Academic Asphyxiation: A Culture of Fear, A Culture of Silence


Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter

February 1, 2016

I came across the phase “academic asphyxiation” while reading Hans-Joerg Tiede’s University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors. The phrase occurs in a section of the book in which Tiede discusses what life was like for professors in the United States before the founding of unions and professional organizations like the AAUP. One such academic was E. A. Ross, a sociology professor at Stanford University, who was forced to resign his position right around 1900 for consistently offending Jane Stanford, the widow of railroad magnate and Stanford University founder Leland Stanford. In particular, Ross’s opposition to the importation of Chinese labor, the kind of cheap labor that built both railroads and huge railroad profits, besmirched the tycoon’s legacy, and at Jane Stanford’s urging, David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s president, pushed Ross out. Ross had refused to be silent.

Many years later, at a special meeting of the American Sociological Society organized in 1914 to discuss issues of academic freedom, Ross, now re-employed at the University of Wisconsin, described the code of silence that settles in among faculty afraid to speak out for fear of losing their positions: “academic asphyxiation is much more common than is generally realized. . . The dismissal of professors by no means gives the clue to the frequency of the gag in Academic life. We forget the many who take their medicine and make no fuss. There indeed is your real tragedy. Pity. . . the men who, without giving sign or creating scandal, bow to the powers above and cultivate a discreet silence” (emphasis added). A culture of fear, a culture of silence, the products of an institutional culture that had not yet put in place so many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted today and which are now seemingly so much at risk: academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure: 2015 and 2016 are beginning to feel too much like life one century ago.

Witness Wisconsin—the once blue now scorching-red state that has become a laboratory for the dismantling of anything pertaining to the public good—where Governor Scott Walker and his legislature removed tenure protections from state law. (A humorous aside from Charlie Pierce: “The main point of the reign of Scott Walker, the twice-elected goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their Midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin, has been to dismantle the laws and traditions of progressive government that originated in that very state.”) This terrific university system now risks faculty flight and has little power to attract a highly qualified professoriate. Witness Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, a case now before the Supreme Court, which if decided for the plaintiff will strip public unions of agency fees and much of their financial clout. Conservatives sensing their imminent demographic demise have launched a desperate fusillade of anti-progressive legislation and lawsuits in recent years, much of it written by right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council. And lurking in their baronial shadows are the billionaires—the Kochs, the Waltons, the .01 percenters—viewing a map of the fifty states as if it were a checkerboard and they, among the few remaining crowned men in the board game called democracy, ply dark millions to protect and grow their billions.

Given the current polarized climate and sheer force and scope of the assault being launched against institutions whose permanence seemed ensured not so many years ago, it is no wonder many of us may now be re-afflicted with “academic asphyxiation.” It is no wonder that our first instinct might be to hunker down and silently ride out the storm in a tenured bunker while our legalized protections and established institutions do their work. The problem with the bunker mentality is isolation, alienation, and even depression, all fed by the illusion that our institutions will watch over us with God-like security and omnipresence. Yes, we are blessed at NCC with two strong unions with terrific traditions of ensuring salaries, pensions, governance structures, academic freedom, and so many other benefits of working at this college. But if fear is creeping back into our collective lives, then shouldn’t that be taken as a symptom that, as Marcellus puts it in Hamlet, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”? That corruption might—like a smelly fish–be taking root among some who administer, or govern, or oversee this college? That forces external to the college wish we didn’t have nuisance organizations like unions? That the mere presence of the word “public” in the formerly great public institution that Nassau Community College has been is an association anathema to most conservatives who would align the word “public” with non-white races, and handouts, socialism?

In and around 1915, academics like E. A. Ross, A. O. Lovejoy, and John Dewey, understood that the best antidote to academic asphyxia is the practice of democracy and its associated freedoms: chief among them freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Put somewhat differently, the cure for academic asphyxia is organization and speaking out. Hence the birth of the AAUP in 1915 and its concomitant institutional reforms: shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom. It’s 2016. It’s an election year. Let’s think carefully about who we vote for. Speak. Organize. Act like it’s 1915. Know hope.

Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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