The nature of the current push to police the lives of professors and students provides a salutary lesson about unintended consequences.

Although there appears to be no evidence that his off-campus pursuits affected his teaching, research, or service work negatively, Stephen Kinzey, a kinesiology professor at California State University, San Bernardino, is likely to find himself cited frequently as a strong example in arguments made by university administrators about why they need to expand control over professors’ lives. Alleged to be a chapter president of the motorcycle gang, Devils Diciples [sic], Kinzey is charged with running a methamphetamine drug ring and was for a time regarded as a fugitive, although he has now posted bail. 

While this case is almost certainly an outlier, it does raise questions about the degree to which activities conducted away from the workplace fall within the purview of the university as an employer. As a fugitive from the law, a professor would not be reporting for work, and that, we can surely agree, is a legitimate employer concern. But is it the university’s business if a professor leads a motorcycle gang or engages in illegal or questionable activities away from the academy, however repugnant we might find those activities? Does it make a difference if a professor inhabits contradictory territory, teaching about the healthy human body but selling harmful drugs on the side? And what about belonging to a group that intentionally misspells words and fails in the use of the apostrophe? In short, are professors expected to be  role models and live up to some high set of standards 24 hours a day? If so, whose standards?

What can we make of the treatment of Gloria Gadsden, an associate professor of sociology at East Stroudsburg University, who had an experience with Facebook postings she thought could be read only by a closed and select group of personal friends. Facetious comments about looking for a hit man because it had been that kind of day and having a day where she “DIDN’T want to kill even one student :-)” were revealed to her students unexpectedly because, Gadsden believes, Facebook made changes to its security settings, and she was not informed and did not notice. Whatever the explanation, students did see her comments. Their complaints about feeling threatened were filed with the administration, and Gadsden was suspended for an unspecified period, although with pay. About a month later, after she agreed to and underwent a psychological assessment, the suspension was lifted, and she returned to her teaching duties. As part of the mix, Gadsden also suggested she thought it likely she was being punished for earlier comments she had made about the failure of universities to be more supportive of minority faculty.

Illustration of a ColumnThe Gadsden case is more than an example of misadventure through social media. It suggests the possibility that students might sometimes exercise power in negative ways in pedagogical relationships and use claims about feeling threatened or afraid tocover their own racism, sexism, or homophobia. The administrative response might be interpreted as a lesson in managing critisism through psychologising the critic and implying her behaviour is aberrant or abnormal.

From a variety of perspectives the articles in this issue tackle questions raised by the Kinzey and Gadsden cases and explore attempts by the university as employer to control faculty behaviours, both on and off campus. It is not difficult to see how efforts to expand the panoptic gaze go hand-in-hand with the corporate managerialism that now pervades our universities. Creating and protecting “the brand” becomes a central concern for senior administrators, and a compliant, uncritical work force and satisfied “client groups” are essential elements of imaging and marketing.

For many of us who spent a considerable portion of our careers struggling for policies and practices that would counter discrimination, protect against harassment, and build inclusive universities, the nature of the current push to police the lives of professors and students provides a salutary lesson about unintended consequences. Furthermore, because earlier organizing strategies often relied in large measure on the imposition of policies and procedures through administrative channels, it is easy to see why there is now a new version of that approach. Unfortunately, while the language of inclusion, diversity, and fairness is co-opted, collegiality and the politics of equity and social justice are abandoned.

Rebecca Coulter is a professor and the Director of Aboriginal Education in the Faculty of Education at The University of Western Ontario. She is the guest editor of this issue of Academic Matters. ­