“We Don’t Want Students 2 Waste Their $”

A professor tried to warn incoming freshmen about the gutting of their education. It didn’t go well.

angry mob and pitchforks.
The latest academic Twittergate is provoking vitally important questions about the meaning and circumscription of freedom of speech on campus.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Shutterstock

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a tenured professor of sociology and education policy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is an outspoken public scholar with a prolific social media presence, and she is devastated about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recent changes to tenure and shared faculty governance at her place of employ. For several months, as Walker’s agenda has turned from talking points to reality, Goldrick-Rab’s Twitter feed has become a juggernaut of links to news articles, document explication, and 140-character cannon fire. Her most controversial tweet compares the psychological profiles of Walker and Adolf Hitler. She has put into very public practice the exercise of the exact academic freedom whose death she foretells. And she can, because she has tenure—for now.

Her activism took a personal turn in June, when she grew tired of her institution’s silence about the negative effects of Walker’s plan, such as a probable faculty exodus. She jumped into #FutureBadgers, a hashtag for incoming University of Wisconsin freshmen, and tweeted a few links to recent news stories about changes to the university.

“I was merely expressing my concerns about the direction the state is taking with higher education by providing them with information about the policy debate,” she explained via email. “In hindsight, I should have tempered my statements so that they weren’t interpreted as criticism of the University of Wisconsin and I might have tweeted generally instead of directly toward incoming students.”

Those incoming students replied to Goldrick-Rab in a manner befitting their age and level of awareness as to the intricacies of shared faculty governance.

Of course, these are 17- and 18-year-olds. They don’t care about current events, much less old-people problems like the devaluation of professorial labor. She may as well have just tweeted a quote from Midnight Run, or some Simon and Garfunkel lyrics. But Goldrick-Rab’s intentions were admirable. “I have always advocated for the best interests of the university, its employees, and its students,” she said. “Those tweets were meant to inform and create awareness of what I believe in.”

They certainly created awareness among some College Republicans. “Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab: We find the way you have approached the dialogue around the intersection of politics and our university’s future disgusting and repulsive,” they claimed in a press release. The Daily Caller picked up the story and accused Goldrick-Rab of stalking. Her inbox is now a veritable treasure trove of Trump-voter haiku:

Others wanted her doxed. Her own Faculty Senate released a statement declaring themselves “deeply dismayed” by her actions, which produced its own counterwave of defenses. The national media are (ahem) now involved. It’s a thing. (Not enough of a thing to bring about formal discipline, though—tenure still works!)

For those in the academic world, #FutureBadgerGate is yet another in a recent series of swift and merciless Internet shamings of public scholars. In May, incoming Boston University professor Saida Grundy came under fire in the national conservative media after a White Power hate group got hold of a few impassioned tweets of hers about race (her field of study). In June, University of Memphis professor Zandria Robinson (who has since moved institutions voluntarily to Rhodes College) was similarly dragged before a kangaroo court of aggrieved white male 19-year-olds. “Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced,” writes University of Richmond professor Eric Anthony Grollman in an incisive post on the blog Conditionally Accepted. “What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics.”

Indeed, these brief Twittergates provoke vitally important questions about the meaning and circumscription of freedom of speech and the might and immediacy of what author Jon Ronson calls the “immensely powerful” tool of public Internet shaming, one which deploys “soldiers making war on other people’s flaws”—sometimes in numbers without limit.

But should professors be able to criticize their employers on Twitter? After all, they are professionals, so shouldn’t they be held to the same standard of professionalism? A partner at a big law firm wouldn’t comb Instagram for first-year associates in need of warning about the company’s sexual harassment troubles. So why should a university employee be allowed similar privileges?

Well, for one thing, Goldrick-Rab’s actions are specifically protected at the University of Wisconsin. As the Academe Blog reports, the university’s own academic freedom policy specifically “includes the right to speak or write—as a private citizen or within the context of one’s activities as an employee of the university—without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties, the functioning of the university, and university positions and policies.” 

This makes sense because a university isn’t like a law firm or a hedge fund. Speaking freely—sharing challenging ideas with the public, making that public uncomfortable sometimes, forcing that public to reflect on its own preconceived ideas—isn’t a core part of the mission of a law firm or a hedge fund, but it’s central to the purpose of a university. (Of course, after Walker’s done with the UW, it won’t be anymore. And perhaps other states will follow suit.)

Plus, even if you think a university is a “business” like any other, the autocratic implication of these expectations of “professionalism” are troubling. Once Americans are lucky enough to find themselves employed, are they supposed to fall into lockstep fealty to their companies or risk losing their livelihoods—no matter what those companies do? (The exceptions, of course, are employees in a union. Oh ha-ha, never mind.)

The contemporary employer’s total control of employee public conduct is such a given that the very idea that professors might not have to participate fully in this demeaning system is cause for righteous indignation. But without the ability to speak critically in public—in this case, about extremely bad educational policy when one is a renowned educational policy expert—there is no point in being a college professor at all. Even if striking up random conversation with teenagers is a tad unseemly (and Goldrick-Rab has stated emphatically that she wouldn’t do it again), it’s not like these young people were having a private conversation in someone’s basement and she came barging down the stairs like the stepdad on Jimmy Fallon’s “Ew!” sketch. They’re on Twitter. If you don’t want to spend your day at a party with 10,000 strangers—every tenth one of which walks up to you and punches you in the gut for no reason—Twitter is not for you.

Goldrick-Rab also hopes that the “drama around this episode fades sometime soon so that we can have a serious discussion about the future of higher education in Wisconsin and throughout the United States,” she told me. Meanwhile, her detractors can stew over the Oregon Promise, the recently passed state financial aid legislation that she “worked very hard to advance.” (She is, after all, a well-regarded expert in education policy who literally wrote the book on financial aid reform.)

Meanwhile, #FutureBadgerGate has provided a core example of the argument for both sides in an increasingly polarized fight over the purpose and longevity of tenure. To Walker—and to the voters to whom he panders with increasing success—Goldrick-Rab’s tweets make an excellent case for destroying tenure. (How else is she supposed to get fired?!?) To admirers of Goldrick-Rab and the free exchange of ideas, the episode shows exactly why tenure protections are so desperately needed in the first place.

Maybe you disagree with Sara Goldrick-Rab’s statements or methods—although if it’s a fireable offense to send unsolicited tweets to strangers, I know about 8 million people from every Twitter timeline ever who should be expecting pink slips. But however you feel about tenure and academic freedom, the immediate rush to silence Goldrick-Rab should be terrifying, and the university’s eventual (albeit begrudging) support should come as a relief. I wouldn’t want to attend or be affiliated with a university that restricts faculty speech and neither should you.