Media Matters

Getting AAUP values into the media requires quick action and strong statements.
By Cary Nelson

When the news broke in the New York Times in August 2009 that Yale University Press had decided to remove twelve Danish cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed from The Cartoons That Shook the World, a forthcoming book by Brandeis political scientist Jytte Klausen, I felt that the AAUP had only three or four hours to issue a statement if we wanted to shape the story as it spread through the media. 

As AAUP president at the time, I believed it should be treated as a story about a major university that violated an author’s academic freedom. I knew that the story was likely to veer off in a different direction. Conservative bloggers and media outlets would immediately brand it as a story about political correctness— about liberal faculty and administrators afraid to offend Muslim religious sensibilities.

I also knew we needed a hook, preferably an opening line that everyone would want to quote. I chose a stark one: “Yale University doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. It just accedes to their anticipated demands.”

After I drafted the statement, I sent it to a key AAUP staff member, who worried that my opening gambit might be a bit over the top. I felt it was worth any attendant risk. In any case, other staff members felt it was perfect. Even for those reporters who quoted only my admittedly nasty quip, the balance of the AAUP statement was important. It laid out the reasoning behind my position, and some media outlets summarized that reasoning. It wasn’t, however, just a matter of backing up my opening remark. The rest of the release would help educate reporters and provide them with material they could use to write a story in their own words. So my “sound bite”—if that is what it was—had to be supported by a reasoned argument.

The full statement—distributed to the press by e-mail that afternoon, placed on the AAUP website, and later reprinted in an expanded version in the impressively independent Yale Alumni Magazine— provided a good deal more detail about the issue. But it was the opening line that went viral, appearing on thousands of news websites across the world within days. A few conservative bloggers tried belatedly to spin the story from a political-correctness angle. That view never took hold. The 24-7 news cycle had already adopted its mantra. Yale had engaged in a cowardly abridgment of a faculty member’s rights.

Renaming Harvard

When Rutgers University faculty members asked me last February to write a letter as AAUP president to the board of trustees objecting to a proposed separation of the Rutgers–Camden campus from Rutgers University and its merger with Rowan University, I suggested that we do a news release instead. Rutgers faculty had already written great, detailed letters to the board. No comparable letter from me would have any additional impact. But I might be able to get some publicity in New Jersey newspapers. I titled the statement “It’s Not Much Fun to Lose Your Name” and focused my comments on the effect on students, since I knew that faculty members distraught at ruined vitae weren’t going to pluck reporters’ heartstrings. The statement opened, “Will the day come when a successful student tells a prospective employer ‘I’m a graduate of Rutgers–Camden’ and the employer answers, ‘Never heard of the place’?” Toward the end of the statement, I added: “If you renamed Harvard as Charles River University, no doubt it would eventually recover, though there just might be some confusion in far corners of the globe.”

Some New Jersey reporters used the first remark, others the second. They then filled out their story with the arguments people had made, but once again the memorable lines won attention for the story.

The Art of Wit and Pith

Interviews with reporters often work the same way. You may have a long conversation with a reporter about an event or an issue, effectively helping him or her to frame and write the story. But if you cannot come up with a witty and memorable statement, you will not be quoted and will not get the AAUP name out where it needs to be.

In April 2012, Chicago State University announced a policy that its faculty and staff could not talk to the media without prior administration approval of what they would say. To prove that they were hip and upto- date, the Windy City administrators added that the same rules applied to blog posts and tweets.

A Chicago Tribune reporter called me for a comment that day. It was easy to offer on the spot. I began by observing that the reporter probably knew where I would stand on this one, then went on to detail the First Amendment, academic freedom, shared governance, and public interest problems with the policy. I concluded with this statement: “Frankly, this policy is an obscenity and absurdity and is not tolerable.”

The last line was all the reporter quoted me on, but Chicago State withdrew the policy the next day. When Huffington Post and other media reported the reversal, they quoted me again. My concluding remark wasn’t witty, but it was direct and forceful. It helped get a wretched policy killed.

My long-term goal with press interviews was to help make the AAUP the “go-to” source for stories within our key areas of interest and responsibility. That is part of how any organization gains influence and impact. If the words “academic freedom” and “shared governance” do not regularly appear in higher education news stories—preferably with the AAUP perspective attached—the public will remain no more educated about and sympathetic toward these values than it is now. That will not help higher education survive in a recognizable form.

Fifty years of a certain sarcastic personality bent often enabled me to come up with something quotable fairly quickly. When I failed to do so, the AAUP usually didn’t get mentioned in the story. The AAUP president is not Barack Obama. Just because he or she says something doesn’t mean it will be printed. As everyone who deals with the press knows, you can rarely wait until the next day to respond. You can, however, often win a delay of a few hours. That provides time to ask questions of other leaders and staff—and do some fast Internet searching for more background information.

You have to be a quick study and reach a certain level of confidence in your knowledge before the sun sets. There is no small amount of tension in playing that game. One welcome change in recent years, however, is that increasing numbers of reporters accept comments by e-mail, allowing me to craft my comments carefully and be more certain that they are quoted accurately.

To be able to respond within hours on the Yale story, for example, I had to be reasonably confident that my information was correct. Often I just cannot reach that level of confidence quickly enough to intervene in our unforgiving news cycle, and there is nothing I can say. In this case, I had the reliability and reputation of the New York Times behind the facts reported. But I also instinctively knew that neither the Times nor I had the whole story. It was inconceivable that Yale University Press had acted on its own. It was obvious to all that Yale administrators were likely involved. Some, but not all, of that backstory has since leaked.

It is often a matter of reaching an appropriate level of confidence with partial information—obviously a judgment call, but one I have repeatedly been willing to make. The limits of your knowledge shape the limits of what you can say, so you need to decide whether the whole is adequate, whether you can speak the truth within the boundaries set by circumstances. Anyone who thinks carefully considered scholarly publication is fundamentally different is deluded. The same contingent conditions of doubt and certainty apply. The AAUP’s full reports and investigations require a deeper level of knowledge than responding to a news story does, but there is also a place for the organization’s political leadership to intervene in breaking news. Otherwise, the AAUP cannot win a place for academic freedom and shared governance in the public sphere.

Disaster and Research Integrity

My most diverse and multilayered press engagement came after the massive April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The impact on academic freedom did not surface immediately. On Friday, July 16, of that year, Ben Raines, a reporter for the Press-Register in Mobile, Alabama, published a story detailing extensive efforts by BP to employ scientists engaged in (or likely to engage in) research on the environmental damage the spill was causing. BP was offering and issuing research contracts to area faculty and graduate students with long-term payments, respectively, of about $250 and $125 a day.

There was a huge contract caveat: recipients were prohibited from publishing results for up to three years without permission from BP’s lawyers. The standard federal recommendation for industry embargoes on the release of sponsored research results is thirty to sixty days. As I said at the time, “the average sea turtle floating in an oil slick can’t wait three years for scientific advice on the best cleanup methods.” In this case, because the Press-Register did not have the visibility of the New York Times, and because the implications would not be immediately apparent to many reporters, I felt I had a few days to establish an AAUP position on the story.

I wrote a piece for Inside Higher Ed, “BP and Academic Freedom,” published on July 22. You never know which interventions will go viral, spreading through traditional media and into blogs and farther. This one did. Within a day, the BBC, BBC World, UPI, and AP had called for interviews. Within three days, some 1,800 media outlets had quoted either portions of the original editorial or my subsequent remarks to AP or the BBC.

Of course, the oil spill was already a huge story. This new angle once again cast BP in a negative light, something reporters by then were comfortable doing. Two weeks later, the number of citations of my remarks, with reference to the AAUP, passed thirty thousand. My comments were translated into Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and other languages. The passages quoted varied from “the three-year limitation could suppress information necessary to restoring the environment” to “this is really one huge corporation trying to buy faculty silence in a comprehensive way” to “this is really BP versus the people of the United States.” Radio broadcasts helped spread the word still further. The AAUP position on the contracts was publicized in every major country in the world.

Dissent and the Internet

When you do this sort of work, to be sure, you have to develop a thick skin. In an Internet world where hundreds of readers may well comment on your press releases and on news stories, almost anything you say will be met with any number of fierce attacks. Not everyone embraces AAUP positions, and they are quick to say so. The test of a successful story is whether it gets AAUP principles disseminated accurately, not whether it occasions hostile rejoinders. In 2009, when Israeli faculty member Neve Gordon was subjected to demands that he be fired for advocating a boycott of his country—some claimed it was treason— I defended him in Inside Higher Ed and took it as an opportunity to make what was perhaps a new specification of academic freedom’s application to extramural utterances. Academic freedom, I pointed out, should prevent a university from sanctioning “a faculty member who argues that his or her country has no moral or political legitimacy and thus no right to exist.”

I should point out that I have also argued against—and helped prevent—the narrow proposals for academic boycotts of Israel that arise on campus or within academic organizations. I’ve taken such a position for several countries. Over the years, my comments on the Arab-Israeli conflict have generated the most criticism. I stand by them all.

I also took the opportunity to push the AAUP’s reasoning on other occasions, as when a contingent faculty member at Maryland’s Towson University was summarily fired in 2010 after telling his students he felt like “a nigger on the corporate university’s plantation.” It was hardly the most subtle or politic remark, but the use of the N-word is not cause for dismissal without a hearing. I pointed out that no one would likely fire me for reciting a Langston Hughes poem that used the word. But I also wanted to make another point. The AAUP consistently defends classroom speech relevant to a course’s subject. My argument here was that the conditions of faculty employment are relevant to all classes.

Silence and Speaking Out

The Yale and Gulf interventions were successes, and I have not regretted any similar efforts during the six years I was AAUP president. In my view, I did not make any serious blunders, but I’ve come close—having been almost at the point of going public, then deciding that I did not have enough information to play a role. That typically happened either when a reporter e-mailed me to request a comment or a story broke about an academic freedom violation and I worked on the matter up to the point of responding, then decided instead to say nothing. Once, I even wrote a piece and then decided not to publish it.

I’ve learned that a faculty member’s account of events cannot always be taken at face value. You must not get so invested in making a comment that you lose your ability to recognize your limits and stand down. There were also cases when I regretted not speaking out. A single mistake will not necessarily brand you as unreliable forever. The public’s memory is often short. What’s more, organizational pride should not lead us to deny the reality: a few of the AAUP’s carefully reasoned positions have been dead wrong, some of our reluctance to speak out has been deplorable, and some of our careful investigative reports have lacked information they should have included. Extended deliberation produces better results, but it is not flawless, and it is not always practical. Limiting ourselves to occasions when we can spend a year or two mulling matters over makes us largely irrelevant in a world of rapid information and opinion flow.

The simple truth is that higher education—and thus the country at large—will benefit from wider dissemination of AAUP values. Shared governance is not perfect, but it is far better than administrative fiat. Academic freedom is about as close to a supreme value as higher education is likely to find. The job of getting those principles widely known and accepted is well worth risk and struggle. It means we must compete against unsympathetic groups and constituencies in the press and throughout the public sphere. The more publicly outspoken AAUP of recent years has taken on that task with notable success.

Cary Nelson is former president of the AAUP and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His career is the subject of the collection Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University, and his most recent book is No University Is an Island. His e-mail address is [email protected].