Academic Freedom: Michael Bonesteel

Michael Bonesteel was contingent faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). I don’t know the details of his appointment, but it seems he taught sufficient hours to have healthcare through SAIC and had been teaching about contemporary art and comics for a long time. According to Inside Higher Education, he has “resigned” after some of his classes were taken from him due to student complaints about course content and alleged homophobia. I have no information on the veracity of the accusations. They should be taken seriously. But I need to say a few things about the academic freedom issues.

We need to be clear: Taking away classes from adjuncts is firing them.

My position is this (as I wrote about at the Chronicle in a case of an adjunct making horrifically homophobic statements, but in an extramural context, rather than in class) is that the bar for dismissal of any faculty member based on speech exists, but that it is extremely high. Academic freedom does not mean one can literally say anything in any context with no professional consequences, but that the burden for proving it is impossible for a professor to move forward as faculty falls on the institution. The process should be clear, transparent, and aimed at restoring community if at all possible.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s happened here. Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am infinitely more concerned about Bonesteel’s rights than I am about Richard Dawkins’ recent canceled speech, anything that’s happened to Milo, Coulter, Charles Murray, or Peter Singer, or any other fancy featured lecture.

The fight over academic freedom includes defending speech that is repellant to us.

But it takes place in defense of vulnerable faculty, not millionaire right-wing speakers.

I have never (as I’ve been accused) claimed that only left-wing speech should be defended. I argue that when thinking about free speech and academic freedom, we should pay attention to power and prioritize the rights of the most vulnerable. Hence, I am more concerned with student groups than elite speakers. I am more concerned with politicians demanding profs be censored or fired than profs acting badly (i.e. the case of Melissa Click in Missouri or the whole state of Wisconsin). I am more concerned about adjunct profs being fired than tenured profs feeling unhappy that people don’t like them. This case in Chicago is a good example of where people need to work for the principle of academic freedom.

So to all those folks currently polishing their scoldings of a Berkeley radio station for choosing not to host Dawkins, maybe instead you could expend some of your media platform worrying about adjunct rights?

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