Should community college professors watch what they say?

If community college professors are any indication, United States citizens, who normally pride themselves on their freedom of speech, are not quite as free to speak their minds as they might like to believe. Academe Online says community college professors are coming under increasing anti-free speech pressures:

[F]aculty face growing demands by accrediting agencies to design protocols to test student outcomes, which some fear will lead to a more standardized curriculum. In other institutions, faculty members are asked to adopt a “customer service” approach to teaching, with instructors pressured to make students satisfied purchasers of their educational product.

Community colleges have become such a central part of the nation’s education network—with 1,269 colleges serving close to seven million students, or 43 percent of the nation’s undergraduates—that NBC last fall created a prime-time situation comedy called Community that is set on a fictional campus, Greendale Community College. . . .

Academic freedom gives faculty members the right to discuss their subject area, including controversial topics, in the classroom. It supports their right to carry out research and publish their findings, even if the subject matter is controversial. And it allows them, as citizens, to speak out on controversial issues, free from institutional censorship or discipline . . .

Those principles are lovely, but they mean little to a community college adjunct looking for a toehold in the academic world, where a slight misstep could mean no job the next semester. With adjunct faculty predominating at community colleges, course material there has a tendency to become tame, says AAUP president Cary Nelson.

“The most chilling stories I get are from faculty who withhold controversial material from their syllabi,” says Nelson. “They don’t want students or the administration to get upset.”

Student complaints can indeed prove damaging to an instructor’s academic career, says Mike Van Meter, an untenured instructor of English at Central Oregon Community College in Bend. He says some adjuncts don’t challenge students because they fear negative student evaluations and resulting loss of the courses they teach.

Why would any adult ever want to take a course from a professor who is not free to speak her mind? You would think that what one human goes to another human for is her honesty—her honest thought.

I want to know what people think, don’t you?

Apparently, a lot of people don’t. Still, the Supreme Court, at least for now, seems to be on the side of teachers. Academe Online says this about a 1967 court case:

[T]he Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Keyishian v. Board of Regents . . . overturned New York City’s requirement that teachers sign an oath that they were not Communists.

“Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us, and not merely to the teachers concerned,” the Keyishian decision said. “That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

The pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. Does anybody doubt that another conservative or two on the Supreme Court might well find “the pall of orthodoxy” and conformity to be a good thing, reversing free speech protections for teachers who openly speak their minds in ways that students and administrators don’t like?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Should community college professors watch what they say?

  1. drew says:

    A conservative? Why not fear a left wing judge imposing ciriculm standards?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Drew:

    Your point is well taken. The vehicle of free speech can go off the left or right side of the road. And the “pall of orthodoxy” (accompanied by its thoughtless zombies) can come from many lifeless directions.

    Sorry to turn this into a bad movie, but I can envision a film of someone speaking their minds in a classroom—a student or teacher—in which, in one sentence, the person manages to offend the sensibilities of both the left and the right. Then suddenly a creepy glaze falls over the eyes of the people in the room, and they start zombie walking toward the person who spoke their mind. Fleeing the classroom, and after the twists and turns of the film, that single person finds herself realizing that her only sanctuary is the Supreme Court. She runs into the building, relaxes—imagining that she is safe—then turns around, and to her horror, finds the Supreme Court justices with the same zombie eyes. A Twilight Zone episode?

    —Santi

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