Commentary By NICK ESTES
In the May 14 weekly “Wednesday Communiqué” e-mail sent to all UNM faculty, staff, and students, Provost Chaouki Abdallah proclaims, with reference to “recent political events” about free speech and “academic freedom”: “We all need to be reminded that higher education is as critical today as ever, and those who try to either limit the role of the university or stretch it beyond its intent, risk undermining the university’s mission as a bastion for inquiry, scholarship, and learning. We all lose, as individuals and as a society.”
Of course, the “recent political events” Abdallah refers to are: the student movements #OurUNM and #UNMDivest that challenge the administration’s lack of fiscal transparency when it comes to student fees and potential university investments in Israeli corporations that are known human rights violators; student, faculty, and staff involvement in protests against the Albuquerque Police Department’s (APD) history of brutality against the poor and homeless and most recently APD’s shooting and killing of 25 people since 2010; and, finally, the administration’s profound disconnect from the Board of Regents and student governments regarding tuition and university budgets. To say the least, UNM is undergoing a historic transformation.
But it’s the response of UNM administrators to these “recent political events,” as Abdallah exemplifies in his communiqué, that is most troubling. Though convoluted and bureaucratic in its language, the communiqué explicitly references UNM President Tom Popejoy’s 1962 speech, “Second-Class Citizenship,” as an exemplar response to the limits and challenges of free speech and academic freedom on the UNM campus.
With such a title, one may surmise Popejoy intended to platform a defense of the incipient civil rights and student movements on the UNM campus. After reading the speech, however, I suspect he’s less supportive of such causes and more a man of his times.
For example, while waxing eloquent about UNM’s (or his) achievements in the areas of increased enrollment and partnerships with national atomic and defense programs, Popejoy reminds his audience, the American Legion, that he defended “members of the faculty and student body” against attacks on freedom speech that he saw were “within the rights given to them by the Constitution of the United States.” Such attacks concerned specific faculty reactions towards “a certain disclaimer of oath” that obligated citizen oaths of fealty to the U.S. as a requirement for employment.
He then cites the Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) 1940 “Principles of Academic Freedom” as justification for his actions. Nonetheless, reciting the white, capitalist, conservative party line of Popejoy’s day, he is proud to note that UNM “does not have a single communist on its staff” nor a “single disloyal person [to the U.S.] on its staff.” And if this is not the case, he states, “he or she should name him [sic] postehaste.” After stating the university’s commitment to “free speech,” Popejoy quotes at length an anti-communist propaganda passage from J. Edgar Hoover, reminding his audience that UNM administrators will remain ever vigilant to the “communist menace.”
Free speech is not free.
One does not need to go into detail about how Cold War politicos, such as Joseph McCarthy and Hoover, are not exhumed from their troubling histories as banner-waivers of free speech and academic freedom. Vitriolic McCarthyism and redbaiting of civil rights leaders did much more harm than good for such freedoms.
Yet Abdallah’s use of Popejoy, who refers to William Sullivan’s speech at UNM as par excellence of UNM’s commitment to “free speech,” should send chills up the spine. Sullivan, Hoover’s bagman known for trying to defame Martin Luther King, was a bully in a business suit with the authority of the FBI at his back.
Whether or not Abdallah intends this speech with all its historic baggage to be his reference point is unclear. It does, however, demonstrate that recent UNM administration backlash against faculty and students is not new but has a contingent history—a history, I would argue, that is still unfolding.
The years following Popejoy’s tenure proved less than idyllic times for free speech at UNM. In fact, the National Indian Youth Council via Kiva Club, the Black Student Union, and many more student organizations arose to challenge UNM’s lack of diversity and ties to military institutions. Coupled with the U.S.’s violent, imperial sojourning in Vietnam, students and faculty were subject to the full brute force of UNM’s reprisals against “free speech.”
The National Guard’s bayonetting of thirteen anti-war protestors, the civil rights lawsuits filed against the city of Albuquerque and UNM for anti-Indian and anti-black hiring practices, and the social movements challenging the status quo testify to a history of UNM that is anything but idyllic.
Campus was a space of contestation, and still is.
So when UNM President Bob Frank lays bare for the world to see that David Correia—a personal friend, colleague, and mentor—should be called into suspicion and his position with UNM should be “monitored,” we should take notice.
AAUP Director Gregory F. Scholtz’s recent letter that appeals to the same 1940 principles Popejoy cites in 1962 should clear the air about these bogus charges against David from UNM administration. Likewise, ample video, picture, and witness testimony from the day’s events exonerate David from trumped up charges and outright scapegoating against the tenuous charge of “felony battery” of a police officer.
David exemplifies the courage and tenacity of UNM faculty in standing not only with students and staff but also with the Albuquerque community that is victim to rampant, unchecked police brutality. This is a cause we can all stand behind, and David exemplifies the possibilities of academic practice for the good of all.
UNM administrators’ responses to David’s arrest and actions, however, are symptomatic of a larger issue of Bob Frank & Co.’s reactions to students’ demands for accountability and change.
For example, when administrators weigh in on Palestine-Israel while claiming to maintain a position of “neutrality,” we should take notice.
We should take notice when UNM administrators admonish students fighting for fiscal accountability at a public university—a university with one of the highest percentage of low-income, underrepresented populations in the nation.
The recent letter to Frank from the AAUP (see below), a letter defending David’s “freedom of speech,” should signal a warning that this UNM administration has lost credibility in its public flaying of a faculty member standing up against rampant police violence. Needless to say, UNM is not immune to war against the poor on Albuquerque streets.
The war has come home. Campus, too, is a site of unrest. UNM administrators choose to solicit opinions contrary to those of its student body and its employees. This is not democracy.
UNM is fostering a climate of fear and suspicion against those who seek to change it for the better. This is not new. Popejoy and Frank & Co. are a stone’s throw away in their tactics and ideology toward free speech and representation.
We may be reaching a moment where UNM’s constituents believe more in the institution’s commitment to free speech and diversity than do its administrators.
If so, then urgent action is needed.
After all, there’s a war going on.