In the wake of Yale and University of Missouri campus protests, journalists and bloggers have written and debated extensively over the propriety of college activism, but remain vague on the role of faculty — namely professors — in demonstrations primarily run and led by students. Professors and lecturers straddle a difficult line between maintaining a professional distance and involving themselves in their students’ lives. Unlike administrators, they are not required to respond directly to their students’ concerns, but more often than not are held responsible for their discomfort and anger.
As much as current media loves to exaggerate student activists as pitch forked mobs, the truth remains that activism has invaded classrooms and faculty lounges, with the consequence that some professors fear discussing relevant contemporary issues with their students, lest their remarks result in a petition calling for their immediate removal. The issue extends beyond monitoring debate in the classroom; for some student activists, even dignified silence on certain topics is suspect, meaning that they expect professors to not only accept activism, but also to demonstrate alongside students in their fight against racism, transphobia or sexism.
Such unbalanced expectations damage student-faculty relations and undermine a liberal, freethinking environment for two reasons: one, forcing professors to become activists may destroy their relationships with the administration and, by extension, their research funding or chances of advancement, and two, professors’ activism can influence classroom matters in unethical ways, especially with regards to evaluation and grading. Wellesley students need to acknowledge that involving professors in student activism creates problems of power dynamics in both directions: either students can pressure professors into compromising their positions or professors can pressure students to remain silent and fearful within the classroom.
After years of student demonstrations, college activists have gained more say in electing or ousting members of the faculty, and their newfound power is not without its detrimental consequences. For example, while activists have toiled to pave way for minority professors and lecturers and brought to fruition several ethnic studies departments, they have also damaged the reputations of well-meaning professors whose research or statements did not sit well with the general campus opinion.
Administration has enforced tougher standards for political correctness and codified speech euphemisms that seek to prevent offense to disenfranchised groups – examples that come to mind are Harvard’s decision to remove “master” from all academic titles lest it imply connotations of slavery, and Wellesley’s own choice to impose the use of the pronoun “she” in all general classroom discussions to validate the experience of a women’s college.
While these may be minor examples, such movements to codify “correct” speech limit professors’ ability to engage in fruitful discussion without the risk of losing their academic titles. Laura Kipnis, a tenured professor at Northwestern University, had sexual harassment charges brought against her after she published an essay that criticized “sexual paranoia” surrounding Title IX issues, forcing her to clear herself in a faculty misconduct trial. A professor at a state school under the pseudonym “Edward Schlosser” discussed his fear of his own students, claiming that “the student- teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective.” In other words, student activism has generated a hypersensitive environment where students scrutinize professors’ everymovementandword,andprofessors are expected to join alongside students in their demonstrations without receiving support.
Not surprisingly, such expectations most negatively impact professors of minority. At Wellesley and elsewhere, professors of color and/or LBGTQ orientation are expected to engage more intimately and passionately in campus activism, while other professors reserve the right to remain silent on controversial issues or at least refrain from bringing them into the classroom.
Sometimes students depend on their professors to educate them on political issues outside their field, or at least vehemently agree with them on certain subjects simply on the basis of the latter’s ethnicity or sexual orientation. They face unreasonable demands to spend time doing activism outside of their academic research and teaching, as well as aiding minority students in their various concerns: female professors are expected to comment on every change in the sexual assault policy or discuss gender in the classroom, and professors of color are seen as traitorous if they devote only a small part of their lecture to racial dynamics in the United States. For a non-white or LGBTQ professor, their career advancement may depend heavily on their activist work instead of their teaching or research, which is unfair to both students and professors.
The solution is not to completely separate faculty from college activism, but create safe spaces where professors can divulge their concerns and more importantly, recognize that professors cannot always or fully participate in student activism but often are relegated to the sidelines. In no way should college activism interfere with professors’ teaching and research, and if student demonstrators truly mean to make lives easier for disenfranchised groups, they should refrain from attacking professors for simply trying to hold their jobs.