Jack Stripling, Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 10, 2009.
As budget woes deepen, lawmakers in two states are painting faculty as sex-obsessed liberals and environmentalists who won’t get on the “Drill Baby Drill” bandwagon. The attacks, which have a familiar refrain, signal what may be another surge of debate over areas of study that have long drawn conservative critics.
In Georgia, State Rep. Calvin Hill has questioned whether the state should pay faculty with expertise in “oral sex” and queer theory. In Alaska, State Rep. Anna Fairclough has taken shots at professors who place environmental interests ahead of the very development projects that help fill university coffers.
The culture wars started long ago, but the current economic crisis is provoking new skirmishes. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said the cycle is predictable and unfortunate.
“What’s sad about it is that each time this happens it’s yet another assault on the principles of academic freedom, and the right of the faculty to shape their own research agendas,” he said.
“I think that in this kind of financial crisis people will be looking for opportunistic victims left and right,” he added. “A crisis is an opportunity for genuine community and collaboration to arrive, and a crisis is [also] an opportunity for the body politic to tear itself apart. We’ll probably see both. But one has to take something like this as a teaching moment.”
Hill, the Republican vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in Georgia, said he alerted his constituents about some faculty whose research interests he considered questionable in hopes that they would voice any complaints to the state Board of Regents. Along with a local radio address, Hill sent out a mass e-mail that began “Sit down and buckle you seat belts! What I am about to tell you will shock and disgust you.”
“Do you know that your tax dollars are being used at our state universities to pay professors to teach your children classes like ‘Male Prostitution’ and ‘Queer Theory’? Yes, even in tight economic times like we are facing today, our Board of Regents is wasting your tax dollars to teach these totally unnecessary and ridiculous classes.”
Actually, there are no classes titled “male prostitution” in Georgia, according to university officials. There is, however, a sociology professor at Georgia State University who is listed in a media guide as an expert on the subject of male prostitution. The professor in question, Kirk Elifson, studies risk factors involved in the spread of HIV/AIDS, among other public health issues. As for courses on queer theory, there is at least one offered at the University of Georgia, according to a Board of Regents spokesman.
Hill’s e-mail goes on to proclaim that a class entitled “Oral Sex” is offered in Georgia’s system. Again, there is no such class, but there is a Georgia State faculty member who was identified in a campus media guide as an expert on the subject. The faculty member, Mindy Stombler, is a senior lecturer who has studied whether popular culture and other factors have led to an increase in oral sex among teenagers.
Hill says his only goal is to tell taxpayers how their dollars are being spent, and encourage them to contact the regents if they have concerns. About 10 of them have done that, and their e-mails reflect both anger and misinformation. Several repeated the inaccurate assertion from Hill’s e-mail that Georgia offers “classes” about male prostitution.
“I am shocked and dismayed that our universities are paying professors to teach subjects like ‘male prostitution’ as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” one Georgia resident wrote to the Regents. “I have not worked nearly thirty years in education and paid taxes to fund such as that.”
As for what the regents should do in response to such concerns, Hill said Monday that they could “redirect” the faculty.
“I would assume someone that has those credentials can teach something else that is more worthwhile,” he said.
In his e-mail to constituents, however, Hill didn’t talk about redirecting anyone:
“Now that we need to cut the state budget, I think I know where we can eliminate a few highly paid professors and get rid of these classes,” he wrote.
Stombler draws an annual salary of $63,480, and Elifson makes $58,975, according to state records. The state is trying to address a budget deficit of about $2.3 billion.
Neither faculty member responded to interview requests, but a Georgia State spokeswoman provided a statement:
“University researchers study everything from cancer to corporate finance for the good of the public,” Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Teaching courses in criminal justice, for example, does not mean that our students are being prepared to become criminals. Quite the opposite. Legitimate research and teaching are central to the development of relevant and effective policy. The argument to limit or eliminate certain areas of research and education is flawed.”
Chilly Relations in Alaska
While specific faculty members haven’t been singled out in Alaska, at least one lawmaker has voiced a general objection to environmentalist faculty views at the University of Alaska. Fairclough, an Eagle River Republican, used a committee meeting last week to complain to Mark Hamilton, the university’s president, about soft faculty support for oil and mining industries in the state.
“If I ask university staff, the people who are educating our future leaders, if they support the Chukchi Sea development, the Red Dog Mine or the Pebble Mine or any type of industry along those lines, a stereotypical response is they are in opposition,” Fairclough said, according to the Juneau Empire. “I found it amazing there was a large disconnect in where the dollars for the State of Alaska come from on a regular basis as far as production of oil on the North Slope goes, and how it is turned into revenue for the State of Alaska and in turn is invested in the university system,” she said.
Hamilton responded by suggesting, “We probably have the most conservative faculty and the most conservative student body you’ll ever meet. Thank goodness you are not representing Berkeley.”
Carl Shepro, who heads a union that represents faculty members in Alaska, said Fairclough speaks for a “minority of the Legislature.” That said, her criticisms are the kind that tend to feed on themselves, particularly if lawmakers are looking for targets in tight budget times, he said.
“As long as you have legislators in other states that are making similar kinds of comments, it may be that it encourages or supports people in the Alaska Legislature,” said Shepro, president of United Academics and a professor of political science at Alaska’s Anchorage campus. “It’s kind of a shift in political culture, if you will.”
Shepro said he was particularly concerned about any backlash professors may feel for speaking out in opposition to lawmakers like Fairclough. Alex Simon, an assistant professor of sociology on Alaska’s Juneau campus, said he feels like he’s already under scrutiny for speaking critically about Fairclough in the media.
“After that article appeared [in the Juneau Empire], I received a voice message from our public relations officer saying that the chancellor was sensitive about these issues and she wanted to meet to discuss that with me,” said Simon, an untenured faculty member.
Simon explained that he would take a meeting directly with Chancellor John Pugh only in the presence of union representatives, prompting an e-mail response from Pugh that noted: “I was not concerned about your statement to the press. I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech.”
In his e-mail, however, Pugh said he had indeed spoken with a public relations staff member about Simon’s comments in a news story, but said the employee “did not accurately reflect my statement to her.”
“I indicated to her that your statement that universities ‘generally strive to present all viewpoints’ might be questioned by the Legislature,” Pugh wrote. “Nationally, there have been concerns from conservatives that public universities do not present ‘all viewpoints.’ ”
Simon said he “would rather bag groceries or something than to be a professor without academic freedom,” but expressed concern that threats from lawmakers or objections from administrators might intimidate some faculty.
“What it does result in is obviously self censorship among some faculty,” he said, “and certainly for administrators they’re trying to walk the line of at least the appearance of supporting academic freedom and trying to placate donors and the Legislature.”