It’s been a rough summer for academics. Just in the last few months, two black women sociologists have become the subjects of national news stories when comments they wrote on twitter drew the ire of conservatives who branded them racists and demanded that the institutions where they worked fire them. First Saida Grundy, then Zandria Robinson drew media attention when conservative websites critiqued their twitter comments on the confederate flag, white college men, and other subjects related to issues of race and inequality. In Grundy’s case, she issued a statement saying that she wished she’d chosen her words more carefully, and the furor essentially died down. In Robinson’s case, after public speculation that the university fired her, she wrote a lengthy blog post desribing the details of her long association with her former employer and ultimate decision to leave for another university.
These aren’t the only cases where race and academia have been in the news this summer (here are links to widely reported instances of racial conflict at Kennesaw State University and also at Duke). The cases at Kennesaw and Duke involved white hostility to people of color. Notably, though, what is distinctive about Grundy and Robinson are that both are young black female assistant professors in sociology who faced conservative outrage, were labeled racists (and worse), and subjected to calls for their firing—based on statements they posted on twitter. Additionally, in both cases, the universities offered at best lukewarm defenses of their new hires. Boston University’s president weighed in with concerns about Grundy’s word choices, while University of Memphis simply tweeted that Robinson was no longer employed by the university. Tressie McMillan Cottom has written extensively and very eloquently about the often clumsy ways universities navigate new expectations for social media engagement, and how scholars who study topics that demand nuance and precision find themselves in a bind when they attempt to engage these complicated ideas in 140 characters or less. However, I wonder if some of this is less a story about universities as institutions adapting awkwardly to changing times, and more of a story that illuminates how worker protections in all industries are slowly and steadily eroding in ways that tend to affect vulnerable employees disproportionately, but should make us all alarmed.
It used to be that workers in many fields could count on staying with one employer for the duration of their careers. Not only that, many enjoyed guaranteed retirement benefits. However, sociologists who study work have documented how workers have shifted from being a key asset of a company to simply a cost to be minimized, their needs (health care, sick leave, etc) externalities to be outsourced or shoved off onto the worker herself. It used to be that collective bargaining helped protect these rights for workers. But sociologist Jake Rosenfeld has shown how the decline of unionization has had many adverse consequences, among them wage stagnation and worsening racial income inequality. Private sector union membership is especially low, and right-to-work legislation and recent court decisions stand to weaken unions and the protections they offer even further.
In academia, we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy work conditions that are relatively rare, but should actually be commonplace among workers—autonomy, flexible hours, and worker protection in the form of tenure. However, as many observers have lamented, this has begun to change along with the corporatization of the university. As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.
Obviously there’s a racial and gendered dynamic to this as well. The professoriate has historically been overwhelmingly white and male, and still remains that way in many disciplines and among the top ranks of faculty in virtually all departments save for African American and Women’s Studies. It doesn’t escape me that as the professoriate becomes more racially and gender diverse, two black women would be the ones most visibly at risk of termination (in Grundy’s case, before her job even really started). As intersections of race, gender, and class limited their occupational options, black women have long been among the most vulnerable of workers and did not enjoy most, if any, of the protections I described above. They were overrepresented in jobs where they could be terminated with or without cause, denied government benefits and protections, and often subjected to base sexual harrasment. As Grundy and Robinson face internet mobs demanding their firing, possible financial insecurity, and racialized, gendered online attacks, I have to wonder, how much has really changed?
This is an issue that is clearly bigger than these two professors, and should concern all of us. Even if you find Grundy’s and Robinson’s remarks objectionable, do you want to work in an occupational environment where 140 characters can get you fired? Should we all live like Justine Sacco, where our jobs are so insecure that we can lose them without the chance to explain ourselves and offer context, even as we try to discuss sensitive matters? Is this a tenable position when public outcry that isn’t informed by dialogue or discussion is all that it takes for us to lose our livelihood?
If the answer is yes, then this has particularly chilling consequences for how we navigate and participate in institutional structures going forward. Demographics, social behaviors, and social norms are shifting rapidly in this country, and perhaps nowhere more so than the subjects on which Grundy and Robinson tweeted—issues related to race, gender, power, and inequality. Academics—sociologists in particular–can and should be in the forefront of discussing how these changes have implications for social interaction in a variety of settings. But when we don’t have the worker protections that used to allow us to make controversial statements, how can we feel confident offering research-based analyses that are so necessary and important in interpreting a changing society? When universities focus more on attracting wealthier students and donors by improving amenities than on establishing and maintaining protections for their faculty, does that help provide the intellectual safety these important discussions require? Or do universities ultimately just undermine the very intellectual communities that they’ve spent decades building—intellectual communities that can be at the forefront of adjusting to the changing times in which we live? Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.