Academics: Say Nothing if you Want a Job.

A new survey of chief academic officers is out from Inside Higher Education. Among the findings: Provosts really care about civility and think it should be part of the framework for hiring and tenure.

I see this as potentially troubling. When the Steven Salaita controversy broke, I wrote a piece for the Chronicle called “Don’t Speak Out,” in which I read the Salaita affair through the lens of my interest in public engagement for academics. I said that the lesson for academics was that if you ever wanted a job, or might want to move from one job to another, don’t have strong opinions about things.

We need more public writing, not less. We need to open pathways for more academics to speak out in public, not punish Salaita for doing so in ways that have provoked such strong feelings. But we can’t ask scholars to embrace the risks of engagement in a system in which partisan bloggers and local papers can push timid administrators to fire, or in this case unhire, academics who leap into public debates.

In theory, Provosts agree with this and support public scholarship. At the same time, from IHE:

Generally, provosts expressed concern (with little difference by sector) about civility. Asked if they were worried about “declining civility among higher education faculty,” 27 percent said that they were very concerned and 44 percent were somewhat concerned. Only 5 percent were not concerned at all.
But in more detailed questions, provosts had varying perspectives on where faculty civility is lacking.
Generally, they feel more confident of faculty civility with regard to students than to fellow professors or (in particular) administrators. And provosts typically believe that their institutions display more civility than higher education as a whole. (A pattern in Inside Higher Ed surveys of administrators is that they think their institutions are doing better in many respects than the rest of higher education.)

So they think their institution is fine, but others aren’t so much. They think faculty are civil to students (which is as it must be, due to the power dynamic at work there). But about 80% of all provosts, across all sectors, (download the whole survey here), believe that civility is appropriate to consider for hiring and tenure/promotion.

So that’s it. It’s a massive majority. And so we’re stuck back where I started this post.

If you ever want to get a job in higher education or be considered for another job in higher education, don’t speak out on important controversies. Stay cautious. Stay silent. Stay detached.

This is not what the academy needs. It runs counter to the message we share with our students. It runs counter to the NEH call for more public humanities. It runs counter to everything I’ve been writing about for the last year.

But the data is clear. So be careful out there.

2 Replies to “Academics: Say Nothing if you Want a Job.”

  1. Unknown says:

    "We need more public writing, not less."

    Anyone who has ever read the comments thread of a major newspaper knows that there's no shortage of public writing.

    Oh, you mean public writing by academics. Well, yes, but only if they bring something to the table. Like their academic expertise, perhaps.

    What we don't need is academics who use twitter to say the same kinds of idiotic and offensive things that can be found on any newspaper comment thread. There's no reason to encourage the production of that kind of drivel.

  2. David Perry says:

    Speaking of drivel on comment threads …

    I have written many essays on this issue. If you click on writing clips above, you'll see some of them. Do a little reading, come back, and I'll be happy to talk more if you can stay polite.

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