Unlike columnist Fremlin, “self-described ‘white Canadian heathen’ finds her niche teaching at a historically black university” (see “Where I Belong,” Chronicle 12/11/02), I have not as white, male American found my niche at an HBCU, not because of my race or gender, but rather because, unlike the bulk of college professors, black or white, female or male, American or foreign, I dare, in the words of Emerson, “to stand upright and speak the rude truth in all its ways.” Indeed, I criticize not behind closed doors, but openly. I operate as staunch individual, not as department team player and team thinker.
Is it not high time that college and university professors criticize their individual institutions openly, courageously, and vigorously? Is it not high time for them to stop brandishing the right-wing 60s slogan, perversely transformed into the present politically-correct Academe, Love It or Leave It? Is it not high time to thwart the trend of academe’s corporate co-optation, which has included not only the “purchase” of faculty departments but also the spread of terminology and ideology? Department chairpersons should not be reduced to Unit Managers, nor students to clients, nor professors to marketers, nor presidents to fundraisers. The trend of corporate co-optation must be broken by newfound courage and individuality in the professorate. It must be replaced by a new trend of audacious questioning and challenging. Academe, HBCUs included, has been increasingly plagued by excess positivism and conformity. Whereas collegiality clearly benefits from this aberrant drift, truth, debate, and justice evidently must suffer.
My first year went quite smoothly at the historically black Methodist women’s college in North Carolina because I kept my mouth shut. Is it not that simple in academe? Is it not that sad? My chair gave me a glowing faculty evaluation and, aware that I was seriously looking for another position, encouraged me to return for a second year. But two serious offers, interestingly both from HBCUs in less than desirable locations and paying equally unattractive salaries, had to be pondered. Because of my open decrying of corruption in Academe, I was being blackballed either directly or indirectly and had been forced on to the outer fringes of Academe, where some HBCUs. I decided against the offers. After all, I’d gotten along fine with my colleagues. So, why go from bad to bad?
When I arrived at the college for my second year, this past August, the chair’s friendly attitude towards me had radically changed. I’d missed the first several days of workshops and blablabla meetings because of a backache. As the weeks went by, it became evident the chair would never forgive me. Curiously, she would not even admit the existence of our new hostile rapport. I thus decided to end my low-key, closed-mouth professorial behavior and bring forth my high-key, unprofessorial, dissident poet behavior by performing a series of experiments in free speech in the form of departmental pamphlets and Op Eds.
My first notable experiment was to publish “Wholesome Skepticism, Not Institutional Loyalty” (News & Record, 8/25/02), which criticized the bland, self-congratulatory discourses commonly made by college and university presidents, in particular, the statement made by UNCG Chancellor Sullivan this past fall: “Our people trust the university, and they believe in the university.” Indeed, how do we know the people trust the university? Why should they trust it? Shouldn’t we question and challenge it, rather than blindly trust it? Have we not already heard CEOs blather: “Our stockholders trust the corporation, and they believe in the corporation”?
Not one colleague commented on the Op Ed. However, I did receive a letter of praise from a history professor at Elon University. Normally, the chair placed such articles authored by department members on the Humanities bulletin board. Yet my Op Ed remained conspicuously absent. I thus mentioned it to the chair, who gave me permission to hang it myself, which I did. Interestingly, my photo was soon cut out from it. I mentioned that to the chair, who admitted she’d done the cutting because somebody had defaced it.
My next experiment was the posting of a pamphlet, “Idolatry or Verity?” on the Humanities bulletin board, containing a critical cartoon I’d drawn of guest speaker Coretta Scott King. Again, there was no response. Weeks later, I distributed a new pamphlet critical of the Humanities Mission statement during a Humanities Department meeting, the first I’d ever attended replete with fire and animus. Keep in mind I did not use foul language, nor shout during the meeting. The comments of three professors reflect perhaps the general reaction to “rude-truth” criticism in institutions of higher learning. The first called me “arrogant.” The second suggested in fine America-Love-It-or-Leave-It fashion: “If you don’t like it here, maybe you should look for another job!” The third didn’t beat around the bush at all, arguing to my amazement: “You’re not part of the community. You take pleasure in being on the margins. You don’t have a right to criticize the mission statement!”
A week after the meeting I distributed another pamphlet, “Notes from an Academic Cult,” to department members summarizing their reaction to my mission-statement critique and the implications thereof. Not one member responded. Clearly, I’d now become an official enemy of the Humanities Department, as in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” My next two Op Eds, “Misguided Leadership, Donuts, and the First Amendment” (News & Record, 11/3/02) and “Drowning Healthy Dissent… with Deluge of Positivism: A Different View for the Sake of Diversity of Minds” (student newspaper, 12/02) would render me an official enemy of the entire college. The former included a satirical cartoon I’d drawn, rejected by the News & Record. After all, it depicted black women as obese, a taboo subject. But as poet, much more than professor, I am compelled to openly criticize such taboos, job security or not.
Not one faculty member responded. However, students responded and almost decided to boycott my classes… because I’d dared state openly that student obesity was perhaps the most important problem on campus. A glimmer of intelligence from an unknown source kept them from doing so. Instead, they sent me a letter of invitation to a special forum held to “discuss three of the articles that you have written.” No such thing had ever occurred at the state college in Massachusetts where I’d taught five years. There, the student newspaper had systematically refused to publish anything I submitted, including an account of my sudden eviction from my office mid-semester. In fact, I couldn’t interest any periodical in the entire state vis-à-vis the corruption I’d witnessed and fell victim to.
The audience included some 45 people, including professors, the president and VPAA. But the well-attended forum turned out to be nothing more than a tar and feathering. Sadly, the four student panelists, four of the finest students at the college, proved incapable of reading a text objectively and with intellectual independence. They were entirely indoctrinated to the extent that one panelist, class president, declared to an applauding audience that “obesity is not a problem” at the college, that black women were not obese because they were unfairly compared statistically to the body structures of white men. Wow! Is that what higher education has come to? Moreover, the four student panelists argued that self-censorship did not even exist in the professorate, reasoning that their other professors did not think as I did. If it did not exist, however, why was I the only professor at the college daring to criticize the student donut walk to a local Krispie Kreme franchise led by the college president accompanied by board member Maya Angelou, poet stepping out of limousine? Why was I the only professor willing to question the president’s acceptance of a new car as gift from a local corporation? When logic fails, it is time to manifest profound concern! One of the student panelists embarked on a tirade on how wonderful it was to have defeated segregation, wildly extrapolating from my essays, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. Yet, if eliminating segregation was an important deed, and it was, why was the panelist voluntarily and contentedly attending an entirely segregated college? At least, I had an excuse: I couldn’t find a job anywhere else. Of course, it is impossible to convince captives of ideology with logic and reason alone. The college was shackling its students and professors in an unwritten policy of self-esteem über alles, including and especially the truth. Constant self-congratulatory remarks and backslapping were stifling higher education, converting it into something entirely perverse.
Finally, once again, I find myself hunting for a new job in Academe. Nevertheless, I shall continue my vocal protest against the diverse perversions witnessed at the HBCU where I continue teaching for a final semester. Some, if not most, would say I simply do not belong in the Academy. Yet, I would fervently disagree. Academe needs staunch individualists—not ideology-obedient sheep—willing to question and challenge overtly. At age 54, I am tired of hunting for work and increasingly disgusted with academe’s rampant disregard for the law regarding age discrimination. Nevertheless, as poet on the edge, I would not have it any other way.
G. Tod Slone is editor of The American Dissident (www.geocities.com/enmarge), a biannual literary journal devoted to writing in English, Spanish and French that criticizes American icons and institutions, including academe. He is currently teaching as Assistant Professor of French and Spanish at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. As professor perpetually on the fringe, he has been performing experiments in free speech for nearly 15 years. His conclusions, without fail, support the hypothesis that the First Amendment is barely tolerated, rarely if ever encouraged, in higher and secondary education. He has written a weekly column for Maincampus.com and is author of Total Chaos: Behind the Scenes of a National Blue Ribbon High School (The People’s Press, Baltimore, 2002).