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Insubordination and Tenure

Even though my November 2 post “Insubordinate in Academe?” received over three dozen comments, no one actually answered the question I posed: What, exactly, does “insubordination” mean in an academic context?

That question is neither rhetorical nor inconsequential. Because if academic “insubordination” has no generally accepted definition, but simply means whatever an administrator says it means, then tenure is effectively dead and we’re all at-will employees.

And perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps all of this talk about insubordination actually represents an internal attack on tenure. We expect such attacks to come from outside sources, such as right-wing pundits and Tea Party candidates. But maybe the most dangerous and damaging attacks originate from within our institutions.

(This seems like a good place to insert the following disclaimer: People often assume that, in my blog posts and Two-Year Track columns, I’m writing about my own college. That’s not necessarily the case. Of course, I frequently use examples from the various places I’ve worked–what other examples would I use?–but those are usually identified pretty clearly. Otherwise, I’m writing about what I perceive to be national trends, based on my extensive reading and communication with friends and colleagues across the country.)

Here’s what I see happening nationally, at both two-year and four-year institutions: Instead of fighting to protect academic integrity in these times of austerity, which is what they ought to be doing, many unscrupulous and self-serving administrators are taking advantage of the political situation to consolidate their own power, curtail faculty independence, and weaken faculty authority.

I’m not saying that all administrators are unscrupulous and self-serving. But some are, and the number seems to be growing. Or perhaps those who have always inclined toward autocracy, but in the past have felt it prudent to feign a more collaborative style, have simply been emboldened by the bad economy. We see this each time an administrator responds to legitimate faculty concerns by saying, “You should just be glad you have a job.” Or, in other words, “We’re going to exploit your fear of losing your livelihood in order to do whatever we want. And if you continue to make waves, we’ll charge you with insubordination, which is a fireable offense.”

The problem, as I pointed out in my previous post, is that no one ever bothers to define insubordination. We all understand that, literally, insubordination means to disobey a direct order. But does that mean we have to do whatever an administrator tells us to do?

To illustrate this dilemma, I cited in my post a couple of hypothetical examples of what I would consider “unlawful orders” (as long as we’re using military terminology): the “order” to change a student’s grade, fairly and properly assigned, and the “order” to stop writing about certain topics with which the administration may feel uncomfortable, even though those topics are well within the faculty member’s purview as a scholar and/or a citizen. I referred to both of those examples as issues of academic freedom.

Imagine my surprise when several readers wrote to say that neither example has anything to do with academic freedom. One even cited the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom to support his assertion. I actually went back and re-read that statement, which does specifically mention the things that faculty members write. True, it doesn’t say anything about grades, but I can think of few activities more fundamental to our academic freedom as teachers than the grades we assign in our courses.

Seeking clarification, I e-mailed Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, providing a link to my blog post and asking his opinion. Actually, I e-mailed him a couple of times, at different addresses, but received no response. No doubt he’s busy and/or didn’t get my messages.

Still, I would love for the AAUP and other faculty groups to weigh in on this question of insubordination and what it means, because I think the issue cuts right to the heart of our struggle to preserve faculty independence and authority in an unstable social and economic climate. The bottom line is that, if faculty members don’t play a role in defining and setting the parameters for insubordination, then many administrators will simply define it however they want–and I’m afraid we’re not going to like their definitions.

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