Decorum

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I wrote a few posts ago about rejection letters, a genre in which nobody ever says, “That book sounds really awful,” or “You write terribly,” or “You have no possible future in academia, as far as I can tell.” We’ve developed a veneer of civility over the whole thing, an unreadable cheeriness that leaves us all to imagine what was really meant.

I’ve been on both sides of accreditation visits and program review visits, in which the honest assessment in the lunch room would never be repeated in the final document. The variously quoted Winston Churchill line is in full effect: “Diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”

And as I’ve gone through the interviews for the coming book, I’ve been asked by almost everybody for confidential status, for their comments to be masked by pseudonyms and fake schools and changed disciplines. I’m quoting “a dean at a large state university,” a category covering probably two thousand people. Or “a postdoctoral researcher at a major research university,” a category covering nearly eighty thousand. Or “an adjunct instructor working across several schools,” covering a million.

Academic freedom is only permissible, it seems, in unreadable journal articles and boring conference posters. We do not give ourselves such luxury when we talk about higher ed itself, or about any of its participants.

Decorum is a great thing. We’re seeing all around us what happens when it’s lost: flame-wars on web comments, blistering one-star Yelp reviews, and governance by Twitter. But I’d like to ask us to consider maybe just a tiny bit less decorum when we actually talk about the workings of higher education. To be able to say, once in a while, that an individual school or program or leader really needs to step up their game. To be able to say, once in a while, that a pattern of hazing or deception or exploitation just needs to stop.