Imagine if the CUNY administration had issued a general message to all CUNY faculty last year, asking them to “teach resistance” in one of their classes, to focus a “discussion of the [Obama] administration policies relevant to their subject.” Such a move would have been seen as a clear transgression of academic freedom and would have generated strong opposition from the CUNY faculty union, PSC-CUNY, which purports to favor the concept.
It was, therefore, more than surprising to see the union issue a call for all CUNY professors to alter their class time to “teach resistance.” Moreover, the union has urged professors to make a public pledge to support the union’s ideological position, asking CUNY faculty members to affirm: “I plan to integrate into my classes on May 1 how President Trump’s policies affect my area of scholarship and ask my students how they are affected. On May Day I will teach and learn and continue giving CUNY students the tools and knowledge to examine the world—and change it!”
This move is problematic in at least three respects.
First, it’s academically irresponsible. CUNY students—many of whom work to cover their tuition costs—pay for courses in particular academic subjects, not to hear professors’ political opinions. (I’m not a Trump supporter, to put it mildly, but my objections would have been the same if such a policy had been directed against Obama.) There are dozens of events every month, on campus and off, on political subjects; students can encounter those without losing four percent of their class time to extraneous material.
Second, the move shows why the Supreme Court should look closely at the First Amendment concerns of academic dissenters. All CUNY professors, no matter how much they oppose the union’s agenda, are required to pay dues to the union. The PSC is supposed to refund all political expenses to agency fee payers, but a case initiated by my Brooklyn colleague, David Seidemann, exposed how the union played fast and loose with this requirement. In any case, the “teach resistance” event is framed as academic in content, and almost certainly will be charged to agency fee payers. In short, even the tiny percentage of Trump supporters at this public institution will be forced to pay dues for events to “teach resistance” to a President they support. That’s a pretty clear First Amendment concern.
Third, the move raises academic freedom concerns. A principal problem with higher-ed unions is that—unlike a traditional union structure—the higher-ed union’s membership is generally also the academic decisionmaker, giving the union a conflict of interest. I discovered this the hard way in my tenure case: the key people seeking to fire me were other CUNY professors, and thus PSC members. The union provided what would charitably be described as a desultory effort in representing me—since aggressively making my case would have required calling into question the actions of influential members of the Brooklyn branch of the union. (I hired a private attorney, who was excellent, and who had no conflict of interest.)
Put yourself in the position of an untenured Trump supporter among the CUNY faculty (there have to be at least a few). The faculty union—which includes the senior faculty who will vote on your promotion and tenure—has called for you to adjust your curriculum, and, moreover, to publicly pledge to do so. That pressure would be seen as obviously inappropriate if it came from the administration. It’s no less inappropriate coming from the union, especially since the union includes the people who will decide your academic fate, and who will (at least in a token fashion) represent you if you are inappropriately denied tenure.
Hopefully, when the successor case to Friedrichs reaches the Supreme Court, events like “teach resistance” will be in the justices’ minds.