Professor Benjamin Robinson lectures about famous political uprisings on a regular basis in the classroom.
It was only last week that he had to face the effects of one close to home.
Last week, Executive Dean of College of Arts and Sciences Larry Singell sent an email to all instructors in the college reminding them of a policy that prohibits the use of “faculty LISTSERVs and emails to promote organization around the proposed student strike.”
Robinson said that when he received the email, he immediately thought it was a misinterpretation of the policy.
“The consequences of a misinterpretation are chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom,” Robinson said.
Despite the warnings of the dean, Robinson and other members of faculty are in support of the strike. Recent cuts in state funding have affected not only IU students, but faculty and staff. Activist group IU on Strike is encouraging disgruntled IU employees to join in the strikes planned for April 11 and 12.
Robinson said he believes that students and faculty are both facing the same major issue.
“We’re losing our commitment to the franchise of public education in the country for all citizens,” Robinson said.
He also said that cutting budgets on public education downgrades the value of teachers and quality of learning.
As the IU strike becomes more prevalent, speculation as to what would happen to staff if they participated in the strike has quietly circulated campus.
“Unless employees are on paid time off, the University would not consider it appropriate behavior to engage in activities on work time that are disruptive to campus operations,” said Mark Land, associate vice president of IU Communications. “This also would apply to employees represented by a union.”
As a tenured professor, Robinson is officially allowed the right to participate in and support the strike without fear of termination. However, he said he felt the email from the dean appeared as if it were trying to stifle support.
Professor Micol Seigel agreed with Robinson, adding that the email was vague.
“To say that you can’t use email is to say that you can’t speak,” Seigel said.
In response, Robinson and some of his colleagues sent an open letter to the University Counsel correcting the interpretation of the policy and addressing the implications of the email. The letter was signed by 46 professors, including Seigel and Robinson.
“We’re going to insist on the proper interpretation and keep using the IT system,” Robinson said. “If we are consecrated to the idea of academic freedom, we better stand up, so that’s the passion behind the letter.”
Although faculty are officially allowed to support the strike, Seigel said they could be punished in other, more passive ways.
“Faculty fear reprisal from the administration for supporting the strikes,” Seigel said.
She explained that one of the dean’s stated criteria for allocating resources to a
department is harmony — a given faculty member’s participation in the strike could be construed as dissent and a reason to limit the resources granted his or her department.
“I understand that has deterred some people who are chairs of their department from participating,” Seigel said.
Graduate student instructors, unprotected by tenure, could have also been deterred from participation in the strike.
“I think it’s possible that non-tenured track faculty could get in trouble, and that’s something that we’re really worried about, and it would be wonderful to get a clarification from the administration about if it’s prohibited,” Seigel said.
Robinson said the number of classes being taught by graduate students and
non-tenure eligible faculty has gone up enormously in the past few years due to budget cuts.
“The bulk of the work of the University have been done by people with no job security and with low pay,” Robinson said.
However, he said many graduate student instructors are reluctant to participate in the strike.
“As aspiring professionals, they don’t want to jeopardize their positions, and they want to become professors,” Robinson said.
Land said the University is working hard to keep costs down by operating as efficiently as possible while still remaining fair.
“The fact is that running a large university campus is an extremely complex endeavor, and it is impossible to make everyone happy with every decision,” Land said.
At the very least, Seigel and Robinson both said the strike will bring the community together to talk about issues that need discussion.
“The fact is that if each generation doesn’t commit itself to public education, its significance will be lost, and I think it’s beautiful that they’re trying to make good on that commitment,” Robinson said.