The complexities of job security and free speech at Ithaca College
Ithaca College students are awake and aware. For the past year, students have taken a stand on campus by challenging a variety of the college’s policies.
Last spring, the Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity (LIPS) demanded that the college provide a living wage for all its dining service workers. This semester, the Environmental Leadership Action Network has insisted the college change its paper policy for use of post-consumer paper while Frack Off is fighting for the college to formally ban natural gas hydraulic fracturing. The Occupy IC group called for students to walk-out of their classes to stand in solidarity with the Occupy movement, while Students for a Sensible Drug Policy continues to fight for equal disciplinary penalties for marijuana and alcohol possession.
As students have become increasingly active on campus, a few faculty and staff members have been hesitant to take part in such political activity in fear of repercussions. At least one Ithaca College employee was even told by superiors not to take part in an event. Other stories could not be disclosed because of anonymity.
Taylor,* the aforementioned Ithaca College employee, said it was both shocking and discouraging to be advised not to partake in the event.
“It’s a reevaluation of ‘Who do these people really stand for?’” Taylor said. “Do they stand for the students [who are] critical of the administration as well as the students who aren’t?”
Taylor said it provoked questions as to the purpose of working in higher education.
“We are finding ourselves reevaluating a world that’s supposed to be built on the ideals of free speech — institutions that claim to be this marketplace of ideas,” Taylor said.
Alex,* another Ithaca College employee, has also refrained from publicly taking part in some of these political campaigns on campus. Though Alex was not specifically advised not to participate, Alex felt it was wise to abstain.
“There’s a subtle sense that you’re always being observed,” Alex said. “We supposedly have academic freedom, but yet when you express opinions … you have to be really careful of not offending people.”
Alex said tenure plays a large role in what employees are willing to speak out against.
“There’s a culture of anxiety around tenure,” Alex said. “We’re in an economy where nobody wants to lose their job.”
Taylor said serving the college as an employee at-will, without access to tenure or any other type of protection, means that you are replaceable.
“Whenever someone doesn’t fall within the status quo, whatever the administration determines that to be, they can easily be removed for someone that’s a little more docile,” Taylor said.
Tenure was created to cultivate a space in which professors can freely express themselves in and out of the classroom. According to Provost Marisa Kelly, about 60 percent of the nearly 500 full-time faculty members at Ithaca College are either tenured or on the tenure-track.
Kelly said faculty members are usually hired for tenure-track contracts when the department is in need of a permanent position.
“I think tenure, as an institution, is very important in terms of encouraging faculty to make long-term commitments to the institution and to our students and to the development of the curriculum,” Kelly said.
Regardless of whether faculty members are tenured, Ithaca College is committed to freedom of speech for all categories of faculty, Kelly said. She said sometimes professors who do not speak their beliefs are self-censoring.
“I think there’s that natural tendency,” Kelly said. “But I don’t think it is founded in anything real here at Ithaca College.”
Yet, Taylor experienced something very real.
“Just because it’s a college, and just because it’s in a place like Ithaca, doesn’t necessarily mean it is open-ended,” Taylor said.
While some Ithaca College employees experience or self-impose censorship on how they wish to express themselves, others have neither feared nor faced repercussions for speaking their mind.
Ithaca College politics professor Zillah Eisenstein participated in and spoke out at LIPS’s march to demand that dining service workers are paid a living wage.
“It’s an issue I care deeply about, and so I was going to speak out,” Eisenstein said.
She, as well as Ithaca College politics professor Tom Shevory, who spoke at Occupy IC’s walkout, said they participated in activities they felt strongly about before and after receiving tenure.
Ithaca College Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity professor and program director, Asma Barlas, has also spoken out continuously throughout her career and said she never faced repercussions for expressing her viewpoints. She said that although there can be repercussions for speaking out, sometimes employees censor themselves amidst a climate of fear.
“In many cases the repercussions are very real — sometimes when faculty are coming up for tenure, deans and people higher up can raise objections about their politics,” Barlas said. “But I think sometimes people are self-policing because of a culture of fear.”
This is not restricted to Ithaca College or academia in general. According to Barlas, there is a culture of fear in the United States, where people are not willing to speak their minds.
Shevory said tenure often does not change someone’s willingness to vocalize their beliefs.
“I think sometimes there is self-censorship whether people have tenure or not,” he said. “I think the people who are inclined to censor themselves are going to do that under any system that they’re within, and I think the people who are going to speak out are going to speak out.”
Ithaca College politics professor Don Beachler, who worked as a non-tenured professor for 23 years before receiving tenure this academic year, said the repercussions an employee could face should not be underestimated.
“In some cases it’s self-censorship, and in some cases they would get in trouble — it depends what they say,” he said.
Beachler, who is the faculty adviser for LIPS, said he was not hesitant to take this position because the politics department was very supportive of the student organization.
“Imagine a conservative in the politics department,” he suggested, reiterating that one can face repercussions if what they say is unpopular. “Academics aren’t any more tolerant than anyone else — we just like to think we are.”
Alex said fear is definitely prevalent for non-tenured employees who have little sense of security.
“The climate in higher education is one in which a lot of faculty know our jobs can easily be eliminated, downsized, converted to adjuncts,” Alex said.
In fact, around 30 percent of Ithaca College’s more than 700 faculty members are part-time or adjunct professors. According to the U.S. Department of Education, tenure and tenure-track faculty hires across the nation have decreased dramatically, while part-time faculty positions have increased, from 24 percent in 1975 to 41 percent in 2009, largely due to the appeal of the financial flexibility it offers.
Job security and freedom of speech are intricately connected because it may seem difficult to risk speaking one’s mind when one knows they need money in order to live. Beachler said he wishes all faculty, full- and part-time, were extended protections.
“I would rather the tenure system did not exist and we just had unionized contracts — as long as you performed satisfactory you can keep your job,” Beachler said. “I don’t like all these distinctions. We should be one big group — equal conditions and equal pay for equal work.”
Alex agreed that representation would foster a feeling of protection.
“We would all be wise to see ourselves as workers and build solidarity,” Alex said. “Our understandings of how the political economic system in the U.S. works are really confused if we think anybody doesn’t need collective representation.”
Shevory points out that sometimes these tangible protections don’t really matter.
“When you got people really under the gun, I don’t know how much tenure will protect you,” he said. “In some ways, it’s a false promise.”
Taylor said, at the end of the day, it is clear that those with authority determine one’s security.
“I can’t get around the fact that I work for people that are ultimately responsible for the financial well-being of an institution, and that the people that they answer to are financial backers, investors, trustees,” Taylor said.
Instead of tenure fostering free speech, some see it as some sort of act of compliance.
“The tenure process is one big exercise in conformity,” Beachler said. “[Though] they say it’s about excellence.”
Kelly said once a decision is made to offer a tenure-track position, the college looks for someone who will be an excellent teacher, remain engaged as a scholar and provide service to the college.
Yet the process is still subjective and abstract, which spreads a feeling of uncertainty.
“There’s sort of this sense on this campus that we’re always being judged and held up to a standard of excellence that isn’t entirely specific or explicit,” Alex said.
Barlas, however, said tenure is ultimately about having the ability to create a democratic space amidst a society that’s authoritarian.
“Tenure is about being able to teach in a classroom different kinds of ideas which a police state might not want you to teach, so at least you have that kind of intellectual freedom,” she said.
However, receiving tenure does not mean an employee will suddenly start taking risks.
“There will always be something that can be used to silence you, like promotions, merit raises, etc.,” Eisenstein said. “If faculty begin to censor themselves in lieu of these prizes then we have acceded to the losses and curtailment of ‘thought and action’ in silence.”
On the one hand, a culture of fear pervades many levels of society, reaching all professions, that makes people question their thoughts and actions. Having job protection to guard against this fear is both a very real security and very much an illusion. In some cases, this safeguard has protected freedom of speech, while in others it simply did not matter. On the other hand, the only way to fight back against the structures that create this both real fear and sense of fear is to think and speak freely. Perhaps, then, we realize we may always have to live stuck in the middle.
“It makes me question the work that I do,” Taylor said. “Perhaps I can’t have it both ways, where I can be there for the students in every way possible, but I can also be within the boundaries of what my superiors determine to be legitimate.”
* Names of Ithaca College employees have been changed to protect anonymity.
Alyssa Figueroa is a journalism and politics major who believes fear is what we must fear. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.