Make Tenure Great Again: Saving Academic Freedom From Trump’s ‘Post-Truth’ Nation

Protecting teachers is inextricably linked to protecting truth.

Andre Perry

From refusing climate change to exaggerating voter fraud to promoting Birtherism, Donald Trump didn’t just put American electoral politics in peril by denying truth; he puts truth itself at greater risk as his power grows.

And in this anti-intellectual and media-illiterate zeitgeist, when denying reality can get you elected president of the United States of America, maintaining the integrity of our institutions of learning becomes even more critical.

Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as its word of the year for 2016 because so many people are choosing narrative over fact. The world is not flat; dinosaurs didn’t walk with humans; and white supremacy is built on a foundation of lies to preserve power and racial hierarchies. These are all facts. Unfortunately, some people either refuse to believe the undeniable or they have been purposely miseducated all together.

Truth is power’s greatest enemy. 

Black educators give a collective side eye to the term “post-truth.” Blacks and other racial groups have known for quite some time how agenda-setting is cloaked in fictitious narratives. The film The Birth of a Nation may have been the country’s greatest teacher in this regard.

This is why professors and teachers whose jobs are to defend, pursue and teach truth are vulnerable to attack. When our truth-tellers lose jobs and/or security, community and education suffer. Tenure—giving a teacher or professor an appointment until retirement—provides a firewall of protection so that our professors and teachers can pursue what makes civilization progress without fear of institutional retribution.

Let’s be clear: Colleges and universities provide our nation with the intellectual by-products we use for our cultural and economic growth.

Because of the uniqueness of the educational enterprise, the academy must be free to direct, without outside interference, those functions that may challenge, but ultimately enrich, the culture they sustain. Because so many external agencies are wedded to the university system, universities must develop corporate structures that can respond to the demands of the public and protect against influences that seek to manipulate truth for personal and political gain.  

The American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities is a guiding document as to how postsecondary institutions are governed. In the section External Relations of the Institution, the AAUP assigns the governing board as the legal voice of the institution, but reminds board members that faculty members can speak on their own behalf as citizens without fear of censure. This protection was codified under the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Protecting teachers is inextricably linked to protecting truth. So, it’s inevitable that the post-truth and Black Lives Matter eras collide. Black professors and teachers are black people, too.

The casualties from the attacks on black work show up in who gets tenure and who does not.

Professors, researchers and teachers of color are exposed by their criticism of institutional racism. The research on black and brown student success in college that’s been done by black researchers over time is essential to understanding why coeds stay in college or leave early. But black professors’ research is constantly debased as being “me-search,” meaning the researcher is too close and biased to investigate the issues fairly.

Colleges and universities aren’t the only places where the battles to maintain and strengthen academic integrity and authenticity are being fought.

Just as high school textbooks offered one-sided, nationalistic views on Reconstruction, McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, the fallout of a Trump victory will be felt in college and K-12 classrooms, as well. Certain education reformers relish painting disturbing pictures of corrupt, black school boards in urban districts that teach out-of-control students.

When these stories, rooted in systemic racism as they are, influence public sentiment, we see marginalized communities getting behind school-takeover strategies, harsh discipline policies, and white supremacist testing tactics. In the last decade, when so-called education reformers secured abilities to remove teacher protections in places like New Orleans and Washington, D.C., black women suffered more job losses than anyone else.

This institutional anti-blackness is timeless and by design.

The first standardized IQ tests were developed by eugenicist Lewis Terman, who “imagined a permanent academic-achievement gap, a permanent racial hierarchy.” While Terman’s views of innate differences were dismissed, standardized tests were not, and their residuals lasted up till the release of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, another text that claimed innate differences.

The larger scientific community debunked their biased theories and methods—and the mapping of the human genome in 2003 supposedly closed the door. However, closing the achievement gap became of raison d’etre of education reformers, and standardized tests again became in vogue. The tests we use to measure differences do more to affirm racial hierarchies than give disenfranchised groups what they need to succeed. The country isn’t building institutions to close the Asian-white achievement gap for this reason.

The fix is in before black students even think about college, and a whitewashed, fickle academy does nothing but cause more harm.

Power is truth’s greatest enemy. Not only must educational institutions defend the practice of tenure; we must also vigorously protect tenured educators who expose America’s biggest lie: the myth of white superiority.

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