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The Point: Emergencies, Fast and Slow


Subject: Attacks on Academic Freedom

Action: Join the March 7th Action in Florida

Greetings, Colleagues

Sometimes it is easy to tell when you are in the middle of an emergency—you smell the smoke, alarm bells start ringing, colored lights flash.  That is the kind of emergency afflicting public education in Florida at the moment.  Then there are the slow-motion emergencies that all of us at UMB are more than familiar with those—you hear the drip drip drip of water leaking and you know that it is doing damage, but no one seems to know where it is coming from or what to do about it.

In this week’s Point we mostly want to urge you to support our comrades in the United Faculty of Florida as they organize a March 7th day of concerted action to fight back against House Bill 999 and all of the various attempts to limit what can be taught in Florida schools, from grade school to graduate seminars.  (I can’t help but notice that “999” is the number you call in various countries around the world if you find yourself in an emergency and need immediate help.) Our colleagues in Florida are asking us to join them in their 3-7 challenge—essentially making 3 phone calls and writing 7 emails to elected officials in their state urging them to protect academic freedom.

Do not let the misguided framing so beloved by the mainstream media fool you: this is not the product of two “sides” fighting out a turf war over principles with some unfortunate collateral damage.  As  Emma Pettit and so many others have shown, this is a concerted, dark-money funded attack on the basic principles of free inquiry.  It is a rearguard action by a small but powerful cabal against over half a century of civil rights gains articulated in school curricula.  It is an attempt to turn the clock back on the victories wrought by Black freedom movement, second wave feminism, LGBTQ+ activism and other progressive social forces. 

If you haven’t had a chance to look at the particulars of the reactionary attack on the citizens of Florida, please do read this brief and useful summary by Andrew Gothard, president of the UFF.  Here, Professor Gothard reminds us that, if successful, these attacks will render public education unrecognizable: no tenure, no academic freedom, no teaching anything at all that might make a single student feel “uncomfortable.” 

As union members we must join this fight in other states. But we must also tend to our own backyard—as our recently retired colleague Maurice Cunningham has demonstrated so consistently and convincingly, dark money is warping the political process here in the Commonwealth as it is across the country. 

And it is not as if our campus is safe from the concentration of power in a few hands: our own upper administrators, protestations to the contrary, sometimes seem to have turned their back on the principles of shared governance and transparency. This worrisome trend has emerged, not coincidentally, at a moment of extreme casualization—not just the erosion of the ranks of tenure-stream colleagues but also the seemingly purposeful and exploitative expansion of the least secure teaching rank on campus—that of Associate Lecturer.  And while we don’t face the sort of external crisis our colleagues in Florida are experiencing, we have been besieged by all kinds of work speed-ups on campus. The recent chaos surrounding academic reorganization is a case in point: after countless person-hours contributed by the original Academic Reorganization Task Force, the provost has in recent days manufactured a crisis of sorts (after provisionally selecting the option ranked Lucky Number 13 by the ART), a crisis that has thrown so many of us—particularly our dedicated and hardworking colleagues in the McCormack Graduate School—into a frenzy of possibly unnecessary and time-wasting deliberation.  It is hard, at times, to stave off the thought that the chaos is the point.

This is your union. Please let us know at how you think we should all work to protect academic freedom wherever it comes under siege.


Jeff Melnick

Vice President, FSU