Monday, May 12, 2014

lifestyle vs. academic freedom

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have fired chosen not to rehire a contingent faculty member named Kilgore, following a local newspaper story revealing that Kilgore had been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and had been jailed. Kilgore had informed university officials about his past. As Christopher Kennedy, board chair, explained:

"But our general position is clear. We want to be respectful of the fact that we operate on taxpayer's money and tuition ... and people paying tuition who have will have concerns about underwriting this lifestyle." Kennedy also said that because Kilgore is an adjunct, there are not academic freedom issues at stake. "We're not reacting to public pressure. If this was an issue of academic freedom, we would stand up for it. This is an hourly employee who doesn't have tenure. It's completely different," he said. And Kennedy said he has been "very clear" in sharing his views about the issue with university administrators.
We can tell more or less precisely when the board gained this clarity about how to act on their devotion to the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of Illinois, based on the facts presented in the Inside Higher Ed piece. It was after the news story publicized Kilgore's past.

We can also tell to whom the board is willing to extend whatever they might understand by "academic freedom": tenured faculty.

Frankly, I'm willing to take their word on that. As this starts to become a topic of email conversation among contingent faculty across the country, the lack of academic freedom for an "hourly employee" is the focal point. For good reason, contingent academic labor are insulted by this avowal that they are sub-citizens. But I believe Kennedy and the Illinois board are telling the truth about their understanding of the role of contingent faculty and the extension of "academic freedom." That may be the only thing they are telling the truth about, in fact.

Kennedy's assertions that the board is "not reacting to public pressure" is flatly contradicted by his statement that the decision was based on the concerns of the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of Illinois regarding Kilgore's "lifestyle." (I'm delighted by the conceptual mush implied by the use of lifestyle in this context. Is being a member of an anarchist terrorist group a lifestyle? It's easy to imagine Kennedy explaining the equivocal meaning of the word is.)

Anyway, no, this isn't an academic freedom case, but not because Kilgore doesn't have the right to academic freedom (which he doesn't, because the board says so). It's a lifestyle case. The board has asserted that, at least for contingent faculty, public "concern" about a faculty member's "lifestyle" can be valid grounds for not renewing the contract, even one who is supposedly very good at the job. There's no currently prevailing concept of academic freedom that I'm aware of that pertains to lifestyle or even mentions it.

Why, after all, should the Great Taxpayers support the lifestyle of a faculty member about which they have concerns?

So, in the interest of being completely above board and candid, and so the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of California can decide whether or not they have concerns, some details of my lifestyle follow.

  • I am 45 years old. (I don't have concerns about this, myself, but I do have objections.)
  • I live in a 1472 square foot house on the edge of town. 
  • I live across the street from cows.
  • My spouse and I are intentionally childless. 
  • We intentionally have two cats, and unintentionally have one more, and a stray turtle.
  • I used to be a member of the Philosophers' Drinking Club, as an undergraduate at UNC-Charlotte.
  • I serially violate stop signs while riding my bicycle.
  • I own a dozen guitars.

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