Tag Archives: gag orders

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Academic Fiefdom

Young scholars will have to decide if they want to risk their academic careers in states where politicians are happy to be at war with the traditions of a liberal education.

Academic Freedom is under threat in a number of states, most notably in Florida. A person only needs to look as far as a recent gathering of the reconstituted Board of Trustees at New College, a small public liberal arts campus in Sarasota.  Recently, and in just a few seconds, the conventions of shared governance with the faculty and administration were trashed.

The video of the trustee meeting that resulted in a barrage of dismissals is a heartbreaker: the equivalent of vandals ransacking a gallery of carefully curated paintings.  The names of five scholars were proposed to the board for tenure: the most momentous event in an academic’s work history. All were summarily rejected, in spite of the support of their Department and their disciplinary counterparts from other campuses. Those who saw their careers ransacked in an instant came from the fields of oceanography, chemistry, Latin American Studies and music. In seconds, and with no debate, the life-altering decision that they prepared for over decades was rendered. They did not achieve the vote of confidence that at most universities is pro-forma at this stage.  A Board’s vote is normally the final step of a rigorous peer-review process after exhausting years of individual preparation.

A tenured position is the most significant hurdle for a scholar set on  making their mark in a chosen field.  Tenure at a reputable school requires years of research or writing, and usually a clear record of achievement in the classroom. An individual professor reaches this decision point usually between the ages of 30 and 40. It is the single best shot at a full career: a knife edge decision-point that is the stuff of nightmares and dreams. Many who fail to secure tenure are looking at a lifetime on the margins of academic life, with too little time for research and too many large classes to manage. Without tenure, limited contracts are offered, usually without the chance to become a meaningful force in the life of their department.

The newly reconstituted New College Board was chosen by a governor known to be intent on punishing the College for its reputation as a progressive bastion. That explains why the President was fired and the campus diversity office was closed. It has since become clear that an obscure religious school in Michigan is to be the model for New College. Like it or not, the school’s faculty have found that they are suddenly on a train that has left the main line for a sidetrack headed into the backwoods of nativist thinking.

It is good to remember that tenure is given to academics to allow them to pursue their chosen scholarship without pressure from college and departmental bureaucracies. When working properly, it should be enough to defeat attempts to silence teachers with the kinds of gag orders favored in Florida. In the same way, tenure at least indirectly protects students who can expect an expanded horizon of ideas to be explored.

Popular narratives like to poke at tenure as a license for faculty laziness. And it happens.  But it is rare for a senior scholar or a master teacher to lose interest in what they worked so hard to achieve.

What is at risk in states where legislators and governors are looking for ways to create political mischief?  More faculty will be shunned by newly enfranchised and anti-intellectual board members, many of whom have their eyes on traditional liberal arts departments. History, English, Philosophy, and Music: are among the seven liberal arts that have made up the core university curriculum since antiquity.  But they are not safe if legislators want universities to abandon ideas and turn themselves into trade schools.

Institutions that used to be the pride of specific states will have to guard against direct interference. Their many stakeholders will also need to push back.  And young scholars must decide if they want to risk their years of academic training in states where non-expert politicians are happy to be at war with the canons and traditions of a liberal education.

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You Can Say That Again

               Wikimedia Commons

The idea of forbidden language is offensive in an open society.  Fortunately, the resources of language can usually outflank any administration’s clumsy attempts at thought control.


Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” --Washington Post, December 15, 2017.

“A Fool’s Errand” is a phrase perfectly suited to the attempts of any bureaucracy to censor the words of their employees.  But it’s doubly hard to get one’s head around a diktat coming from this enfeebled executive branch that would try to control language used by one of the nation’s premier federal agencies.

We are lucky to have the Centers for Disease Control and the 15,000 dedicated science and public health professionals it employs.  Wikipedia notes that about half of these folks have advanced degrees.  Many are the world’s leading authorities on illness and the control of infectious diseases.  Whose bright idea was it to try to make certain public health terms forbidden?  Perhaps the same kind of neanderthal who  might ask a singer to only produce notes on the major scale.

The organizational impulse to ban certain unwelcome ideas is hardly novel. Employees “fronting” for industrial or institutional interests will frequently learn what to say, as well as the lexicon of terms to avoid.  But it’s especially insidious when lists of unacceptable terms show up in our civil life, where there should be unfettered public discussion.  This is why there is an emerging sense of satisfaction in the release of the new film, The Post.  It celebrates the 1971 decision by Katherine Graham and others at the Washington Post to publish a secret government history of the ill-fated Vietnam War.  A gag order has already been issued to the New York Times.

Widespread revulsion to the CDC gag order has apparently led to some backtracking on what the policy analysts can say. But these kinds of missives keep coming from all over, including state and federal leaders averting their eyes from subjects like “climate change” or “reproductive rights.”  Every instance is a reminder of how hostile the dead hand of censorship can be.

To be sure, in everyday life it makes perfect sense to consider terms appropriate or inappropriate for the settings in which they are used.  Editors are still scratching their heads over whether to print or broadcast some of the vulgarities uttered in the 2016 Presidential campaign. But monitoring language for appropriateness is very different than forbidding it in all contexts.

Effective synonyms can save the day. One can only hope cowed agency employees will have the will to use them.

Luckily, the resources of language are far greater than a pathetic list of banned terms proposed by management at the CDC.  If “vulnerable” doesn’t work for the administration, how about “exposed,” “insecure,” “defenseless,”  or “at risk”?  If “entitlement” seems dangerous, how about “privileged,” “given special prerogatives,” “deserving,” “one’s birthright” or “owed to a citizen”?  If “evidence-based” or “science-based” seem inexplicably risky to inflict on the public, how about “reasonable,” “rational,” “empirical,” “based on observation and study” or “what has been proven through systematic observation”?  Like a star broken field runner, the resources of rhetoric can easily outrun clumsy attempts at thought control. Effective synonyms can save the day. One can only hope cowed agency employees will have the will to use them.