Editor's Introduction - Volume 10

Who’s A Bully? Civility, Power, and Authoritarianism in the Contemporary Academy
By Rachel Ida Buff

University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, May 9, 2019—Walking across campus to the final faculty senate meeting of the year, I was looking forward to a presentation by my colleague Nick Fleisher, president of our Wisconsin state AAUP conference, about a resolution upholding the importance of faculty input into the hiring of chancellors. I mulled the stubborn persistence of democratic faculty governance in spite of the best efforts of former governor Scott Walker and the current Wisconsin state legislature.

Stopping at a campus watering hole to get a fortifying beverage, I ran into another colleague, Michael Z. Newman, a founding member of our campus AAUP chapter and a fellow faculty senator. “This one’s on me,” Mike grinned, as he paid for my iced decaf. We walked over to the senate meeting together, enjoying the finally almost-decent “spring” weather.

As we walked up the access ramp to the building that houses senate meetings, we were surprised to observe two university police stationed there, radios crackling. Inside the building were two more cops; standing at the back of the large, sloping auditorium that hosts the faculty senate, two more.

My stomach dropped. What were the cops doing there?

Also standing in the back of the room, looking smaller and more bedraggled than usual, four students from the campus group Young People’s Resistance Committee (YPRC) clutched a “Sanctuary Campus” sign.  As their mission statement explains, “The Young People’s Resistance Committee is a youth-led, multinational organization that works for the rights of immigrants, students, and workers.” Recognizing the Koch-funded attack on the University of Wisconsin, YPRC asserts that “education is a human right, and . . . public education should be cost-free.” Our AAUP chapter has frequently collaborated with them.

In concert with our chapter, YPRC planned a presence at this faculty senate meeting to protest the lack of action coming out of a year-long sanctuary campus task force. Representatives from both of our organizations worked hard on this project, which yielded little in the way of tangible progress.

As the group’s faculty advisor, I know these students well. Many members are first-generation immigrants, quite a few undocumented. For them, a police presence signifies a potential menace, quite the opposite of sanctuary.

“What are the cops doing here?” the current YPRC president asked me, eyes wide.

I smiled at him, attempting reassurance. “I don’t know. They don’t usually come to senate. I’m glad you all are here.”

He smiled back and we both shrugged. I walked down the aisle to take my seat.

I sat down and looked to the senators I am closest to, fellow denizens of the left side of the auditorium. They shook their heads, ominously.

As our chancellor convened the senate meeting, I looked around the room. Were we going to stand as a body and demand to know why our governance meeting suddenly entailed a police presence?

But no. Business proceeded as usual, with the chancellor’s and then provost’s reports making no mention of the peculiar circumstances of today’s senate.

Eventually, Nick presented the resolution on faculty participation, which was adopted unanimously. This was a protest move. A chancellor search at another UW campus had recently adhered to newly adopted board of regents regulations eviscerating faculty participation.

My colleague Lane Hall stood up to read a letter he had written about a recent incident in which a white nationalist student publicly displayed a swastika on campus. Another student snatched his sign and destroyed it. The student who snatched the swastika currently faces charges on the “free speech” policy passed in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents; the white nationalist student does not. Decrying a university policy that sanctions anti-fascism while permitting symbols of hate on campus, Lane pointed to the frequencies of civility and power undergirding these events:

The symbol of hate isn’t just a violence in itself, which it is, but a signifier of right-wing grooming for larger acts of hate, of escalating violence that results in Poway, Pittsburgh, Oak Creek, Christchurch. We, as an institution and as intellectuals, need to understand the rise of neofascism in our times. These are not disconnected, stochastic events, but are campaigns on the dark-web, grooming sessions for disaffected and alienated young white men who everyone can disavow as “crazy,” “disturbed,” “attention seekers,” “losers . . . ”Until the next one, and the next one, and the next one that comes ready to “go all in.”           

Another colleague, Richard Grusin, then stood up. Later, he explained that his statement that day responded in part to a 2015 visit of university police to his office after what they considered an “incendiary” blog post, as well as the prohibition by university police of fewer than twenty assembled faculty and students intending to sit in on a campus austerity task force meeting that same year. Speaking at the senate, Richard connected manifestations of power and authoritarianism: the police protection of the swastika and its bearer, the shooting by UWM police of a homeless man on campus over spring break, and the current presence of police at the senate: all incidents of the forces of state being amassed against students, faculty, and other denizens of campus.

As a body, the senate listened politely to the interventions of my colleagues. Both are well respected; both are full professors. But after their declamations, the chancellor returned to the agenda as written.

We proceeded with university business, cops and students still standing in the back of the room. Finally, stunned by the banality of this particular evil, I stood up and asked the chancellor what the cops were doing there. We went back and forth a couple of times, the chancellor evincing plausible deniability by claiming that the university police had not notified him that they planned to be present.

During this dialogue, one of my colleagues on the senate spoke without standing up. He growled, “Leave it alone!” Though he did not dignify his intervention by standing and speaking, as is customary in the senate, his message was clear. Despite the unprecedented appearance of university police at a meeting of a standing body of democratic governance, my bringing attention to this was the true disruption. To this unidentified man, a female full professor standing up in the senate to question the chancellor constituted more of a menace than the uniformed officers lining the auditorium.

Finally, the vice chancellor of university relations responded to my question, explaining that YPRC advertised their event on social media. Twelve people indicated their interest in attending. “Another police department” advised UWM of the potential threat, and university police were dispatched to the senate.

Towards the end of the meeting, all four YPRC students approached the front of the auditorium. They expressed their frustration with a yearlong administrative process that yielded little progress towards meeting the sanctuary campus demands that they initially articulated in spring 2018. The chancellor then pulled up a prepared PowerPoint slide that responded to their claims. The slide exhibited extant provisions for undocumented and immigrant students, which the YPRC students were well aware of. But their ask was for more: a campus that deliberately and overtly assures the collective well-being of faculty, staff and students, across embodied identities and national origins. At this writing, those requests remain unfulfilled.


I begin the introduction to this volume of the Journal of Academic Freedom by belaboring this incident in our faculty senate because it points to the multiple frequencies of bullying present on our campuses. Issued in fall 2018, our initial call for papers asked, “How do admonitions of ‘civility’ operate along lines of power? How do authoritarian cultural and political formations impact practices of academic freedom?”

The incident at the UWM faculty senate meeting illuminates the lines of power and civility as they function on many contemporary campuses. It points to a mismanaged and overwhelming university police presence, to besieged institutions of faculty governance and student organization, to the use of discourses of “civility” to shelter white nationalism and punish dissent, and to the politics of campus public discourse along lines of race, status, class, gender, and gender identity.

The prodigious response to our call for papers, alone, is evidence of the volume of bullying on campus: we received almost twice the number of submissions than the previous year, many more than could find a home in this volume. As faculty editor, I had the unenviable task of winnowing these submissions down. Many worthy entries did not make the final cut.

As I imagine many editors do, I reflect frequently on the submissions that could not be included in this volume. I am even more haunted by the entries that I never received, by colleagues whose experiences with structures of power and authority—on their campuses, in the profession, because of precarious employment—prevented them from writing, or finishing, or daring to send their vital accounts of their experiences. Bullying incurs personal, academic, and institutional damage: it silences people, directly or collaterally. Many report fear and writer’s block. Some leave academia altogether.

I know personally of a few such stories; I imagine there are myriad more. The well-documented increase in precarious employment makes bullying both more likely to occur and less likely to be reported. Institutional channels are less adept with and less accessible to the needs of faculty on contingent appointments. For faculty lucky enough to be tenured or on the tenure track, student debt amassed over the course of obtaining a PhD, the virtual collapse of the academic job market, and the existence of a vast, unemployed and underemployed labor pool all function as impediments to reporting or combating bullying, particularly when it comes from institutionally powerful sources. Many are vulnerable because of their race, class, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, and national origins. Vulnerability and the isolation that results from it make combatting bullying difficult.

As the UWM story above illustrates, institutional contexts contribute to the rise of bullying. In 2015, Wisconsin State Act 55 took tenure and faculty governance out of state statute, relegating these vital aspects of academic freedom to control by the board of regents. Such legislative acts of intimidation have taken place across the country, in public as well as private institutions. They serve notice to faculty and students that all of our institutional positions are precarious. I attribute the cowardly injunction of my anonymous colleague— “leave it alone”—to the climate of fear resulting from such administrative incursions. Many of our colleagues contend with anxiety purposely generated by state legislatures as well as by the private consulting firms paid to advise campus administrations. Such actors deliberately silence faculty, students, and staff. This silence is secured by the multi-layered frequencies of bullying in the contemporary academy. These frequencies stifle academic freedom.

That particular day at UWM emerged from a broader political context in which sitting heads of state such as President Trump bully, menace, and authorize extralegal acts of violence and terror. Many on our campuses have much to fear from these threats, as they explicitly target people of color, women, LGBTQ, and foreign-born people. A thousand unreported incidents echo the ugly words emanating from the White House, deploying it to describe our students and colleagues. The sanctuary campus demands articulated by YPRC respond to this political moment. But where bullies preside, there can be no sanctuary—unless and until there are countervailing forces, by which I mean all of us.


Accordingly, this volume begins with three entreaties to collectively resist bullying on campus. Judy Rohrer’s essay, “Compulsory Civility and the Necessity of (Un)Civil Disobedience,” links discourses of civility to ongoing institutional practices of bullying and marginalization. “Civility,” she points out, has a close etymological relationship to “civilization,” and similar forms of violence and repression are committed in its name. Uncovering several instances of resistance on different campuses, Rohrer exhorts us to find and support one and other and exercise “uncivil disobedience” against repressive uses of civility.

In his “Vision for Scholar Activists of Color,” John Streamas provides a useful taxonomy of institutional bullies, linking them, as Rohrer does, to imposed practices of civility. Limning an incident in which his syllabus was targeted by Campus Watch and subsequently scrutinized by administrators, Streamas identifies a key contradiction in the lines of power and knowledge organizing the contemporary academy. While discourses of “civility” function to outlaw and punish dissent—particularly by faculty, staff, and students of color—the rhetoric of “diversity” is part of the university’s increasingly profit-driven discourse. Streamas urges campus organizers, and people of color in particular, to deploy this contradiction to force their ways past tokenism and empty diversity rhetoric. His essay concludes with an important intervention to “convert the idea of academic freedom to an ideal of academic justice.”

While Rohrer and Streamas urge collective action against authoritarianism and bullying, John Wilson points to the ways that anti-bullying policies, themselves, may impede academic freedom. Like both of the preceding authors, Wilson’s “The Danger of Campus Bans on Bullying” worries about how repressive ideas of civility outlaw dissent and free expression. He writes that “Anti-bullying policies are often used to bully victims and silence them. Policies that protect academic freedom are the best tool for fighting bullies, and the only ones compatible with a free university.” Like Streamas and Rohrer, Wilson is concerned with the ways that established lines of authority, as they function in anti-bullying policies meant to respond to inequalities of power on campus, can stifle academic freedom.


These three introductory articles trace some of the deep currents of bullying and authoritarianism running through our campuses and academic work lives. The four articles that follow delineate the ways that these veins of power and authoritarianism saturate professional practice.

In “The Weaponization of Student Evaluations of Teaching: Bullying and the Undermining of Academic Freedom,” Jason Rodriguez courageously presents an autobiographical account of the ways in which senior faculty in his department deployed student evaluations of teaching (SETs) to undermine him as an assistant professor. In a 2018 article in Academe, John W. Lawrence concluded that, while these instruments do not accurately measure teaching aptitude, practice, or outcomes, they are likely to remain popular with administrators. Lawrence wrote:

If SET scores are such poor measures of teaching effectiveness and provide incentives for leniency, why do colleges and universities continue to use them? First, they are relatively easy to administer and inexpensive. Second, because they result in numerical scores, they have the appearance of being “objective.” Third, the neoliberal zeitgeist emphasizes the importance of measuring individual performance instead of working as a community to address challenges such as improving teaching. And fourth, SET scores are part of a larger problem in higher education in which corporate administrators use assessment and credentialing procedures to exert control over faculty and students.

Rodriguez extends this critique of SETs, characterizing them as having the potential for intrapersonal violence in the form of mentoring. Deployed against junior and precarious faculty, such violence represents institutional hostility. Recounting the weaponization of these instruments “as a form of bullying,” Rodriguez explains how his department used them to challenge both his academic freedom and his standing as a successful instructor during his annual reviews and heading into his tenure process. Like Streamas, Rodriguez identifies the contradictions between neoliberal discourses of diversity and administrative imposition of practices such as SETs that cultivate surveillance and bullying of contingent and untenured faculty. Ultimately, he concludes that the ongoing use of SETs can undermine institutional initiatives designed to diversify the faculty and support interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching.

Correspondingly, in “Endangered and Vulnerable: The Black Professoriate, Bullying, and the Limits of Academic Freedom,” Lori Latrice Martin, Biko Mandela Gray, and Stephen C. Finley highlight the ways that Black[*] academic freedom is particularly challenged by the current academic crisis. An underrepresented consequence of the “crisis” in public higher education is the decline in Black student enrollment and Black faculty numbers at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). The authors outline the violent history of the exclusion and partial acceptance of Black faculty at PWIs, arguing that this history undergirds both current episodes of “white rage” and bullying directed at Black faculty, as well as the ongoing assault against the presence of faculty of color on these campuses.

In her intriguingly named “Tale of Professor X,” Sherryl Kleinman traces the operation of institutional power on one campus and how it impinges on faculty academic freedom. As with the incident Streams relates, the plot of this tale turns on the question of faculty control of curriculum and teaching. Because I don’t want to reveal the outcome of her well-staged narrative, I will say only that the story involves surprising abuses of power by university administrators interfering with the free creation of course syllabi.

In “Post-War Recovery and Student Academic Freedom in Côte d'Ivoire,” Alfred Babo investigates the legacy of violence on campuses in this West African nation. Importantly, Babo focuses on student rights, an oft-neglected aspect of academic freedom. During the long prelude to the Ivorian civil war of 2010-11, student unions participated in sometimes violent protests against political repression and neglect of public education. As a part of wartime recovery, the current regime restricts the power of student unions, creating an armed campus police force to maintain order on campus. This organization has responded violently to student political organization on campus. Babo asserts the importance of open universities in general and student academic freedom in particular to national recovery and democracy. His courageous research highlights a vital aspect of academic freedom and post-civil war Ivorian history that is both likely to be unfamiliar to many readers and relevant for broad questions of academic freedom and institutional bullying.


The four articles described above represent the broad impact and widespread reach of contemporary practices of bullying. Next, the volume moves back in time to examine two historical incidences and their legacies.

Anyone who has ever applied for a grant will attend Frank Baldwin’s tale of political bullying and malfeasance in Japanese and US research foundations. During the “Komori Affair,” right-wing nationalists swayed the process of publication of papers delivered at an international conference on history and memory held in St. Louis. Contending that the effects of this affair are ongoing, Baldwin delineates the behind-the-scenes connections between research foundations and national governments, and the ways in which the operation of political power can corrupt the vital functioning of peer review and undermine academic freedom.

In “No Sanctuary: Japanese American Internment and the Long Arc of Academic Freedom and Shared Governance,” William Kidder, Judy Sakaki, and Daniel Simmons pick up one of this volume’s subthemes about bullying and white supremacy. The authors examine how California public universities, contended with questions of academic freedom for Japanese American faculty and students during and after the internment period of World War II. In the context of the racially driven wartime hysteria that authorized Executive Order 9066, they remind us that “threats to academic freedom can arise from numerous sources, both within and outside the academy.”

Under Executive Order 9066, Japanese American faculty were bullied on campus, and ultimately removed from their jobs and homes to be relocated to internment camps; the 3,200 Japanese American students enrolled in universities on the West Coast were forced to abandon their studies there. The authors point out that, even though the AAUP had recently issued the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the organization did not defend Japanese American faculty against these threats. However, the authors note that the exercise of academic freedom by Japanese American scholars and activists on campus during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in not only revisionist historical scholarship, but in the success of Fred Korematsu’s 1983 challenge to a conviction that had been upheld in an infamously unjust 1944 Supreme Court decision.

This volume concludes with two essays offering generative conclusions about the root causes of bullying in the contemporary academy, along with some potential directions for responding to them.

In “Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-Wing Attacks, Follow the Money,” Isaac Kamola analyzes the geometric escalation of incidents of bullying of academics perpetrated by right-wing outside agitators. Kamola responds to an extremist characterization of campus radicalism that has become so common as to be normalized by none other than the Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently ran an article entitled Conservatives Say Professors’ Politics Ruins College. Students Say It’s More Complicated.” Linking the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, in which conservative commentators raised alarms about the content of university curricula, to the current era of austerity, Kamola examines the widespread occurrence of online mobbing by “virtual lynch mobs”—typically, but not only, against faculty of color—as part of a long-term campaign by right-wing billionaires to end public access to education.

Finally, John Covaleskie’s magisterial intervention in the debate about “safe spaces” and “snowflakes” brings this volume full circle, to the uneven terrain of the faculty senate. Does the right of free speech operate the same for an undocumented student clutching a protest sign in the presence of university police as it does for a university chancellor gripping the podium? Conscious of the long histories of inequality that inform our present moment, Covaleskie concludes that it does not. Academic freedom is not one size fits all: its true exercise entails full comprehension and redress of the inequalities informing many of the contributions to this volume.


The ongoing impact of bullying, and its many frequencies in contemporary academia, make it a fraught and crucial topic impinging on any real practice of academic freedom. A police presence at a meeting of an elected governance body conjures images of fascist occupation. Can democratic faculty governance proceed unimpaired under such circumstances? This volume aspires to speak beyond the diverse and specific experiences delineated by these fifteen authors, to address the broad crisis of civility, power, and authoritarianism in the contemporary academy.

This conversation will continue in next year’s Volume 11, with the working title of “Academic Freedom on the Managed Campus.” Our new call for papers assumes, as Rodriguez does in his contribution to the present volume, that management technologies such as “assessment,” “rubrics,” and “metrics” are readily mobilized to bully faculty, staff, and students, and to undermine academic freedom. The proliferation of such technologies and their presence in every conceivable aspect of academic life—from research to the classroom to technology on campus to discourses of civility and congeniality—bears on our academic freedom and, indeed, on the future of the university as we know it. All are invited to chime in and contribute.



[*] In a nod to insurgent grammars, I capitalize the word Black as it refers to people, thus departing from the Journal of Academic Freedom style guide.