Hucksterism, yes. Charlatanism, yes. Buffoonery, yes.
Now that we have established that, let’s consider how the gleeful campaign to expel Dr. [sic] Oz from his Columbia professorship intersects with the current state of higher education.
Photo by Jon Bunting, via flickr
Budgets, curricula, trigger warnings, competition from the University of Wikipedia. Societal suspicion of intellection and reflection. Increasing corporatization. And let’s not forget human rights.
Professor Oz (yes, that does sound odd) is not the only academic (that too) to have his professorial status challenged of late. There are others whose livelihoods have been threatened because they hold unpopular political views or have stood up to the man. Or because they did something as distressingly ill-advised as any of us might have done under the right wrong circumstances.
So, let’s not smoke the poppies just yet.
In 2013, University of Kansas faculty member David Guth was suspended over a tweet that distastefully maligned the National Rifle Association. (Now, if he had tastefully maligned the NRA, would that have gotten a pass?) Later, National Public Radio described the Kansas Board of Regents’ introduction of guidelines for social media, which restricted what faculty could say online. On NPR, State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady had this to say about the incendiary tweet:
“Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can’t go this far,” he says. “I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the board of regents on what’s acceptable and what’s not is better for everyone involved.”
Couture-Lovelady, by the way, is not only a state representative but is also a member of the NRA.
In 2014, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the School of Public Health’s executive director expressed disagreement with the administration’s budgetary plans, which he and others had been told not to oppose in public. Robert Buckingham’s tenure was revoked. He was fired and physically removed from the University and was told he was “banned for life” from returning to campus. Although he was to retire in a matter of months, his retirement benefits were withdrawn. University Provost Brett Fairbairn’s letter to Buckingham read as follows:
“In publicly challenging the direction given to you by both the president of the university and the provost, you have demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination and have destroyed your relationship with the senior leadership team of the university” [emphasis added].
Some leadership. Some team.
(Buckingham was later offered part of his job back, and even later, Fairbarn resigned.)
Earlier this year, Steven Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois. In 2013, he was wooed away from a tenured position at Virginia Tech to accept a professorship, also tenured, at UI’s Urbana-Champaign campus. The following summer he was informed that his hire had been denied by the University’s Board of Trustees.
About ten months had passed since the initial offer. The previous autumn, Salaita had proposed to UIUC that he finish up the year at VT, and UIUC had agreed to defer his start date until the fall. However, the Trustees’ vote on his position did not take place until the summer, well beyond the point where he had had to sell his house in Virginia and resign his position at Virginia Tech. He was already working for UIUC, without a contract, preparing courses for the ensuing semester. Yet the discussion about l’affaire Salaita circled around his offensive tweets. (Some faulted Salaita for accepting such conditions, even as they failed to scrutinize the management that expected him to commit, relocate, and begin working before the Trustees voted.)
In March, former associate professor of anthropology Kimberly Theidon filed a lawsuit against Harvard University. She contends that she was denied tenure in response to her advocacy for victims of sexual assault:
Yes, I was denied tenure in retaliation for my Title IX protected speech and conduct in support of survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Theidon says that she was explicitly told not to speak up about sexual assault. Her tenure case was decided while Harvard was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in regard to Title IX violations. Theidon, quoted in the Boston Globe, says she was expected to “check her conscience” when she entered campus:
“It’s about the fact that that institution would prefer to deny tenure to an eminently qualified person rather than tenure that person and have her continue to speak out about how much they have failed to protect students, both women and men, on that campus.”
(I remember reading an account—though I do not have a link handy—wherein Theidon reported being advised by an administrator that faculty do not normally undertake advocacy before attaining tenure. I wonder what sort of explanation a junior professor might offer for keeping silent about violent criminal activity for six or more years. “Sorry, can you reschedule your assault and PTSD for 2020? Maybe I’ll be able to offer support then. That is, if I get tenure . . .”)
So, back to Oz. The anti-intellectualism and even magical thinking that feed his success deserve critique, and he deserves censure. But the reactive craving for his termination, undertaken in the name of reason and science, give pause. Oz is no intellectual—at least, not in his current incarnation. However, the mass vendetta that seeks to remove him resembles, causally or not, battles against the very intellectual integrity that Oz-ousters claim to value. The content drives the public discussion, and the form is overlooked. As are the likely repercussions.
It’s not so far from cries of “Reiki faker!” to accusations of “amendment thwarter!” Or “insubordinator!” Or “Anti-Semite!” Or “man hater!”
In hawking magic coffee beans and in hosting celebrities who blame themselves for their cancer while promoting their new albums, Oz may do harm. And so may those who tread the warpath looking to incite his downfall. We do well to keep our bloodlust in check.
Those who are so invested in Ozgate may consider themselves rational and intelligent and superior. They may be right. But they may also be playing with a fire they do not even know is lit. Some academic voices are touted and amplified, others merely tolerated, and still others are silenced altogether. The forces that determine these outcomes cannot be seen on TV shows.
Some praise Oz for daring to speak up against GMOs and Big Food. Others deride him for promulgating wishful thinking through homeopathy. One need not embrace a rudderless relativism to realize that the verifiability of his claims is not the sole issue at stake. (Have you never received inadequate advice, based more on personal bias than rational consideration, from a medical professional? I have.)
Imagine an intellectual you respect, one with a keen intellect, unwavering integrity, and a fierce commitment to the greater good. Imagine her fulfilling her professional obligations with expertise commitment yet being subjected to claims of inappropriate speech and insubordinate behavior. Imagine her research, lauded in the field at large, suddenly subjected to disproportionate scrutiny and found lacking by the administration that had previously tenured her. Imagine her being directed not to speak in public—whatever “public” means these days—about any misgivings she may have about her university’s policies. Imagine her receiving word that she should not, at 11 p.m. of an evening, on the comfort of her sofa, compose an impassioned, impolitic few sentences expressing frustration at gun violence. Imagine her being told she is not to speak up in support of students who have reported being raped.
That’s why we have tenure. Or had it.
A little Reiki and unfounded weight-loss advice might not be such an insupportable price to pay for academic freedom. And who’s so sure we can’t converse with the departed anyway?