Thursday, December 18, 2014

What it Must be Like to Teach in North Korea

Threats, Blackmail, Personal Abuse, Censorship, Punishment, and Retaliation for the Expression of Your Ideas

The Students are the Real Losers

[As an amusing irony, I might note that I wrote this particular posting the week before American media commentators got in a lather over the alleged threats to "freedom of expression" posed by the Sony Corporation's withdrawal of the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy, "The Interview," from movie theaters in response to pressure from North Korean strong man Kim Jong Un that they not screen the film. Boston University administrators clearly have a different view of academic freedom of expression and their own right to suppress whatever they want, whenever they want, and to punish faculty in every way they can if they dare to question the rules they lay down on what is and is not allowed to be said. Protecting a silly-ass comedy is one thing; protecting the rights of faculty members to publish their ideas is something else. Boston University administrators would clearly be at home working in a North Korean university. The unedited, unchanged text of the original posting follows. —Ray Carney]

I get so many emails that contain questions about ordering items from my now banned Boston University faculty web site that I decided to print the reply I made to a recent inquiry in hopes that it will save others time inquiring, and spare me having to write similar replies to other inquirers.

A little background may be in order for anyone who has discovered my work from these blog postings and is unfamiliar with the subject of these inquiries—my old, and now administratively censored and suppressed, official Boston University faculty web site (hosted on the BU server as all BU faculty web sites are, but listed for ease of accessibility under the name of a filmmaker I have written a lot about at:

The site was created in February 1997, in the early days of the internet, and was in its time the largest non-commercial internet site devoted entirely to low-budget artistic filmmaking in the world. At its height, it had more than a million words of postings spread out over approximately a thousand pages, the majority of them written by me, but a significant number (in the form of letters, essays, reviews, and miscellaneous observations and apercus) contributed by many of the most important American independent filmmakers of the time. The site was extremely popular, receiving up to 50,000 hits a month from around the world, with a readership comprised largely of film students, filmmakers, and film teachers, making it by far the most important and influential faculty web site in America in its time, as well as a major recruitment tool for Boston University’s Department of Film and Television and its American Studies program (where I used to teach, before the opportunity to do it was taken away from me as part of the punishment regimen I will subsequently describe).

The size and importance of the site was not lost on university administrators in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was singled out for administrative praise and held up as a example for other BU faculty members to emulate. I was personally encouraged and given substantial support to maintain it from the highest levels of the university administration.

All of that changed, almost overnight, with the arrival of a new Dean of the College of Communication and the appointment of a new Chairman of the Department of Film and Television. The previous Dean and the previous Chairman had both been summarily fired, without advance notice or warning, in a single 30-day period when they dared to raise questions about changes in the curriculum that were being unilaterally imposed on them from above, and their replacements, the new Dean and the new Chairman, were given marching orders that faculty members under them should be “brought into line with university policies and practices" and that anyone who went off-script would not only not be tolerated but, where necessary, punished to “set an example” for others thinking of raising questions about administrative decisions. In short, it was the last days of the administration of President John Silber, and it was made clear that there would be zero-tolerance for any and all differences of opinion. The Dean and Chairman I am referring to were chosen precisely because they could be counted on to be obedient enforcers.

Though this is neither the time nor the place for a detailed summary of the years that followed, suffice it to say that the administrative hammer was decisively lowered in the college I am in, the College of Communication, and among the items it was lowered on were me and my web site, which demonstrably contained views about the teaching and study and appreciation of film that did not reflect the mainstream views and values of my colleagues. I had never named names or cited views of specific colleagues on my web site pages, of course, but many of the films I held up to ridicule or mentioned as examples of the emotionally immature, intellectually adolescent, infantile state of American filmmaking, classroom study, and appreciation were films my colleagues apparently screened and discussed in their classrooms. (I couldn’t possibly have realized this or intended it in my postings, since I had little or no knowledge of what went on in other teachers’ classrooms; but my colleagues and the administrators over me made me painfully aware of it in long, and frequently profanity-laced, screaming sessions to which I was later subjected.) Even worse than my apparent criticisms of what they screened and taught, I subsequently discovered that almost all of the films and filmmakers I championed on the site were completely unknown to them, which meant that they were put in the untenable position of having admitted students (as a result of the attraction the site had for applicants to the program) who not only had different cinematic values than they did, but who asked embarrassing questions in class about films almost all of my colleagues had not only never seen but never even heard of. What did they think about the work of Kelly Reichardt? The work of Charles Burnett? The work of John Cassavetes? The work of Andrew Bujalski? The work of Joe Swanberg? The work of Lena Dunham (this was years before “Girls” was even a glimmer in the eyes of HBO producers)? The work of So Yong Kim? The work of Ronnie and Mary Bronstein? The work of Robert Kramer? The work of Tom Noonan? The work of Su Friedrich? The work of John Korty? The work of Morris Engel? The work of Shirley Clarke? The work of Barbara Loden? The work of Paul Morrissey? The work of Phil Morrison? The work of Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass? The work of Aaron Katz? The work of Vincent Gallo? The work of Rodrigo Garcia? The work of Jay Rosenblatt? The work of Frank V. Ross? The work of Caveh Zahedi? The work of Rick Schmidt? The work of Rob Nilsson? The work of Mike Leigh? The work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan? The work of Abbas Kiarostami? The work of Robert Bresson? Or the work of scores of other artists I praised on the site? The new Dean and new Chairman told me to my face, numerous times and with great anger in their voices, that intellectually speaking I was a “troublemaker.” I was (and you have to supply the negative tone with which the last word of the following was said to get the meaning of it) “giving students ideas.” (That’s a pretty good definition of art in my view: something that, emotionally and intellectually speaking, “makes trouble” and gives people “ideas”—in both the positive and negative senses.) They ordered me to stop doing it. They were not asking; they were telling. They reminded me that they were my bosses and, in their view, entitled to control every facet of my pay, position, perquisites, and duties.

Given the newly instituted clamp-down policy (and given the marginal personal and professional ethics of the individuals in charge of enforcing the policy), the administrative sequel was almost a foregone conclusion. It was demanded that I “voluntarily” (an Orwellian euphemism, since I was given no choice whatsoever in the matter) remove my faculty web site from the university server—lock, stock, and barrel. All thousand pages; all million words; all the lists of films to view and films to avoid; all of the ideas about film study; all of the critical opinions. I was given, in writing mind you, a drop-dead deadline to take the site down and remove it from the university server. All of it. Not a sentence was to remain.

Of course I refused. I wrote memos—I remember one of them ran something like twenty-pages. I spent hours asking for and attending private meetings with senior administrators in their offices. I made a speech in front of my entire department. I told everyone I talked to, including my Chairman with the entire department present to witness, that if I did what they demanded, it would set a terrible, irrevocable precedent for the freedom of faculty speech at BU, a precedent that would threaten the groundwork of the entire academic enterprise. Ideas could not be policed. Faculty expression could not be monitored and controlled. Publications could not be censored. I realize in hindsight I should have saved my breath—and my typing fingers. My words didn’t ruffle a hair on anyone’s head—my Chairman's, my Dean's, the University Provost's. They were all clearly working from a playbook given to them by the Boston University lawyers, who were old hands at this. They had done similar things to faculty members scores of times before me. The lawyers had all the steps on how to shut me up—or, failing that, to force me to quit—worked out in advance. They weren’t going to let a few grandiose ideas about academic freedom change their methods. My faculty web site had to be suppressed. I could hardly believe my ears: According to them, I was an employee of BU; BU owned my ideas; BU had the right to control what I said—in the classroom, in emails I wrote my students, in interviews I gave to the media, in my lectures and other publications (which is what my web site was)—in fact, everywhere in any manifestation connected with the conduct of my professional duties. (For the interested reader, virtually every other page of this site has information about the wide range of administrative attempts to control what I did as a teacher, writer, email-sender, or subject of media interviews.)

I’ll skip over the details of the years of administrative thuggery that followed—initially devoted to attempting to force me to remove my web site from the university server, and subsequently (when I wouldn’t do that) in an effort to make my life so hellish I would resign my position: I won’t describe in detail the administrative shouting matches; the threats to bankrupt me with legal actions against me—I was told over and over again that, right or wrong, a university had for all practical purposes infinitely deep legal pockets, and that as a mere individual I couldn’t possibly afford to defend myself against a series of university-funded law suits; the threats (this one was actually put in writing) to make internet postings against me on the Boston University web site to destroy my name and professional reputation; the withdrawal of all of my previously granted research funding; the uncompensated course overloads; the grueling teaching schedules; the assignments of my courses to unsuitable classrooms; the cuts in my pay. (The rest of this site is full of the particulars. See "A Summary: Ten Years at Boston University" under June 2014 in the right-hand menu for a quick fly-by.) The goal was clear: Even if, as a tenured faculty member I couldn’t be fired, my academic life could be made awful enough that I would be forced to resign my position.

When even these threats and actions didn’t suffice to force me to remove the material—or persuade me to quit, the administrative tactics descended to an even lower ethical level and became more even personally vindictive. Students were told not to study with me. Administrators changed from shouting at me behind closed doors to yelling at and criticizing me in front of my students in hallways and public spaces to undermine my reputation and cut into my class enrollments. Administrators met privately and secretly with students and openly attacked my morals and character. Graduate students were told that my research and scholarship was illegitimate, fraudulent, and worthless and that they should not study with me. Other graduate and undergraduate students were told by their official course advisors and administrators that they should not take courses with me. Other grad students were told that they would be punished or retaliated against pedagogically if they worked with me on their thesis. Still other students were instructed to sit in on my classes and report on any “controversial” statements I made. (The mere instruction by a senior administrator that students do this is enough in itself to destroy a faculty member’s reputation and authority with his students, no matter what is or is not said in the classroom.) The low point, among so many other low points, was reached when my Dean, my Chairman, my program Director, and another faculty member, in concert and collaboration, created a set of suborned, perjured, and completely fictitious “letters from students” attacking my morals and character—and deceitfully submitted them to senior administrators, including the Provost, as if they had been free and spontaneous statements by the students themselves—and not created to order and in many cases actually written by the junior administrator himself.

For the record, most of these acts of censorship and punishment took place during the administration of Boston University President Robert Brown and they continued in full force first while David Campbell and then Jean Morrison were University Provosts. Those facts are not unimportant. The appointment of Brown as President and David Campbell as Provost partway through this series of events (with Campbell later being succeed by Morrison as Provost for the rest of the time, extending up to the present day) was viewed by the administrators under them (the ones who banned and censored my web site and attempted to control my emails, in-class expressions, and statements to the media) as opening the door even wider than it had already been to their actions, however unprofessional and unethical they might be. As the College of Communication Dean, Department of Film and Television Chairman, and Film Studies Program Director were not shy about reminding me, all three senior administrators (Brown, Campbell, and Morrison) were scientists with absolutely no first-hand knowledge of, background in, or experience of the arts or humanities, which meant to the people directly above me that they (the scientists) would take the lower-level administrators’ word when it came to questions about what could or could not be said on a web site devoted to the arts, in an arts classroom, in interviews about art with the press, and in all other arts-related matters. My point is that the scientist-administrators were viewed by the lower-level administrators as being putty in their hands, patsies who could be pushed around because they presumably knew nothing about the area I taught in and wrote about. Scientists (you would have to have heard the contemptuous tone with which that term was pronounced) would never dare question humanists, scientists would never second-guess what lawyers, and Silber-trained, Silber-experienced lawyers at that, told them to do. (Ah, the brilliance of the bureaucratic mind!) There was no chance the upper levels of the BU administration would reverse what the lower levels did.

So that’s a quick overview of the origin of the present situation, which has, if it can be believed, only gotten worse in subsequent years. My pay continues being cut. My research funding continues withdrawn. I am still being given course overloads. Students are still being told not to take my courses. Students are still being told that my scholarship and publications are worthless. Students are still being punished academically if they are so foolish as to ask for me to help them with their theses. The beat, or I should say the beating, goes on.

That then is the background to what follows: a very lightly rewritten (and typo-corrected) version of an inquiry I received about my banned and censored faculty web site, and my lightly rewritten (and typo-corrected) reply to it. As I noted above, I have received hundreds of similar inquiries, and am re-printing this particular answer in hopes that it saves others the trouble of writing and asking the same question. —Ray Carney

* * *

Dear Professor Carney,

I would like to purchase your packet "What's Wrong with Film Books, Film Courses, and Film Reviewing—And How to Do It Right."  Are both parts available? Can I still use PayPal with your address, as it states on

I've been appalled by the behavior of the BU faculty and administrators, as described on your blog. It really bothers me that these guys can't appreciate the huge intellectual service that you have done to the study of film. You are someone who is extremely well-educated in more established arts such as literature, music, and painting. If the study of film is to mature, it's going to require people like you who can 'separate the wheat from the chaff, and who can introduce a level of intellectual rigor found in the study of more traditional arts. Instead of respecting you, these people denigrate and abuse you!

I sincerely hope that your situation improves.

Best wishes,

Alexander Altaras


Thank you for your kind words. Unfortunately, BU has shut down the entire site. The email address you cite, which was only used for my faculty web site, is also dead and gone. Sorry that you didn’t know that. Though it may still be on the BU server, I’ve been completely shut out of the site, which means that even I can't access it, to put up a notice or anything else.

University administrators told me if I didn’t “voluntarily” (a new meaning of the word) take the site down, they were going to remove it from the University server themselves. When I resisted, they said they would bring in the lawyers to force it to be taken down and bankrupt me if I fought them, and also told me (in an official statement I was given by a university administrator in writing, can you believe it?) that they were going to post a notice attacking me on the internet to destroy my academic reputation if I didn’t give in to the demand. Blackmail, pure and simple. When I didn’t capitulate, they shut me out of the site.

For reasons known only to themselves after they said and did all that, they never actually took the site down. I have no idea why it is still visible—even in its banned and frozen and moribund state—on the BU server—if it still is. It’s completely out of my control at this point, and no one is sure telling me anything. My personal theory is that the Boston University lawyers chickened out on the final step—the removal of the material from the BU server, which would have been easy enough to do—since it would have been so transparently McCarthyite. But I'm the last person they'd ever share their thinking with, so your guess is as good as mine about why it is still physically visible even though it was officially banned and censored, and I was, and continue to be, punished for refusing to remove it.

The definitive proof that nothing has changed is that my pay continues to be cut, and my research funding and other faculty privileges continue to be penalized for having posted the material. The process has stretched out over ten years and none of that has changed. And of course whether the site is still visible or not on the BU server, they have accomplished their goal. They stopped my postings and shut me up. That was the goal and they succeeded. It’s the way BU lawyers treat faculty members. Thuggishness, punishment, threats, bullying, and even blackmail (like the threat to make an internet posting against me) when necessary; but shut the faculty member up and keep them quiet, however unethically and unscrupulously you do it. The BU lawyers have decades of experience doing this sort of thing to faculty members before me—making threats to bankrupt them with legal actions and to destroy them with press releases or internet postings in later years if they don’t roll over and play dead, if they don’t in my case agree to having their publications monitored, controlled, censored, and suppressed.

Isn't it weird how the fear of unfamiliar ideas makes people do awful things? One of the things they hated the most was the thing I was most proud of about the site: the "independent film/artistic/countercultural" perspective on film. The Boston University film production program is very "mainstream," very "Hollywood," very "bourgeois" (I hate that word too, but it is justified in this case), and very money-, power-, and fame-oriented in its value system and in what is taught—and the production faculty just hated, hated, hated what I said about mainstream values and mainstream courses, speakers, and screenings—and the administrators they went and complained to fell for it. (They would hate me for saying what I just have to you—and no doubt would punish me some more if they saw this!)

And where there is hate and fear in academia (or among individuals committed to ideas anywhere), there is always censorship or attempted censorship—look at Gender and Multicultural Studies courses and teachers for examples of that, though professors, particularly white men like me, are afraid to say it out loud. That's what fear and hate do to people who can’t really defend their ideas. Their only defense is to censor people they disagree with, which chills discourse even more, and makes most people afraid even to point out what is going on, since speaking up will just bring more censorship and punishment down on the speaker’s head.

So, long story short, you can't order anything through that site any more. What you could do is send me a personal check for whatever the posted amounts are, directly, to my address at Boston University: College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston MA 02215, and I'll send you whatever you want.

Boston University is still in the dark ages when it comes to faculty free speech. The Board of Trustees should remove a whole line of administrators between me and the President (and, even more importantly, a whole group of university lawyers who were trained by the preceding University President, "Mad John" Silber, to violate faculty rights every way they possibly could, yet are still relied on by the current administration for their opinions on these issues) for not understanding the vital, central, seminal importance of free thinking and free expression in the university, but that's not going to happen at Boston University, where business values and tuition dollars are the only things that matter.

If you want to know the truth, I feel sadder for the students than for myself. Over the years, decade after decade, they have been used as pawns to serve the unethical purposes of Boston University administrators, and they can't possibly realize how they have been exploited and let down. They have no idea how their teachers have been intimidated into conformity or outright muzzled, and how many earlier generations of independent-minded faculty they might have had as teachers have been removed on trumped-up, fictitious charges (which is what administrators tried to do to me at one point with a fraudulent student letter-writing campaign). I don't expect students to understand any of this of course. They are just too young and trusting and have been part of the university community for too brief a time to see the big picture (or to understand how they have been used and exploited). But they are the ones who are really being punished by decades of faculty control and censorship. They are being denied different points of view. BU has had fifty years of this. Google the name of the President before the current one, John Silber, to read about what he did for four decades to an independent-minded faculty member named Howard Zinn with the full support and assistance of the Boston University legal office. And not that much has changed since then. In fact, most of the old-guard staff and administration from the bad old days is still in place in middle management. Translation: it will take decades for things to change. Bureaucracy is that way. Particularly when folks at the top refuse to recognize what the people under them (their administrative buddies, their cocktail-party friends) continue to do.

All best wishes. And forgive the sermon!

Ray Carney
Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

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 (Paris: Cahiers du cinema), The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why Art Matters; and other books, essays, and editions, published in more than ten languages.