Academic freedom does not extend to politics in University of Illinois schools, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of the main reasons behind tenure just kicked the bucket.
According to an email sent out to faculty and staff at UIC this week, they can no longer wear partisan buttons or park their cars on campus if they have partisan bumper stickers. Presumably violaters will be sanctioned and possibly even towed!
On the one hand, faculty positions can be seen as ones with undue influence on youth and therefore a button in the classroom represents certain kinds of ethical questions. On the other, a vehicle is personal property unrelated to university service and unconnected to said influence. How exactly is a bumper sticker going to negatively impact one’s ability to teach objectively or for students to learn in the same fashion?
This issue represents another step in the policing of faculty behavior beyond the bounds of the university that prompted the creation of tenure in the first place and that is why it is important. While many businesses have rules about political discussion in the workplace, we cannot forget the particular history of the university, the state, and freedom of expression nor that the University of Illinois is regulating that expression down to the sign above your exhaust pipe.
What is most interesting to me in this case is that the University felt emboldened to police its faculty and staff’s political expressions to the minutiae of a bumper sticker. Anyone who worked in WS during the primaries is fairly clear that unspoken policies about which political paraphernalia you could actively be seen sporting and which you would likely be shunned for having ruled hiring decisions, civility in staff meetings, and in one case I know of, who got TAs and who did not. (Despite other blogs who claim these things never happen, I have enough reports from colleagues, students, and my own witnessing of events to wonder what utopic hole they have stuck their heads in and whether or not there will be a uni when they finally pull them back out with a big ol’ pop.) However, the University of Illinois bold step of putting it in writing takes political policing out of the realm of innuendo and individual departments/leadership styles and into university sanctioned policy.
How exactly is this policy going to be applied?
- Will faculty whose teaching or research is too radical for students or administrators be targeted? After all, its much easier to slowly widdle away someone’s sense of academic freedom through perpetual sanction for ridiculous non-issues then to question their ability to teach or do research when they are tenured or otherwise showing vital contribution to department and Uni.
- Will the Horowitzian Republican students stake out the parking lot making their little lists of liberal faculty’s cars and turning it in to Campus Safety?
- Will students who are getting bad grades, having diversity conflicts with certain disciplines or faculty who teach them, claim they saw their professor or chair taking off a button on the way into the building? Will they get their disgruntled friends to corroborate it?
- Or will it be left to partisan parking lot attendants and bored work study students to roam the faculty parking structure looking for offending stickers and putting their plates on permanent ban?
- What if you drive your partner or spouse’s car into work that day without checking the bumper first? Will it be like photo radar where you can take the Uni to court for unequal treatment under the law (ie that everyone is not being busted equally) and sanction for a “crime” actually committed by someone else?
The ridiculousness, the wasted labor, and the potential for abuse abounds.
And where exactly does it stop? Will they ban faculty from participating in silent protests for peace, anti-rape vigils, or heated intellectual debates on the war effort in student activity sponsored events? If we participate in any number of political charged events closely related to the curriculum of studies programs, whether WS, ES, or International Studies, will the tone of the event be weighed for its political content and some of us sanctioned for seeming too partisan?
These are the real issues we supposedly dealt with over 30 years ago on campus. Just because the University of Illinois has chosen to make their statement non-partisan does not mean it any less abusive or useful to those who wish to target certain people, groups, and political ideas.
Politics outside of the classroom is nobody’s business in a democracy. We are all entitled to have political opinions and political affiliations as long as they do not interfere with our work or incite violence against targeted groups. It seems that one of the legacies of the current administration is a growing intolerance to freedom of thought and expression; if you cannot be free in an institution of higher learning then where exactly are you supposed to develop critical thinking skills?
While you ponder that, I have to go scrape off the Visualize Swirled Peas bumper sticker with the drooling baby that kind of looks like a political leader off the back of my car lest someone think it is a partisan political statement and not just that I am easily amused by word play. (read more about this here.)