Topic 5: A Victory for Academic Freedom in Texas

Debate Question: Was it ethical for opponents of David Smith's views (he is self declared Marxist) to oppose his tenure bid at the college?

Published on Monday, April 1, 2002 by Common Dreams
A Victory for Academic Freedom in Texas
by David Smith

During the past five months, an unusual controversy has engulfed College of the Mainland, a community college in Texas City, Texas. A dozen local conservatives, including a former county judge and a retired criminal justice instructor, have criticized a government professor at the college for his opposition to the current war in Afghanistan and his broader critique of U.S. capitalism. When the professor applied for tenure, his critics took their case to the college's elected Board of Trustees, charging that no one with such "anti-American views" should receive a permanent appointment. I followed these events rather closely - especially because I am the professor in question.

Since coming to the college in 1998, I have written a dozen columns in local newspapers aimed at challenging the conventional wisdom on a wide range of issues. My articles on racism, the death penalty, the Vietnam War, the problems of capitalism, and the possibilities of democratic socialism have often drawn heated responses from some readers. But a column which argued that the atomic bombing of Japan was not needed to end World War II evoked some parti-cularly ugly responses in September. The next month, when I joined with students and community members in speaking out against Bush's "war without end," my critics launched a campaign to seek the termination of my employment at the college.

Local conservatives were not deterred by the fact that my departmental colleagues, the Vice President of Instruction, and the President of the college recommended that I be granted tenure. From my critics' point of view, a tenure file documenting my record of teaching and service was not the basis on which I should be judged. Instead, they argued, being a Marxist should be considered sufficient grounds for dismissal. Eloquent editorials in defense of academic freedom in the two local newspapers impressed many people in the community, but the critics were not persuaded. The controversy came to a head at a public meeting of the college's Board of Trustees on March 25.

More than two hundred people - students, faculty, staff, and community members - attended the tumultuous three-hour session. The conservatives knew that they had an uphill fight on their hands. College of the Mainland has a longstanding commitment to academic freedom, and the faculty has included a few radicals throughout its thirty-five year history. But what surprised the conservatives - and me, as well - was the expression of support from the vast majority of people in the audience. Thirty-three people spoke on my behalf, attesting to my qualities as a teacher and my contributions to the college and the community. These speakers included former students, colleagues, a union activist, a former member of the Board of Trustees, a minister, a lawyer, and two combat veterans.

Ten individuals urged the Board to reject my tenure application, insisting that I was brainwashing students and "threatening American freedom." After hearing from everyone who wanted to speak, the Board addressed a few other agenda items and then made its decision on my case. Without further discussion, the Board voted unanimously to award me tenure - and the auditorium erupted in applause and cheers. I have not been hugged and kissed so many times since my marriage ceremony. In the week since the Board meeting, I have been deluged with supportive emails and phone calls from across the country.

To be sure, my family and I consider the Board's decision a professional and personal vindication. But, more importantly, College of the Mainland has delivered an impressive victory for academic freedom and First Amendment rights. The college's action is especially noteworthy in light of the hysteria and chauvinism which has engulfed the country since the terrible tragedy of September 11. The fact that the Trustees of a community college in Texas have resoundingly rejected calls for a new McCarthyism is more than local news.

I hope that the outcome of my struggle for tenure will encourage other Left and progressive academics to stand their ground, "speak truth to power," and earn the respect and support of students, colleagues, and community members. Together, we may be able to carve out a space in the halls of academia for articulation of our view that "Another World is Possible."

[David Michael Smith received his Ph.D. in Political Science from The City University of New York. His writings have been published in Peace Review, Nature, Society, and Thought, Socialism and Democracy, National Social Science Journal, and other journals. He is now Professor of Government at College of the Mainland in Texas City, Texas. E-mail: dsmith2740@houston.rr.com]

Last modified: Wed Sep 13 14:57:24 EDT 2000