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Good Turn in a Very Troubling Academic Case:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports:

In a dramatic turn of events, the State University of New York at Fredonia (SUNY Fredonia) has promoted the embattled Professor Stephen Kershnar to full professor....

As FIRE reported last month, Kershnar was nominated for promotion to full professor with abundant support from his colleagues and superiors. SUNY Fredonia President Dennis L. Hefner nevertheless denied the promotion. Hefner explained that although Kershnar's "teaching has been described as excellent," he would not be promoted because of his "deliberate and repeated misrepresentations of campus policies and procedures…to the media," which Hefner claimed "impugned the reputation of SUNY Fredonia." The supposed "misrepresentations" referred to Kershnar's bi-weekly opinion columns in the local Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer and his public criticism of a student conduct policy. The university presented absolutely no evidence, however, that Kershnar ever actually misrepresented the university.

When Hefner suggested to Kershnar that refraining from such statements in the future would help his chances for promotion, Kershnar offered to submit his writings to prior review for a year. Hefner suggested instead that Kershnar sign an even harsher contract that would be in effect for an indefinite period of time and that would require Kershnar to get "unanimous consent" from a university committee for all writing regarding the university to ensure "the avoidance of any future misrepresentations" of campus practices.

Kershnar refused Hefner's illiberal and unconstitutional arrangement and contacted FIRE. On July 7, FIRE wrote a letter to Hefner criticizing his actions. Hefner responded in a letter dated July 20 by upholding the denial of promotion to Kershnar.... [But within days after] articles appear[ed] in the New York Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed[,] ... SUNY Fredonia administrators informed Kershnar that they would reevaluate his promotion....

I hadn't had a chance to blog about the matter earlier, but I had looked into the underlying documents (which are pointed to here), and my tentative sense was that FIRE's reaction was quite right -- the professor was being faulted for publicly expressing views with which the university president disagreed, and not for any actual misrepresentations. I'm very pleased that everything ultimately turned out well.

PersonFromPorlock:
Since it's a state university the First Amendment applies; denial of free speech by an official acting in his official capacity seems to me to be a federal felony under 18 USC 242 (deprivation of rights under color of law).

Of course, it's ludicrous -- on the basis of past performance -- to expect the federal government to actually prosecute in this case, but for the life of me I can't figure out why not. Just out of curiousity, is there any way for a 'civilian' to force a prosecution?
8.14.2006 3:04pm
Steve P. (mail):
This may be a pedantic point, but I wish news articles like this tried a little harder to appear objective. Phrases like 'absolutely no evidence' and 'illiberal and unconstitutional arrangement' smack of preconceived bias. They could have reported the same factual statements without giving those little literary nudges to tell the reader who is good and who is evil.

Of course, FIRE is more of a zealous advocate than an objective observer, which is fine. I simply think that if your facts are strong enough (and there's plenty to think that President Hefner is in the wrong), you don't need those adjectives to nail it home.
8.14.2006 3:06pm
AppSocRes (mail):
This brouhaha demonstrates once again that one of the most powerful weapons against acadademic freedom is the tenure system, which gives administrators and senior faculty extraordinary power to punish junior faculty with whom they disagree.
8.14.2006 3:13pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

This may be a pedantic point, but I wish news articles like this tried a little harder to appear objective. Phrases like 'absolutely no evidence' and 'illiberal and unconstitutional arrangement' smack of preconceived bias. They could have reported the same factual statements without giving those little literary nudges to tell the reader who is good and who is evil.

Of course, FIRE is more of a zealous advocate than an objective observer, which is fine. I simply think that if your facts are strong enough (and there's plenty to think that President Hefner is in the wrong), you don't need those adjectives to nail it home.


It's not a news article, it's a press release. It's supposed to give you the facts and a strong dose of how to interpret them (partly in hope that some uncareful editors will do a little too much cutting and pasting - and this happens all the time).

Lukianoff is particularly fond of slipping in a few choice adjectives in the first couple of sentences, but in substance it's no different from what press releases normally do.
8.14.2006 3:20pm
frankcross (mail):
AppSocRes, that doesn't make much sense. Without the tenure system, they could just fire them at any stage of their careers. That's bigger punishment authority than denial of tenure.
8.14.2006 3:55pm
WMH:
"Hail, hail Fredonia, land of the brave and free!" Somebody had to say it.
8.14.2006 4:01pm
Shangui (mail):
This brouhaha demonstrates once again that one of the most powerful weapons against acadademic freedom is the tenure system, which gives administrators and senior faculty extraordinary power to punish junior faculty with whom they disagree.

I may just be confused here but didn't Kershnar already have tenure? From the posting it seems that the issue was promotion to full professor, which at most colleges and universities happens after one has already rec'd tenure and become an associate prof. If this is the case, then tenure has probably saved him from being fired outright by this seemingly unhinged administration.
8.14.2006 4:09pm
Mahlon:
frankcross is right! Tenure is to universities as unions are to the U.S. automotive industry. Enough said.
8.14.2006 4:09pm
Jason Fliegel (mail):
Apropos of WMH's comment (which I would have made if he hadn't):

When the Marx Brothers made their satirical comedy Duck Soup in 1933, they did not realize that Freedonia, the zany utopian community in which the film is set, was akin to the name of a real town in New York. To their surprise, the town's mayor wrote an angry letter to Paramount shortly after the film's release. "The name of Fredonia has been without a blot since 1817," he declared. "I feel it is my duty as Mayor to question your intentions in using the name of our city in your picture."

Groucho promptly composed a reply: "Your Excellency, our advice is that you change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture. Anyhow, what makes you think you're Mayor of Fredonia? Do you wear a black moustache, play a harp, speak with an Italian accent or chase girls like Harpo? We are certain you do not. Therefore, we must be Mayor of Fredonia, not you. The old gray Mayor ain't what he used to be."

Source
8.14.2006 4:14pm
Shangui (mail):
Tenure is to universities as unions are to the U.S. automotive industry. Enough said.

Except that the US has the far and away the best system of colleges and universities on the planet.
8.14.2006 4:23pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"Except that the US has the far and away the best system of colleges and universities on the planet."

Who says they would not be better were it not for tenure? Certainly the only different between the US and other countries is not that we provide tenure to our university professors; perhaps the reason our system is so good is something else: that most are private and hence there competition; that our industry is excellent and a good education is required to be a successful entrpreneur or manager; that our economy is strong and there are ample funds to support a top notch educational system, etc.
8.14.2006 4:45pm
Hoosier:
I'm an "interested party," but . . .

Most of the attacks on tenure that one hears these days miss the mark. To wit, the "Tenured Radials" would be employed and promoted regardless of whether there was tenure or not. They reflect the overwhelming left-liberal slant of academia in general. It isn't tenure that's keeping the radicals, and frankly the nut-jobs, at the trough. It's the largely monochromatic ideology of our universities.

The downside of tenure, if you are an administrator at a researech university, is that is allows a fair amount of deadwood to pile up. Check into the publication records of the faculty of any "research extensive university" and you will find what I call permanent associate professors: faculty who wrote a Big Book in the 1980s, and have not produced anything significant since then. A dean can chastise these folks; can deny them raises; can demand committee work. But beyond that, you are stuck. And this is a great frustration for a department that wants to, say, attract graduate students in the permanent associate's area. It's expensive to create a redundant faculty line.

But who cares? It's hard for me to get worked up about this, since most of us produce books and articles because we have to, not becasue we have anything important to say. The problem is simply, in my yhumble opinion, that these professors were tenured on the basis of their publications. At research universities, teaching doesn't come into the decision unless it is demonstrably horrible. So there is no reason to presume that these folks are taking the time they would have spent on yet another book on gender and advertising in 1920s women's magazines, and puting it instead into updating their lecture notes, or prepping new, exciting classes.

In short, one CAN get tenure, and then do essentially nothing for the rest of his or her career. Doesn't that violate most people's sense of fair play?
8.14.2006 4:50pm
Shangui (mail):
perhaps the reason our system is so good is something else: that most are private and hence there competition

I actually do think this is indeed the most important factor (more so than tenure). I was just reacting to the hyperbole of the idea that tenure is the equivalent of unions in the US auto-industry. There are certainly problems with the tenure system, but I don't think that particular analogy works at all.
8.14.2006 4:50pm
Hoosier:
Radials?--Only in Akron.

Radicals
8.14.2006 4:50pm
frankcross (mail):
Tenure is debatable, I think. But for the opposite reason that was given. It allows too much academic freedom, i.e., the freedom to be lazy.

However, tenure has an often overlooked benefit of saving money. A significant number of academics could make more money in private industry. They don't do so in large part because they like the academic life. But there is always an economic tradeoff at the margin. Tenure is a significant form of academic compensation, if you take it away you would have to pay more to keep faculty.
8.14.2006 5:33pm
Toby:
Tenure, though, does increase the [political] power of the committee, because so much of the gettign tenure process seems like hazing. Work like a dog to earn tenure, and then be denied or not on an absolute whim. Get turned down for tenure, forget it, you are damged goods and will only be hired as a low wage temp and your out of the field.
8.14.2006 7:00pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Jason Fliegel:

Thanks for the one truly interesting post on this thread.

Mahlon:

Unions and tenure are both good.
8.15.2006 12:23pm
JerryW (mail):
"Since it's a state university the First Amendment applies; denial of free speech by an official acting in his official capacity seems to me to be a federal felony under 18 USC 242 (deprivation of rights under color of law)."


I thought after Grove City it would apply to every institution of higher education regardless of state affiliation.
8.15.2006 1:31pm