But, while student activists make for more colorful copy, if we’re concerned with free speech on campus, we should scrutinize how it’s threatened by those who hold the most power within these institutions: administrators.
Just ask Peter Fraunholtz. A Northeastern University adjunct for 18 years, Fraunholtz helped the university’s recently unionized adjuncts complete the bargaining process for their first contract. That process finally came to an end last month, nearly two years after the 900 instructors gained representation from the SEIU, making them the largest adjunct union in the Boston area.
Despite these large numbers, Fraunholtz estimates they won the campaign with “about 25 committed individuals.” Much of the absenteeism comes down to the fear that afflicts vulnerable workers when presented with the choice to either speak out or stay silent.
Testifying to the sometimes surreal nature of participation in the campaign, Fraunholtz tells the following story: “Northeastern University police came after me when I was flyering on campus. They took my ID, they called in my name, and then somebody came out and said ‘Oh, this has to be approved by the faculty senate,’ and then somebody else showed up from elsewhere and said, ‘Oh no, this has to be approved by marketing.’ Then a third person showed up and said, ‘If you walk over [to the public sidewalk], you can do whatever you want.’”
Pausing to laugh at the idea of getting a flyer critical of the administration approved by that administration’s marketing department, he adds, “But that’s what they’re thinking: it needs approval. Everything must be approved.”
He isn’t wrong.
Writing via e-mail, Joe Berry, author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, says that if the chilling effect on speech that follows from job insecurity is hard to document, its prevalence is impossible to deny.
“There’s a joke among contingents that says, ‘Any contingent who says they teach their classes as a professional worker in the same way they would if they had job security is either lying or too stupid to be trusted with a class.’” Explaining how this unfolds in the classroom, he explains: “Self-censorship is by far the biggest consequence of this, as far as the education of students are concerned. Much of this is by omission. The topic not brought up, the questions not answered, the extra point not made, the opinion toned down and therefore less clear.”