scotch at home.

And I think that is where the real freedom of speech comes from. I knew they couldn’t buffalo me or buy me and they knew it, too. Keep the job. I’m going to go home, watch some cartoons, play some golf, read some novels and leave your foolishness in my wake.

If you want maximum freedom of speech (and all the other freedoms, too) you have to be as self-sufficient as possible. I’d recommend to my friends in academe to get their financial houses in order. Just as Joseph advised pharaoh, you have to store up in years of plenty to survive years of want. Do the Dave Ramsey program or something else but be squared away at home. I’ve got plenty of canned goods, batteries, and ammunition. Bring on the zombie apocalypse.

If I come in to campus one day and the coffee hasn’t been made, I can say, “screw this,” get back in the truck and go home. I don’t need to work but I like to work. Teaching and research are fun. I like having a nice place to do them. It takes some doing to find that situation but they are out there.

My own research (soon to be published) has borne out that the number of tenure-track slots is dwindling. More institutions are going to non-tenure, annual contract, or even at-will faculty. An administrative contract is hard to find except at the C-level. So, you can have all the academic freedom you want … until you say or write something the top brass don’t like.

It’s up to each person to judge the risk/reward. Our freedoms are powerful but remember what Spider-Man says: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or, if you prefer, as my fellow Texan and Scotch drinker Ron White put it:

“I had the right to remain silent. I just didn’t have the ability.”

About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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