Like many people in the world of higher education, my first exposure to FIRE came when I was under duress. During my 2001-2 tenure fight, I (naively, in retrospect) assumed that college officials would follow written rules and regulations—after all, academics are supposed to revere due process and regular procedure. Instead, I was trapped in an Alice-in-Wonderland process in which the guidelines constantly shifted and in which stated expectations appeared one day and then vanished the next.
I knew about the water buffalo case, and in the midst of the case re-read my copy of Shadow University. What was (and is) for most people a horrifying read was, at the time, for me a comforting one. Kors and Silverglate gave me a better sense of what was happening to me and confirmed my belief in the need for public exposure of the affair. Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant.
Since 2002, FIRE twice returned to Brooklyn College, and in both instances with positive results. The first came in 2005, after I had published a piece in Inside Higher Ed criticizing the Brooklyn Education Department’s “social justice” criteria. In response, I received a letter (addressed to “Robert Johnson, Ph.D.”) from 30 professors in the department, demanding—in the name of “academic freedom,” no less!—that I cease publicly commenting about the department’s policies. (The professors, whose own letter was riddled with factual mistakes, didn’t point out any errors in my article; and, of course, the “dispositions” policy that I criticized was eventually repealed by NCATE.) I soon thereafter learned that the college’s “Integrity Committee” was investigating me for possible punishment.
This issue would have seemed, at first blush, to be an obvious academic freedom matter. But the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, had no interest in defending me: several signatories of the Education Dept. letter were prominent members of the union’s political arm, the so-called New Caucus.
At that point, I turned to FIRE. The organization penned a blistering missive to then-BC president Christoph Kimmich; within a day, I was informed that the Integrity Committee inquiry would be dropped.
A few months later, the Brooklyn Student Government passed a resolution affirming an “Academic Bill of Rights” for the college’s students. I’m usually skeptical of such measures, but endorsed the BC initiative, largely because the college’s then-provost, Roberta Matthews, had made clear her intent to include openly political elements in the curriculum.
The day after the resolution passed, the Speaker of the SG assembly received a certified letter from Kimmich, indicating that the president was dissolving the body and that the assembly would be reconstituted with the opposition party (which had opposed the ABOR resolution) in charge.
Though Kimmich obviously was retaliating for the assembly passing a measure that the college administration didn’t like, the legal standing for his actions wasn’t clear: it’s not as if student government rules and procedures are transparent at most colleges and universities. FIRE staffers immersed themselves in the arcane details, and soon discovered that Kimmich’s action had flagrantly violated the SG guidelines. The typically powerful letter went out, and the president conceded defeat. After one week, he rescinded his dissolution order.
In an era when the AAUP has essentially confined its mission of protecting academic freedom to issues involving the interests of the groupthink-immersed faculty majority, FIRE is all the more important. That the organization still has so many battles is cause for concern about the state of the academy, but FIRE’s extraordinary record of accomplishment in fighting those battles is cause for celebration.