Commentary

Don’t Let Faceless Complaints Replace Reasoned Discourse

Marta Antelo for The Chronicle

September 10, 2017

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, my writing group hosted a Writers Resist event at a local venue and invited 10 local writers to share their work alongside us. The four of us in the writing group teach English at Monroe Community College, in New York, and several of those reading at the event were colleagues and former students. For these reasons, and because I also coordinate the college’s creative-writing program, it made professional sense for me to send an email to my department announcing the event.

Imagine my surprise when, a few days later, I received a call from my dean telling me a complaint had been filed against me through the college’s anonymous ethics hotline. Apparently one of my colleagues took offense that the reading was "political" and therefore should not have been announced via our institution’s email.

I don’t know who reported me, and it doesn’t matter. The complaint’s substance was dismissed by my dean and minimized by my provost, and I’m certainly not holding a grudge. But this situation has prompted me to think about two alarming trends on college campuses. First, as we move into an ever-more-contentious political climate, administrative processes have begun to encourage faculty and staff to complain quietly about philosophical differences rather than engaging in healthy, open dialogue. Second, I’m concerned that this is just one of many ways our academic freedom and culture of academic discourse are under subtle, persistent threat.

At my college, the ethics hotline is described as a system that "enables college employees and associates to confidentially report activities that may involve unethical, illegal, or inappropriate activities." The college’s president states that all college employees are "encourage[d] … to use this system to report any issues, concerns, or general questions or suggestions [they] feel are appropriate to bring forward."

Importantly, Monroe is not the only educational institution using an anonymous ethics hotline. In 2005 the National Association of College and University Business Officers described anonymous hotlines provided by the company EthicsPoint, in particular, as a "best business practice" for higher education. A quick Google search reveals that institutions as diverse as the Ivy League Columbia University, the Christian liberal-arts Wheaton College in Illinois, and the two-year Utah College of Applied Technology have launched some kind of anonymous reporting system. Often, as is the case at my college, faculty are encouraged to use the system but the guidelines for how and when are ambiguous at best.

No doubt, any educational institution needs a safe channel to address egregious actions, especially when a faculty member, staff member, or student is at risk of personal or professional harm. But when faculty members begin watching over each other and reporting without guidelines or sanction inaccurate, insignificant, and/or unsubstantiated claims against colleagues — who then are brought before an administrator to discuss those claims — these hotlines have the potential to foster what Rob Jenkins from Georgia State University calls "a convenient way [for faculty and staff] to harass people they don’t like." Even worse, he says, this potential then fosters a "kind of third-grade-on-steroids mentality," cultivating a hostile environment that is no longer productive and in which faculty and staff may begin turning against rather than supporting one another.

This brings me to my second concern. Ethical hotlines compromise our ability not only to deal with our differences in an open, healthy way, but also to protect the foundations of our academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, says that academic freedom "gives both students and faculty the right to express their views … without fear of sanction" unless those views are expressed in a way that "substantially impairs" the rights of others. When a campuswide hotline encourages colleagues to anonymously dispute or complain about one another’s views or pedagogical or professional actions, with no recourse or ability to redress, my concern is that "sanctions" in fact are issued and "fear" in fact is cultivated.

Furthermore, these sanctions and this fear are arguably part of a wider trend of recent threats to academic freedom. Sometimes these threats come from a developing movement in higher education to collaborate with private interests or to become more privatized themselves, so that administrators may, in the words of one AAUP officer, claim "the right to control what has historically been the faculty’s intellectual property," resulting in structural changes and a reallocation of resources that support administrative rather than pedagogical or research-centered needs.

Sometimes these threats to academic freedom come from societal forces, like the Professor Watchlist started by Turning Point USA in November 2016, which provides unvetted, unanswered, and sometimes untrue information to young scholars. In my case, although I was told by the provost that my college fully supports academic freedom, I also was asked to consider where the line might be drawn between academic freedom and improper communication.

These threats all suggest that wherever we land ideologically, and however complicated the conversations might prove, we must protect the right of faculty and students across higher education to express their ideas, to share their expressions publicly, and to engage in healthy, open, reasoned, evidenced debate — not anonymous complaints that are reinforced by administrative intervention, no matter how small.

My provost did not censure me and even wrote to me that she’s "hopeful that the report related to [my] email is not part of a future pattern." Still, the language and practice surrounding many colleges’ hotlines remain broad and undisciplined. This makes clear first the need for educational institutions to clarify the criteria and processes for their anonymous hotlines, and to screen for complaints that are perhaps less appropriate than the incidents being reported. Second, this makes clear the need for employees to resist the urge to use anonymous hotlines to chastise one another for expressing views that differ ideologically from their own. These are conversations we should be having in the open, in a true exercise of workplace civility, unencumbered by administrative interference.

After 2016, the Faculty Council of Community Colleges called for the "open exercise of academic and constitutional freedoms in support of civil discourse and inclusivity, with respect for the differing opinions, perspectives, identities and cultures of our diverse communities." Ultimately, I’d like to see our nation’s colleges and universities maintain intentionally their advocacy for academic freedom and open, civil debate. I’d like to see our institutions be places where colleagues support one another’s professional pursuits and encourage sharing of these pursuits, even when they diverge from individual ideological positions.

Finally, when colleagues take offense at other’s ideas or modes of expression, I’d like us to understand that this too is part of a healthy learning environment and to begin those difficult, brave steps toward speaking directly and with collegial respect to one another, turning to anonymous hotlines only when direct communication feels impossible because of perceived threat. It is only by speaking directly and with collegial respect that our institutions can maintain atmospheres in which discussion and debate have the power to make all of us stronger.

Maria Brandt is an associate professor of English at Monroe Community College, in Rochester.