Earlier this year, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner was fired from his job as a tenured professor at Linfield University after he spoke out about sexual harassment allegations against university trustees. Pollack-Pelzner is now suing Linfield. Two professors also recently filed suits against Pacific University saying they were wrongfully forced out of their jobs. All of this comes at the same time as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was initially denied tenure at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because a major donor raised concerns about The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which Hannah-Jones led.
Linfield University professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt says all of this amounts to the “corporatization” of universities and that one of the goals is “to attack and even destroy tenure.” Dutt-Ballerstadt wrote about all of this for “Inside Higher Ed.” She joined us to discuss her recent piece.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
DAVE MILLER: Earlier this year, a tenured professor was fired from his job at Linfield University after he spoke out about sexual harassment allegations against University leaders. He is now suing the university. Meanwhile, two professors recently filed suits against nearby Pacific University saying they were wrongfully suspended or forced out of their jobs. And all of this comes at the same time as the well-publicized tenure saga of the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She was initially denied tenure at The University of North Carolina after a major donor raised concerns about her Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project for the New York Times. Linfield University Professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt says that all of this can be tied to the corporatization of universities and its goal to attack and even destroy tenure. Dutt-Ballerstadt wrote about all of this for Inside Higher Ed. What do you mean when you say a ‘corporate’ or a ‘corporatized’ University?
Remshi Dutt-Ballerstadt: What I mean by a corporate or a corporatized university is universities where their end goal is no longer mission driven, but market driven. And as a result, faculty and staff are all treated as at-will employees where everybody in a corporation starting from the CEO to the lowest level worker is an at-will employee. Anybody can be fired at any time without being given due process. And one of the things that is happening with corporatized universities more is that we are finding that tenure is under attack. Tenure, by definition, is a lifelong employment and a faculty member can only be removed for cause. I think this cause should be then heard by a community of faculty members where the faculty member charged [with] violating any kind of policy or anything concerned with the university is given a right to [a] hearing. So in [a] corporatized university, as we have found happening nationally, particularly during the pandemic, faculty members are being terminated without being given this due process. In many ways, as I said earlier, they are being treated as an at-will employee where, from one day to the next ,you can be fired for any reason, and [not be given] any cause.
Miller: What privileges has tenure historically conferred? What historically has made academia, once you [are tenured], different from basically every other aspect of American life?
Dutt-Ballerstadt: The AUP’s (the American Association of University Professors 1940 statement on the principles of tenure and academic freedom and the 1958 statement on [the] standard of faculty dismissal are both incorporated verbatim into many faculty handbooks. I’m just going to briefly point out three salient points here:
- Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole;
- A common good depends upon the free search for truth and the free exposition without the fear of any retaliation;
And the third thing and most importantly,
3. A tenured faculty have academic freedom and can only be terminated for cause and (most importantly) tenured faculty have a right to a predetermination hearing by their faculty peers.
To fire any tenured faculty without giving them their right to due process is an egregious assault on the principles of tenure and incredibly harmful for any university and the profession of being a faculty as a whole. This indeed is incredibly unique because no other profession in the world probably allows this kind of academic freedom that the principle of tenure protects for anybody working as a faculty in any university, provided you have tenure.
Miller: I want to go back to just a quick overview of some of the incidents because you included very different recent events in your piece. So in one case, your, now former, colleague at Linfield, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner was fired after publicly calling out the University for its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct and antisemitism. At Pacific University one tenured faculty was suspended and another was let go because of allegations that they either violated the civil rights of students, or did other things that the university said went against university policies. And then the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at UNC. After a mega rich donor intervened that changed later. But what [do] you see as the through line in these very different situations?
Dutt-Ballerstadt: In each of these cases and particularly the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, [which] is a little different because from the very get go, [she] was not yet faculty. She would be given tenure by the Board of Trustees, which is regular practice in all institutions. Ultimately it is the Board of Trustees that approves your tenure. For Nikole Hannah Jones, it was that at [that point] that this got blocked because of a powerful mega donor, Walter Hussman, who opposed her being granted tenure on the basis of her piece in the New York Times, [1619 Project] essay. At Pacific, I’m not a faculty [but] I have gathered from news media that the [tenured] faculty has been terminated or has been put on leave and was also not given due process. And definitely at Linfield, my own colleague, Professor Pollack-Pelzner was the faculty trustee. Faculty, in any of these institutions, is [a] mandated Title IX reporter. So for Daniel [Pollack] Pezner, it was his job and his obligation to report on the sexual misconduct cases that he had heard of or were being reported to him by students and faculty.
So he moved forward hoping that the institution was going to address those [issues] and that the perpetrators [were] going to be held accountable. And of course, in this infamous case, some of the perpetrators also happened to be Trustees, powerful men on the Board. So when he tried and he tried and he tried in every possible way he could and he was receiving opposition, he finally said, ‘well, I mean, I have an obligation to my faculty. I have an obligation to my students [to encourage accountability]. One of the primary responsibilities of any faculty in any institution is to keep our students safe. If the issue of sexual misconduct is not going to be handled and nobody’s going to be held accountable and there is a lack of transparency and trust in the entire process of reporting, then I have no other choice than to make this much more public, hoping that pressure would allow the institution to address the issues.’
What we’re seeing in all of these different [cases] is this kind of whimsical [policy] of who is going to be kept in, “the university/the corporation” on the basis of who pleases the systems of power. If you go against them and you speak out against the system, then you ought not belong in the system anymore.
Miller: We told the administration of Linfield University that we were going to be talking about these incidents and staff morale and tenure. They sent us this statement in response;
“Linfield has been undergoing a significant shift in strategy over the past couple of years, one designed to meet the needs of a new generation of students. Change is uncomfortable. We understand and empathize with how difficult it can be but together, Linfield’s nearly 600 employees are working hard to evolve, adapt and overcome the trends that are negatively impacting many other small private liberal arts colleges.”
Again, that was after we told them we’re going to be talking about these incidents and tenure and staff morale. We also asked for a statement from Pacific. This is what they sent us;
“Pacific can not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters. However, we note that the situations at Linfield and Pacific are very different. Further,Pacific supports its students, faculty, and the tenure system.”
I want to turn to students themselves. How do you think all of this impacts them?
Dutt-Ballerstadt: I think the impact of students is tremendous. I don’t think any faculty or any staff is against any change. But if the change is to not address issues that directly impact students and their safety, then that’s probably not a very welcomed change. For instance, we have, since Pollack-Pelzner’s firing, created a task force. The two leading members of the task force are actually the two members of the Board of Trustees. And, quite remarkable to hear [at one of the weekly meetings I attend] was [the response of] a student on the taskforce, when she was asked about how students at Linfield feel Her response was something to the effect that ‘if Daniel as a tenured faculty could be fired for reporting and forcing issues of accountability. Then as a survivor, I do not feel safe or comfortable anymore. I trust the system to report.’
And I think this lack of trust in the system with powerful men can get away with sexual misconduct. And [when] the messenger is shot trying to protect our students and faculty, [it] is detrimental to both Linfield, to any institution that is not addressing issues of sexual misconduct head-on. And ultimately, this is all about keeping our students and our community safe. How can anybody keep a community safe when the very principals and the policies that are laid out to protect the students are not being followed.
Miller: You’ve been talking about what you see as the erosion of tenure and tenure protections. But even so, I would imagine that tenured faculty at Linfield and around the country have more relative security than adjunct faculty or other staff. What have you heard from nontenured colleagues at Linfield or around the country about what they’re going through right now?
Dutt-Ballerstadt: I’m glad you asked this because for an adjunct or contingent faculty, they do not have the protection of tenure, which essentially means they’re an at will employee. They can actually be fired from one day to the next. So for them, as they are seeing a tenured faculty, who has this protection, being fired and terminated and dismissed without any due process, this creates a culture of fear. What then makes anybody that is an adjunct or contingent faculty speak up for any institutional wrongdoing? If they know that the end result is them losing their job, I think this has a severe impact. In most Universities there is a large pool of contingent faculty, which, again, goes back to corporatization of Universities. So how can we teach in an environment where it feels unsafe to bring up issues that are detrimental to our students [that] if we don’t do the right thing and say the right thing and obey to the powers that be, we can be dismissed.
Miller: Thanks very much for joining us today. Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a Professor of English at Linfield University.
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