I was in the news briefly in the context of an attack our university by way of an attack on one reading assignment in one of our lecturer-taught classes. Our institutional strategy is to avoid adding energy to the attack by engaging it, instead to let it die from its own weakness, so I’m not going to link to the relevant news stories or provide identifying details, but I thought it would be instructive to give some background and reflections that are both potentially helpful to others at public institutions and of interest to the broader state of higher education.
I received an email as department chair from a talk show host about one reading assignment in a class, complaining about its “vulgar and racist language and obscene focus.” I initially wrote a long response that explained how one uses “edgy” material in teaching, explaining that sexual material is appropriate for adults, and that we still can express sensitivity and concern for student sensibilities without censoring ourselves. I referenced my own discomfort as an 18-year-old student when a lecturer discussed the sexual imagery in Thomas Mann. My initial response also included a snide remark about how students with real concerns usually raise them with the instructor or chair, not talk show hosts. I almost sent it, but then at the last minute realized that I’d better check my response with higher ups, given that the tone of the email sounded more political than actually offended. For one thing, the article in question advocates that gay men not express racial preferences in sexual partners, so it is hard to figure out exactly where the “racist” part came in, unless it is the quotations expressing racial preferences that the author was criticizing.
It turned out that a state legislator had already launched a complaint about the same thing higher up, so I was asked to coordinate my response with the institution’s. Campus people told me they liked my answer but thought it was too long and a bad idea to engage this kind of criticism any more than necessary. The inquiry came in late afternoon one day; we got the response out late the next morning. My associate dean quickly researched the lecturer’s syllabus and discovered that it contained a warning that some class material would be controversial or uncomfortable and advising a climate of sensitivity and respect for different people’s positionalities as they engaged it. Campus officials also asked for the lecturer for information about the context of the assignment. Responses written by committee take time, so it was the next day before I sent “my” email reply to the talk show host, which was also posted on the university web site. I did write part of it, but it was heavily edited by others and also incorporated material from the lecturer that I didn’t write. When she got out of a meeting later in the day, the chancellor also sent me and the lecturer a note of full support.
What I did not do and should have done is to immediately contact the lecturer directly and make it clear that we were supporting him. It was clear from what I wrote and what everybody else was writing in emails that we were supportive, but I should have done this personally instead of indirectly, and I forgot that he would be feeling vulnerable. It was obvious to me from the content of the original complaint that the lecturer had done nothing wrong, which is why I did not think that I needed get his side of the story. But I should have checked with him anyway. It is important always when listening to a student complaint about an instructor to get the other side before taking any action. I talked to the lecturer later to give him the assurance I should have given him initially. As his name got in the news, I and the head of university communications both gave him the advice to lie low and let us handle the case. I urged him to remove his private phone or address information from any public place and to avoid answering emails or phone messages. University communications warned him he might even get death threats or harassing messages. The content of the attacks is clearly directed toward the university as a whole and university leadership, not toward the individual instructor, so we are the ones who should take any heat.
Virtually all of the news coverage has been supportive of the lecturer and me and critical of the complainant. And, of course, other news has been filling the news hole. I feel that I and the lecturer were well supported by our administration at every step (except for my failure to reach out initially to the lecturer). I did feel that what I originally wrote about teaching sensitive material was in some ways a lot better than the more bureaucratic tone of “my” official response, but I trusted the professionals’ judgment about the need to be brief and careful in a threat situation.
A lesson for all instructors and especially department chairs is that you, too, may have to deal with something like this, especially if you are at a public school that is under political attack. It is worth knowing who in your institution is responsible for dealing with “public relations.” At least at my school, as chair I’ve heard several presentations on the issues. I will note that these presentations generally primarily addressed positive outreach, but also included instances of bad publicity and what to do if something bad was going to come up.
It is also important to remember the difference between responding to a media inquiry as a “source,” which I do at least weekly around issues I research, and responding as an administrator to a complaint from the media. We are speaking only for ourselves in the former case, but for others in the latter.
A broader implication is that public institutions increasingly are not only facing the budget constraints of a wave of privatization that favors private schools over public, but also face political intrusions into our work via both funding oversight and open records requests that can access our email correspondence. In periods of resource scarcity, significant resources are devoted to administrative staff whose job is to deal with these attacks, both in the media and communication departments and in the legal department. I’ve personally had my email requested in an open records request about something else, and I know of a number of other colleagues who have, as well. It not only felt intrusive, it used up at least five hours of my time (and multiplying the other people involved, I’d estimate at least 50 hours total of professor and staff time) to respond.
People at private institutions are also subject to constraints, but they are different. At most private schools, students are the revenue source and you have to treat them as customers who must be satisfied. And typically the rights of administrators to tell departments what to do are much greater than at public schools. But being a partisan political football takes its toll at a public school. I should also state for the record that over the years I’ve been at the institution, both parties have treated the university as a political weapon. I recall a period in which the governor was a Democrat and the legislature Republican, and it seems like both sides were trying to “get” each other by throwing bombs at the university. Historically, Republicans in this state were strong supporters of higher education and many of our top donors are Republicans. But having your business managed by a conflict-laden partisan process is never good.