Op-Ed: Faculty, Speak Up!

Shampa Biswas, Paul Garrett Professor of Politics

In his Op-Ed titled “Letter to the Faculty” on October 26, 2017, News Editor Chris Hankin asked the question: Why are faculty members reluctant to make on-the-record comments to The Wire on arguably controversial news stories related to the future direction of the college? In his October 31 response to this letter, Professor Dana Burgess offered an explanation not explicitly addressed by Mr. Hankin: Faculty members are hesitant to offer such comments, not because they fear losing their jobs, but because they fear losing the support of the administration on projects that those faculty hold dear, and which require the support of the administration to exist or thrive.

I do not disagree with Mr. Burgess’ assessment of faculty reticence. However, in making his argument, Mr. Burgess has in effect confirmed the fear that Mr. Hankin expressed about censorship. Censorship occurs when fears of retaliation from those wielding power impede the expression of one’s opinions. Such retaliation can take many forms, including but by no means limited to dismissal. If such fears of retaliation are as pervasive as Mr. Burgess suggests, then Mr. Hankin is entirely correct when he contends that it is, “frankly terrifying” that “faculty censor themselves for fear of retribution from the administration … especially at an institution of education dedicated to fostering open dialogue.”

Mr. Burgess is indeed correct to note the declining power of the faculty in the governance of the college over the last few decades, as well as its more recent acceleration. But if more power can be claimed, surely it can also be ceded. Repairing the antagonistic relationship between the administration and faculty to which Mr. Burgess alludes requires faculty participation. Instead of putting the onus on student journalists to dig deeper and source anonymously as Mr. Burgess advocates, I would argue that the faculty need to speak up–more often, louder and in public.

The Wire is one among several venues for such speech. The floor of the faculty, Presidential forums and the faculty listserv are some other public spaces that faculty members can (re)claim as spaces of active public deliberation and contestation. A minority of voices asking difficult questions in these forums can perhaps become targets of retaliation. But multiple voices, speaking together, even if not always in complete agreement, can significantly affect the balance of power between senior administrators and faculty members. The obligation is most certainly greater for those advantaged by tenure, by rank, by department size, by demographic privilege and by other conditions of life. But that obligation exists, and it requires the faculty to go on record.