Friday, November 22, 2013

The Thought Police

Controlling What B.U. Faculty Can Publish 
and Say in Interviews, Emails, and the Classroom

The following email is self-explanatory. Since it represents a question I have been asked hundreds of times, I wrote a lengthy reply in hopes that I could cut and paste sentences from it in response to future questions from other correspondents. —R.C.

Professor Carney I’ve been a big fan of your writing and your web site for a long time. What I don’t understand is why it was suppressed by Boston University. It had such great views. And was very popular with a lot of my friends. So why did they censor it? What was their objection to it? I can’t understand what they would have objected to.... [a lengthy section of personal material has been deleted at this point]. Justin [last name omitted to preserve the confidentiality of his message]

Ray Carney replied:

Dear Justin,

I think this is covered somewhere on the blog, but I don’t have time to check, so I’ll give it another go. Here’s the story: My Dean, my Chairman, and the department of Film and Television faculty held four months of meetings with me (preceded and accompanied by a host of nasty memos from same) where they screamed at me, called me names (telling me I was mentally ill, “sick,” “stupid,” etc.), which my Chairman backed with repeated threats (to “bring in the [university] lawyers,” report my non-compliance to “the highest levels of the administration,” etc.) which he framed as being intended to destroy me, financially and professionally, if I didn’t remove every last word of my faculty web site from the university server. At one of the meetings at my Chairman’s insistence, the faculty passed a formal resolution giving me a date certain by which everything had to be taken down. The resolution included approval of a formal motion to censure me, which would be posted on the internet to destroy my reputation, if I failed to comply with the censorship and complete suppression of all of the material I had published on my web site. And just in case I had any illusions about appealing to BU higher-ups, my Chairman told me everything in these meetings (presumably including the name-calling and abuse, but certainly the motion of censure and the act of censorship) was being done with the explicit knowledge and approval of highest levels of the BU administration, including the university Provost and President (Robert Brown). In a word, my publications (which is what my web site was) were officially and formally censored—and I was told a public statement censuring me would be issued if I did not agree to the censorship. 
And to repeat, though many other private meetings were held with me both before and after this point where various university administrators (the Dean of the College of Communication most viciously, angrily, and sarcastically) screamed at me and called me names and made a variety of threats to destroy me because of what I had written, and told me that I must remove this published material and hundreds of pages of other material, the four months of meetings that I have described above were done very much in public, in front of an enormous audience of junior faculty members. In other words, public humiliation was very much part of the scheme against me--both the humiliation of the meetings themselves and, as it later developed, the attack on my name and reputation figured by the subsequent motion to publicly censure me on the BU web site. These meetings were very loud and very public affairs (though I sat silent for most of the time). All four months of meetings, in which the screaming-at-Carney-sessions took place, during which the censorship and censure motion was passed, involved the entire Department faculty, who all sat there and listened to and participated in drafting and voting on the motion of censure and censorship and listened to and presumably approved of (since not one of them spoke up against them) all of my Chairman's threats--the threat about bringing in the university lawyers to ruin me financially; the threat about posting the censure statement about me on the official Boston University web site to destroy my professional reputation; and the demand about giving me a deadline to remove the entire site from the internet. In other words, I am talking about a very public set of events with lots of witnesses, capped by a formal faculty vote to suppress my publications and destroy my reputation. I say this since the university now apparently denies any of it happened (even though the motion to censor my writing and publicly censure me on the BU web site was included in the official department meeting minutes).
So much for the basic facts. You ask why. A good question. A hard question to answer rationally though. Since there was so little rationality visible. As you might imagine, I’ve asked the question myself. Though the shouts, screams, name-calling, and verbal abuse did not come close to constituting a reasoned argument for or against anything—as far as I can tell based on subsequent meetings with the Boston University Provost, the College of Communication Dean, and the Film and Television Department Chairman, they objected to several specific things I had written about academic film study and teaching: 1) I talked about the danger of a film department faculty being staffed principally or entirely by mainstream, film-industry “professionals” who as insiders lacked perspective on or a critical attitude toward the enormous moral and artistic failings of mainstream film; 2) I talked about the pernicious influence of money, power, and fame as measures of value in film study, with the result that “name” figures were given honorary degrees and invited to speak to students while less popular and commercially successful artists were not; 3) I talked about how “Hollywood values” and “Hollywood models” of production distorted the academic offerings. For example, so that students were encouraged to enroll in screen-writing courses where they were taught methods that had absolutely no relevance to contemporary low-budget production; or were trained to participate in “pitch-sessions” that they would never encounter in the real world; 4) I made a variety of observations about how film students were being intellectually defrauded by being given a vocational training as “technicians” rather than being given an education that would expose them to arts and ideas. They would end up knowing how to use Final Cut Pro rather than being given a liberal educations in art, history, and culture; 5) I argued that the above values and biases had distorted the course offerings, the teaching process, and the faculty appointment and promotion process in American universities.
Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. There was not even the pretense of a discussion or debate about any of the above issues and concerns in any of these meetings. I was told in the first meeting that no one was interested in hearing my side of things, and I should “shut up,” so throughout all of the hours of abuse, I hardly said more than a phrase or a sentence in reply to anything. Think of a man in jail being yelled at, called names, and threatened with punishment by a lynch mob. That pretty much sums up the tone, mood, and irrationality of the sessions. It was, for me, a deep lesson in mob psychology and mass hysteria. There was no discussion of anything, and not even an attempt to discuss anything (how could there be once I was told not to respond?)—just a stream of shouted insults and abusive name-calling, with them leaning forward in their seats, their eyes bugged out, the spit flying off their lips and hitting me in the face, and me sitting there silently and taking it. My Dean (in his separate meetings with me, which were equally hysterical and abusive) and my Chairman and the colleagues who screamed at me were too worked up to frame their objections to my web site as abstractly and clearly as I have just done. But it became clear to me that the opinions I have listed were the ones that drove them over the edge, because they were the phrases they kept hurling back at me and yelling about. (In the various meetings, my Chairman either passed out Xeroxed copies he had made of passages from my web site, or projected pages from the site directly on a screen in the room.)
If it matters, the page of the site they objected to over and over again was an interview I did that has “Auto Mechanics” in its title (it’s posted somewhere on the spring 2013 part of the blog) and the particular sentences they would throw in my face were almost entirely from that interview. With my Chairman pulling the strings (and the Dean of the College of Communication clearly pulling his strings) they passed a resolution giving me an ultimatum and a drop-dead date by which I was to remove the entire site from the university server or, as my Chairman repeated over and over again (it was meant to be the scariest threat he could make to force me to comply), “the lawyers would be brought in” [i.e. university lawyers would be enlisted to harass me legally and bankrupt me financially], and on top of that a notice formally censuring me would be posted on the internet to cover the bases: the first designed to bankrupt me financially and the second intended to destroy me professionally by slandering and defaming me on the university web site (can you believe the depths to which these officials of the university sink, and that they don't just make these kinds of threats in private behind closed doors--I've had lots of those of course--but make them right out loud, in front of an entire department faculty in a public meeting?). These thuggish threats were made in public meeting after meeting, for months running, in front of an entire faculty, and most of them were put in writing. The censorship and censure parts of the threat were put in writing and given to me formally by the Chairman. (The university Provost later added other threats and conditions about what I was not ever allowed to write or say in the future. This set of prohibitions and acts of censorship were also given to me, by my Chairman, in writing a few months later.) 
Though I had couched my comments as being about film programs in America in general, and of course did not name anyone in my College personally, they obviously felt themselves being directly and personally attacked. They were guilty of all of the things I was saying and they recognized their own beliefs and identities in my criticisms of the ethical and professional shortcomings of American film programs. I had not intended to criticize them personally; I didn't care about them personally; I was outlining problems in hundreds of American universities; not just BU. But they saw themselves. Over and over again, they said that the statements in the “Auto Mechanics” interview "put the department in a false light," "made them [the faculty] look bad," "undermined student morale," "attacked the program," "told lies about what they were doing," or a dozen other phrases to the same effect--though as I say, the accusations were more or less hurled at me, often shouted at the top of their voices, without any real reasoning or thought or logic behind them--and most of the things said about me (e.g. charges that I was mentally ill or sick, etc.) were much more personally abusive and insulting--and much less reasoned than the comments I am citing or paraphrasing above. As I say, it was a very heated, very stormy, very emotional, and irrational set of meetings (clearly planned out and orchestrated to be that way by my Chairman). The craziness, the abuse, the vituperation, the personal attacks, the name-calling (as I say, I sat silent through most of the abuse) were clearly central to the Chairman's strategy. The more irrationality and emotionality he could stir up in the meetings, the better for his goal of passing the resolutions he had written out in advance and carried into the meeting (probably after consultation with higher ups) and wanted to get passed without any real discussion and debate in a thoughtful, reasoned way. My colleagues not only live in glass houses and realize their positions are intellectually and ethically indefensible, but a few of them were already aware of my reports of their ethical misconduct and unprofessional behavior in other areas and were looking for a way to "get" me before the whole process began, so even though I hadn't directed my remarks against them specifically, they saw themselves being threatened by my comments, and as I say, saw what I had published on the web site as their chance to "get" me. Of course their shouts and abuse and nastiness and acts of censorship to suppress my ideas only validated my assumptions that these were indeed their values and beliefs; if they had not seen themselves and what they stood for as being referred to by my comments, there would have been nothing for them to get upset about. The venom, their irrational anger, their outrage was proof I had, intellectually speaking, hit them where they lived, and they were terrified. Suppressing my ideas (and ultimately, in the years that followed, attempting to force me to quit by making my life and the performance of my duties as impossible as they could--by undermining my relationship with my students and continuing the abuse in other ways) was the only response they knew to take to shut me up, to get rid of everything they hated about me: my reports, my embarrassing questions about things they had done, my ideas about ethical behavior, and my views of film education.
Now I can understand that someone might have a different opinion from mine. That’s in the nature of academic debate and discussion. But what I can’t understand is their idea that they had the right to forbid me from, to punish me (and the months of meetings were punishment enough even if my pay and other perquisites hadn’t been impacted) for, thinking and saying something they disagreed with. That’s the antithesis of the free play of ideas that a university is supposedly devoted to. My Dean, my Chairman, and my colleagues weren’t just saying they disagreed with me—that’s their right—they were saying that I wasn’t allowed to express things they disagreed with. That's a completely different thing, and it seems like a very scary idea to me. History shows where that leads. I'm sure I don't have to spell that out for you. That is the world of Boston University, the world that I still live and work in, unfortunately. A world of censorship and monitoring and control of my expressions. It's on the blog. Read the blog.
What was I to do? I'm embarrassed to say they won. They had threatened me with threats that would destroy me and my professional stature. They had threatened to destroy me financially with legal actions and maneuvers if I resisted. I knew that I couldn't possibly afford to fight the university lawyers over the censorship demands. They are employed to fight such battles full time and have a more or less unlimited budget for such battles (which they repeatedly waged during the thirty-plus-years of the only recently ended, but far from forgotten, John Silber era--read about their fights with the estate of Martin Luther King for an illustration of the lengths to which they were willing to go). They were going to make public internet postings against me on the university web site. My Chairman's and Dean's and the Provost's attempts to shut down my work, to suspend my site, to intimidate me, to censor my speech and publications, succeeded. I'm sorry to say it. I just couldn't hold out any longer against the full force of the university. I just couldn't take the public shaming and humiliation in front of colleagues any longer. I just couldn't take the being screamed at and called names in public and private meetings any more. I couldn't take the pay cuts. After approximately a two year period of resistance, I gave in. I posted notices on the site saying that I would be suspending it and shutting it down. My mistake was in thinking that the abuse would stop with that; of course it didn't; in subsequent months and years, it has just morphed into different areas, different objections to other things I have written or said in interviews. You can read about that on the blog too. The harassment goes on right up to the present, with the goal now of trying to force me to quit. The censorship and censuring actions were just an early stage in the battle, I learned too late.
Nothing has changed, except to get worse since then. The motion against me and my ideas has never been rescinded. The censorship is still in effect. My complete published work on the internet is still under the formal motion of censure. In fact, in the last few years the censorship and censuring policy has been extended and broadened--to include other areas of my professional activity. The Dean before the current one gave me a list of things I was not allowed to say to my students in class (because they could create controversy, he told me). My current Chairman (who replaced the one who organized the meetings to censure the site, showing that nothing changed with a change in personnel), a TV producer named Paul Schneider, has extended the policy to include controlling and censoring what I say in interviews I give to the media. He has asserted the right to control what I can and cannot say. I have it in writing from him. And, as several pages on the blog document, my current Dean, Tom Fiedler, has extended the monitoring and de facto censorship and control-by-intimidation policy to include controlling the emails I write my students. I have that too in writing from him. The spring 2013 pages of the blog have more than you want to know about these additional forms of control and censorship. I'll have to leave it to you to do your own homework in those areas. That’s Boston University in the year of Our Lord, 2013. That's the university Provost Jean Morrison and President Robert Brown preside over. No only has nothing changed for me; the situation has only gotten worse in the past six or seven years. 
Keep in mind that a Dean or Chairman only has to do the kind of thing that has been done to me once or twice at most, only has to make an example of one or two faculty members in this way, for word to spread like wildfire among the faculty and chill expression for years. Never forget that most censorship is self-censorship, where faculty simply don’t say things because they are afraid it will “make someone unhappy” (the reason my Dean gave when he tried to stop me from communicating hard, complex truths to my students) and affect their future pay. Word gets around that disagreeing with the Dean or Chairman is dangerous—“you don’t want to end up like Carney”—and the consequences continue to ripple outward for years afterward.
May faculty at [the writer's university] be freer to express their views and opinions. And may they have a more principled and more ethical administration to control the unethical faculty and administrators among them. (And trust me: there will always be a few loose cannons, ethically speaking. You're young, but that's the nature of life: If people can personally benefit from doing something, or from getting rid of someone who is in their way, or who reports their ethical violations, they will. And no one in the BU administration is stopping them right now. It's deliberately and consciously looking the other way. It's in complete denial that all of these well-documented, much-witnessed events ever happened, and that they continue into the present.)
Do you understand the result? Do you see the bigger picture? Suddenly the whole system becomes corrupted. If you're a junior faculty member and don't want to get into trouble with the Dean (and, like me, be written off as a "troublemaker"), you vote to hire and promote the candidates he favors. You don't raise objections or ask hard questions. If you don't want to be yelled at in meetings (or in memos) by your Chairman, and end up "in the same boat with Carney," you go along with the Chairman's policies and don't voice objections to them. If you see ethical abuses or have procedural questions, you keep your mouth shut and don't report them. Many faculty in the College of Communication have gotten fired (or their contracts have not been renewed) for speaking up, for raising issues like this. You'd be a fool to do it. The entire faculty-based hiring, promotion, and review system falls apart.
Now, there are also a lot of good people, of course; but if they keep their mouths shut and are afraid to speak up, because of what they see being done to the small number of faculty who do, the whole system becomes corrupted. There are always only a few "bad actors" who corrupt the system in these ways, but if they are not controlled by higher administrative levels, that's what happens. 
The real loss is to the students of course. They are being cheated of the education they are paying so much for and are entitled to receive. They are being denied the only kind of diversity that counts—not racial, not gender, not cultural, but intellectual diversity. (I have a page on the blog on this subject too.) The Boston University students are being denied this kind of diversity right now, because faculty members like me are still being forced to toe the party line and censor what they say in class, what they write in their emails, what they tell interviewers, and what they publish on the internet.

All best wishes,

Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

"Inside Boston University—A Faculty Member's Efforts to Defend
Academic Freedom of Expression" --

Ray Carney's observations about academic freedom of expression, the
censorship of faculty publications, and bureaucratic retaliation
against independent-minded faculty members at Boston University. Prof.
Carney reflects on the deleterious effect of corporate modes of
organization, business measures of value, and market pressures on the
life of the mind, academic research, and course offerings—and on the
distortions corporate values introduce into the faculty promotion,
pay, and support system.

Ray Carney is the author or editor of: Henry Adams, Mount Saint Michel
and Chartres
(Viking Penguin), Henry James, What Maisie Knew and The
Spoils of Poynton
(New American Library/Signet), Rudyard Kipling, Kim
(New American Library); The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism and the Movies
(Cambridge University Press); The Films of
Mike Leigh: Embracing the World
(Cambridge University Press); Speaking
the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer
(Cambridge University
Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge
University Press); American Dreaming (University of California Press
at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute/Macmillan); Cassavetes
on Cassavetes
(Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus); Autoportraits (Cahiers
du cinema), The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why
Art Matters
; and other books, essays, and editions, published in more
than ten languages.