Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Synchronicity Strikes

Wow. Talk about synchronicity.

I just uploaded a comment to Colleen Baker (of the Enlightened Catholicism blog referenced in my links list), who had responded to my posting earlier today about FISA and unwarranted surveillance of private citizens’ online comments (as well as of their email and phone conversations).

After I sent my comment to Colleen, I clicked on the blog of the Arkansas Times, and discovered a thread discussing precisely the topic Colleen and I had been talking about in the comments section under the previous posting. As our comments note, both of us are concerned with the way in which churches and academic institutions can misuse information gathered in internet searches (and possibly through unwarranted surveillance of private communications) to disempower critical thinkers.

As my comment to Colleen states, “Unscrupulous faculty trying to do a colleague in can easily get the ear of top-level administrators and/or boards, who may decide to end the targeted person's employment just because the person has been made controversial.

All of this discourages what academic life is all about—free exchange of information and free speech.”

This is precisely the topic of the thread I’ve just discovered at Arkansas Times (www.arktimes.com/blogs/arkansasblog). The Times is lamenting the decision of a political science professor, Mark Elrod, at Harding University, a Church of Christ university in Searcy, Arkansas, to take his blog private. Dr. Elrod has been maintaining a blog similar to mine, in that anyone can access the blog without registering.

He now intends to require registration in order for readers to access the blog. In a posting today (www.markaelrod.net), he provides the following reason for his decision:
I know this creates an inconvenience for many of you and I apologize but I’ve come to the realization that I have over-estimated the capacity of both my academic (Harding University) and my religious (Church of Christ) community to deal with critical thinking or dissent in a public forum. In the last few weeks, I’ve grown tired with dealing with members of both communities who seem to view the world in black and white terms and think of all discussions as zero-sum games.

In short, I’d rather have a quiet, private discussion with friends than public arguments with anonymous critics who would rather run to my employer with complaints about something I said than trying to discuss it with me in a reasonable and rational manner (my emphasis).
That’s precisely my point in my comment to Colleen. When college administrators and board members allow themselves to be persuaded by bullies—including colleagues and representatives of special-interest groups—who want to shut down the free discourse of faculty members, it become altogether too easy in the age of internet communication for free speech to be suppressed in academic life. And this is particularly the case in church-affiliated colleges and universities, which often have opaque policies governing termination, and which frequently allow the academic institution to fire at will, without providing a reason for terminations of faculty.

In a subsequent post, Dr. Elrod suggests that his political viewpoints—freely and publicly expressed on his blog—are at the heart of the attempt to shut him up, an attempt emanating from “anonymous critics” who run to his employer to complain about what he has written on his blog: “I made this decision on my own as the result of the general frustration I have with members of our fellowship who want to make a spiritual judgment about me based on my political views. One of those views is my public support for Barack Obama for president.”

Dr. Elrod is, after all, a professor of political science, is he not?

On what sane basis should he be attacked for expressing his considered political views on a blog—political views grounded in his scholarship? Aren’t universities today talking constantly about the need to tear down town-gown walls, to bring the classroom to the public, to serve the public interest by educating all citizens interested in lifelong learning? And aren’t churches constantly talking about the need to bring their values into the public forum?

There really does need to be a test case regarding such suppression of free speech by bloggers who have academic positions. And I’d be even more delighted if this test case occurs in a church-affiliated institution like Harding, alma mater of the infamous Kenneth Starr. In my experience, far too many church-sponsored colleges/universities get away with murder, when it comes to suppressing the academic freedom of faculty—and they often do so in the sneaky, underhanded ways suggested by Dr. Elrod’s posting, in which secret reports are circulated to key administrators, in attempts to undermine the credibility or character of someone an institution wishes to shut up.

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