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Professors Do Live in Fear—But Not of Liberal Students

The myth of the radically leftist university is a culture-war staple, neatly appealing to anti-intellectualism, fear of youth, and fear of change—conservatism, in other words. It's also proven, of late, to be a lucrative web meme. A self-described liberal adjunct professor, the pseudonymous Edward Schlosser, recently confessed that he fears the blinkered radicalism of his liberal students. "All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis—from due process to scientific method—are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males," he laments. 

Schlosser suggests that the campus left has become more controlling and censorious over the past six years, but is that really credible? The highest profile, most striking case of academic censorship on campuses in the last few years doesn't fit into Schlosser's narrative at all. Steven Salaita had his offer of employment rescinded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after he tweeted vehemently in opposition to Israeli violence against Palestinians. The impetus for the dismissal did not come from sensitive students, but from donors. It was top-down enforcement of a conservative party line, in other words, not a bottom-up enforcement of a liberal one. 

That wasn't an aberration at the University of Illinois, either. The campus has been struggling for years to abandon its former mascot Chief Illiniwek. Native American groups managed to get the university to retire the Chief in 2007, but many alumni and students have resisted the decision, keeping the Chief alive on T-shirts and merchandise. Salaita's appointment was in the American Indian studies department, so the university's decision to bar him from the department is an implicit rebuke to faculty who hired him, and who already face a hostile atmosphere on campus. 

That atmosphere does affect teaching, according to Isabel Molina-Guzmán, an associate professor of Latina/Latino studies at Urbana-Champaign. "As a woman of color on this campus, my gender and the color of my skin automatically places me in a position of disadvantage when it comes to discussing issues of ethnicity, race, gender," she told me.  She says she's been "lectured by white male students" on why the university was right to un-hire Salaita, and says, "Students walk into the classroom wearing racist Chief paraphernalia, anti-immigrant t-shirts and other offensive wear and to my knowledge no one has been disciplined. I have never dared to say anything to those students in my classes and don't personally know of any other faculty of color who has…. To me that does not signal a repressive atmosphere towards conservative students. It signals a climate where students are empowered to say whatever they want about and to faculty, students, and people of color." 

Urbana-Champaign might be considered something of an outlier—but it's not exactly unique either. Last year, the South Carolina legislature imposed financial penalties on public colleges for assigned gay-themed books, including Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home. In Wisconsin, more recently, Governor Scott Walker has taken steps to weaken tenure — a move that seems designed to infringe on academic freedom, and not from the left. As David Perry, an associate professor at Dominican University in Illinois, told me, professors are certainly encouraged not to rock the boat in any direction, "but the only organized groups dedicated to watching and policing professorial speech come from the right wing." (He cited the David Horowitz Freedom Center.) 

Does this mean that universities are a right-wing dystopia rather than a left-wing one? Of course not. I spoke to a number of university and college teachers for this piece, and most said that they did not feel ideologically constrained in the classroom—neither from the left nor the right. Zack Kruse, who has worked concurrently as an adjunct at a public university, a private Catholic university, and a two-year community college since 2011, told me he "has not faced any academic freedom issues, certainly not regarding speech or important social issues."

When academics face pressure, though, it does not occur in some sort of funhouse world where all hierarchies are inverted, students are king, and white men cower. Rather, the pressures are broadly in line with those in other parts of the workforce. America's employees as a whole face increasing precarity and job insecurity. 

That's true of universities as well, where the growing reliance on adjuncts has resulted in a workforce more vulnerable to retaliation from administration. This can result in "structural silencing," as Bill Mullen, professor of English at Purdue University, told me. More optimistically, it may mean "a consumer model of education [which] causes us to re-think centering students," according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, incoming professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. But for better or worse, the dynamic is familiar. "It's no different than any other sector," said Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The same thing could happen to you in corporate America if you say or do something that is considered unacceptable." 

Thomas isn't saying that teacher's should be fired if they do something the administration deems unacceptable, but that the pressures and realities of the university and the corporate world are not wildly anomalous. And white men in the university, as in corporate America, are not wildly disadvantaged. Thomas told me she loves her students, but that many of them have never been taught by a black woman before. That's in line with nationwide statistics, which show that black faculty are still disproportionately underrepresented in higher education: Barely 5 percent of all full-time faculty members are black, and the percentage is even lower at high-ranking universities. As David Perry, a white man, says, "We still dominate the ranks of the professoriate, the higher echelons of administration, and basically the rest of the country."

Both on and off campus, the threat to labor comes from employers and lawmakers, and liberal opinions are as likely, or more likely, to get you in trouble as conservative ones. For evidence, look no further than the Vox essay that prompted this piece. Schlosser's sole example of being targeted for censure was prompted, he suspects, by a video he showed students about "how Wall Street's recklessness had destroyed the economy." Afterward, a student challenged him: "What about Fannie and Freddie? Government kept giving homes to black people, to help out black people, white people didn't get anything, and then they couldn't pay for them. What about that?" That the financial crisis can be blamed on government loans to black people is a racist meme from the paranoid right.

The complaint was dismissed. Nonetheless, Schlosser writes, "I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted." And yet, just a few paragraphs later, he admits, "I didn't hesitate to reuse that same video in later semesters." That doesn't sound like a liberal professor who's frightened of his students, liberal or otherwise. Nor should he be. The real threat to his job comes from above, not below.