Provincial Matters, 9-29-2014

Provincial Matters, 9-29-2014

Academic Freedom at UNM

The University of New Mexico’s responses to history professor David Correia’s public comments and acts of civil disobedience over city police brutality and lethal violence in Albuquerque have created an atmosphere of considerable wariness and anxious caution about academic freedom at UNM. It’s not that Correia has been fired or directly reprimanded by the university’s administration. It’s that veiled threats have been made, threats that betray the university’s mission.

Whereas the corporate funders of the university’s operations can say virtually anything, commit any act of propaganda and utter virtually any lie as “corporate persons” in a legal world in which money is speech, a tenured member of the university’s faculty finds that the administration would prefer that he keep his mouth shut. The powers that be have gone so far as to say, in so many words, that his views somehow don’t square with the university’s, that they are his opinions and his alone, and that his political speech and scholar-activism will be “monitored” in the future.

Never mind that the university is entering into agreements with the current administration of the City of Albuquerque to create something like a business innovation district downtown, and never mind that the city administration is embroiled with the U.S. Justice Department over police violence that has escalated dramatically during the tenure of Mayor Richard Berry. So of course the university’s response to Professor Correia’s views about police violence in our town has nothing to do with the university’s relationship to the city – what bunk. What hypocrisy.

Professor Correia has written a compelling essay on academic freedom and scholar-activism in response to UNM’s veiled threats regarding his activities. The essay appeared last week in La Jicarita, an on-line magazine of environmental politics in New Mexico. Correia is the publication’s managing editor.

Do university professors have the same rights of free speech as the rest of us? Are their institutions honor bound to not only permit the free expression of ideas, and the free investigation of issues and social and natural conundrums, but also to insist that their faculty engage in such free inquiry without self-censorship, and certainly without intimidation from the administration? Of course.

If a university, as a center of learning, does anything, really anything at all, to inhibit free inquiry and discussion among its faculty and students, it is engaging in, at least morally, a form of pernicious interference called “prior restraint.” Disagreement is almost always a golden teaching opportunity. But it’s often treated as an ideological opportunity, or an opportunity to punish intellectual courage and the desire to get beyond routinized knowledge and dig for deeper answers and further questions.

Prior restraint is a legal term that refers to governmental censorship of works or opinions that have not yet reached the public.  The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and did so in one of its more famous decisions in l971 involving the New York Times, Washington Post, and what’s known as the Pentagon Papers. Even though the Pentagon Papers contained sensitive information regarding national security, the Supreme Court ruled against the government’s efforts to quash the publication of the documents involved on the grounds of the First Amendment.

While prior restraint is a legal term, it has a moral meaning beyond the law. The term implies that creating an environment of intimidation at a university creates a situation which restrains expression and refinement of ideas in public.

The mission of a university is to empower learning, by students, by faculty, and by the general public. Learning cannot be empowered in an environment in which a free expression of opinion is constrained by fear of surveillance or official reprisal.

Universities must be places of active and vigorous disagreement.  They must promote such disagreements, not squelch them, if it is to fulfill its mission as a place that empowers learning. It is just as damaging for a university administration to “monitor” and perform oversight of its professors when they take public stands and risk confrontation with law enforcement as it is for professors to disempower free thinking students through the power differential implied in their role. With no public forum for debate, ideas can’t be validated or falsified. Instead of saying that a professor’s views on a topic do not represent the official views of the university, an institutional forum for debate might require the university to actually state what its views might be, if it has any at all as an elaborate form of “corporate person.” Such revelations would certainly empower learning.  

If it is your job to profess what your research has shown you to be true, and if you are engaged in on-going investigations of contemporary issues, you have no choice as a professional academic but to present your findings no matter how controversial they may be. It is not your job to stay mum about what you know. Nor is it the job of the university, itself, to shut down members of its professoriate and prevent them from doing the job they were hired to do.

Professor Correia is a historian of modern history in New Mexico with a focus on studying police violence. That’s his job and his expertise. That’s among the reasons the university hired him. One of the great opportunities for scholarship in his area of study is happening in his city and during this important part of his scholarly career. As an honorable scholar of contemporary events he is required to analyze the happenings of the moment and have an informed opinion about them. If that opinion leads him to take action, he is not stepping out of bounds. He is taking the content of his scholarship seriously. That’s what learning is all about. 

But the university, itself, appears not to be interested in content, only form, only on maintaining a placid equilibrium with as little political inconvenience as possible. With that frame of mind it almost instinctively moves to censure unpopular ideas and speech. With no content there’s no debate, and with no debate there’s only tacit or flagrant censorship.

But what if the university, as a corporate person, has mixed feelings and contradictory ideas about a controversial issue? Wouldn’t it serve the learning experience to present those contradictions in public, to own up to them, and stimulate further debate and exploration?

For a university not to reveal the content of its mixed opinions means that the learning function of the university has been hollowed out and that the school is in danger of becoming a mere carcass of nice buildings and government funded research.

When Professor Correia was arrested during an act of civil disobedience with people whose family members had been killed by the Albuquerque police, the university washed its hands of the content of his actions.  It issued a statement which said that his “actions, statements and opinions are his own as a private citizen and do not reflect any official views of the university or its Board of Regents.”

And then came the tacit threat: “Faculty are expected to uphold the highest standards and we will monitor this incident in that light.” In other words, the university adopted a Big Brotherly approach: Be careful Professor Correia, we are watching you.

One wonders if the university has any “official views” at all about anything.

What an awkward situation to be a center of learning with no opinions of its own, especially about academic freedom and scholar-activism.  Is it possible that the university, which so many of us are devoted to, has no opinion about police brutality in the city in which it resides?

Our university and most others does not have an institutional mechanism for airing disagreements or even holding debates in public on the pressing issues of the day. The university has no format for discussing anything in public, even among its own members. Matters as intimate and compelling as sexual violence on campus cannot be addressed by the campus wide community because there is no forum for such expression. Official emails and news releases are all we get.

But the university has infrequently, but powerfully, let it be known that its employees have to be careful of what they say. In 2001, on the morning of 9/11, a longtime classics professor at UNM, Richard Berthold, joked to his students that “Anyone who attacks the Pentagon has my vote.” And that one utterance led to his censure and eventually to a forced retirement. Berthold was a spellbinding lecturer and a gadfly on campus, challenging wayward authority whenever he could. He was popular with his students, but not necessarily with his peers.  His remark was wildly inappropriate at that moment. But if the university had a forum for discussion and debate, Professor Berthold’s remark, which he later apologized for, could have been used as learning opportunity with fiery disagreement and debate. Instead it was all about the political carving up and humiliation of an unpopular person, a fine scholar and academic goathead that many were happy to see leave.  Many, but certainly, not all.

In 2005, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill said in public that he believed the victims of the 9/11 attacks were “little Eichmanns.” Instead of using Churchill’s views as an opportunity for debate, his metaphor got him fired.  Professor Correia in his La Jicarita essay referred to Palestinian-American scholar Steven Salaita’s remarks about the recent war in Gaza. “At this point,” Salaita said, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” Just about to take a tenured position at the University of Illinois, Saliata’s contract offer was withdrawn and he was effectively fired before he drew his first paycheck.

It’s not just UNM that warns its faculty: “Be careful what you say.” While such implied threats are not a universal phenomena, they are a normalized approach on many American campuses. And that’s one reason why our public discourse is dominated by ill informed demagogues and polarizers, and why the American university system is not producing many thinkers on the growing edges of their disciplines, and why we are falling behind the rest of the world in the evolution of new knowledge.


Albuquerque: Innovation Without Content

Innovate ABQ, a public-private partnership between UNM and City Hall and the business community, has a good sound to it. Scholars, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, technologists, and students would come together west of the campus in the depressed downtown and promote the education of “knowledge workers” of the future while contributing to downtown redevelopment.

It sounds good. And I generally applaud ideas that open the drawbridge to the ivory tower and allow the intellectual powerhouse that a university is, by its very nature, to operate in the real world. A university is not only an engine of new ideas, it is also a bastion of values and tradition, where students can grow as human beings as much by the acquisition of knowledge as by the exercise of critical thinking. Universities are not mere catalysts for commercialization, they are the bearers and champions of the deepest values of a culture.

UNM is doing it right, in my judgment, with its partnership between City Hall and the School of Architecture and Planning (SA-P). Called City Lab, with facilities on Central Avenue downtown, this project is imbedded in the long traditions of service and community and regional planning that has evolved at SA-P over the decades.  The school’s long record of community participation, and its emphasis on indigenous planning and local problem solving speaks eloquently to the content and tradition of its values

But what troubles me about Innovate ABQ is the apparent absence of values, of standards, and of a point of view. Innovate ABQ throws the university into the arena of laissez faire economics, and laissez faire products, a world in which anything goes as long as it makes money.

UNM says that Innovate ABQ:

will create a highly connected community where people can live, work, and play. Innovate ABQ brings together the research power of the state’s flagship university with Albuquerque’s entrepreneurial and established business community to create new companies, grow existing ones and attract more out-of-state business.

 The emphasis is on high technology firms.

UNM continues saying that:

…the mission of the initiative is to strengthen the economic base in the mid Rio Grande region and throughout the state of New Mexico by creating more knowledge worker jobs for graduates from our educational institutions and experienced workers in our communities. The mission is achieved, UNM says, “by commercializing new technologies developed at our research universities, by public/private partnerships with our national labs, business organizations, civic leaders, non-profit sector, national and global corporations, and public schools, and by providing entrepreneurial education and support.

But to avoid the university becoming associated with businesses and products that promote, say, increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or products that are used in dubious military operations and the world’s killing fields, the university would have to take a stand on what kind of businesses it wants to work with and what kinds of products it wants to endorse by its association.

But what does the University of New Mexico stand for when it comes to values? Has it become so corporatized that it’s actually unconcerned with the kinds of products it helps create?

Does the university have a public position on climate change, for instance, or on nuclear energy and the growing menace of nuclear waste? Is it committed as an institution to promoting alternative energy that does not contribute to climate change and divesting its investments in fossil fuels? Has it committed itself and its considerable powers to a major focus on resource management and the development of innovative ideas and technologies that will help us deal productively with less and less water in our lives?

What troubles me about Innovate ABQ is that I’ve never heard a single thought about the proposed content of these collaborations, nor a word of the university’s position when it comes to the great moral issues of our age – drought adaptation, water and air pollution clean up and the abatement of climate change.

How embarrassing for the university, and how miserable for the world, if it ends up partnering with companies and entrepreneurs that build parts for assassin drones, that are somehow complicit in the increase in global warming, that “clean” polluted water without making it potable again.

What will make Innovate ABQ work, and what will help the city and state in which the university resides, is for the university to express its values, declare its allegiances, and make it known, at the very least, that Innovate ABQ refuses to add to the world’s peril, but will do all it can to further the health and betterment of humankind and the environment upon which it depends for survival. For Innovate ABQ not to take a stand on such matters is an omission that calls into question its ultimate motives.  And can the business community and institutions of higher learning work together to make a better world? Yes they can. But it is up to universities to take the high ground and not descend uncritically and cravenly into the zero sum world of the marketplace where only the bottom line is sacrosanct and serving humanity and the public good is looked upon as a naïve and risky fantasy.


Why We Love New Mexico – Its Spiritual Power

The hardest things to write about are often the most important things. They don’t fit into formulas and normal descriptions seem to bounce off of them. That’s true for what some have called New Mexico’s spiritual power.

What causes the sense of awakening and wellbeing that so many people feel when they cross a border into New Mexico, either as new arrivals or as grateful people coming home? It’s not only the landscape and it’s something more than cultural pluralism, though both have something to do with it. Perhaps what many of us feel is the energy of sincerity, a depth of emotional commitment, a reverential sense of community that creates what could be called a transcendental awareness of the sublime that is shared by many people here from many cultural world views.  

I don’t use the word “religious” to describe these sensations and the state of being that permeates our way of life.   The word ”religious” tends toward exclusivity. And the aura of transcendence in New Mexico can be overwhelmingly inclusive for those whose internal antennae can detect it.

It may have to do with a devotion to harmony, the humbling exultation when one opens oneself to the beauty of the world and the inner lives of others. It is the opposite of cynicism and skeptical suspicion.  It might appear in us as a feeling of belonging to the vast inter-connected reality of how the cosmos works within each of us, and within the relationships we create with others and the life around us.

In this way, respect, appreciation, and service are at the aspiring heart of the spiritual richness that inhabits this place.

And from where does this aura of transcendence and community arise? I can only think that, in large part, it comes from the existence and practice of ancient traditions here which have survived the modern world  -- the existence and practice of venerable Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache spirituality, the continuous existence of Los Hermanos who have cared for the physical and spiritual needs of New Mexicans for centuries, and the multi-denominational monastic communities that thrive in our state. I hesitate to try to be more specific, impeded as I am by my ignorance of the inner realities of these worlds. But the intuitions of harmonious devotion that empower many of us in New Mexico must in some way be supported by the intensity of belief that so many of us feel and give expression to.

Unlike  other states, the modern world in New Mexico can be detoxified to some extent by our personal experience with the circle of deep faith and belief that surrounds everyone here, believers or not. The crushing brutality of prejudice, exploitation, pollution, poverty, and violence menaces everyone. One bad bounce of the roulette of fortune’s merry-go-round and any one of us might tumble into the abyss of statistical horrors and lose our peace of mind and even our lives. The continuous existence of ancient belief systems, and the social structures they sustain, carry on the struggle against the demons of fate and malice, and have prevailed more times than not over millennia. Their presence in the modern world attests to this.

I think that’s what I felt all those decades ago when I crossed the state line into New Mexico. I must have sensed, even as a teenager, a continuity over vast stretches of time, a continuity that no longer exists in the throw away world of commercial GDP America where really almost nothing is sacred anymore but money. I was as ignorant then as I am now of what actually causes that sense of awakening and well being in so many New Mexicans, but it exists as a reality. Mysterious or not, it is a truth that both empowers us and gives us the vitality that comes with the possibility of regaining innocence and learning inner peace.


(Photo: New Mexico vista by Outdoor Exposure by Denise)

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

Contact V.B. Price

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