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American Authoritarianism and Academic Administration

By Galen Leonhardy

For those who donít know, weíve had a recent hullabaloo at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois. Iíve written before about how American authoritarianism plays out at my small community college in the heartland, but this most recent episode provides a tale especially worth the reading.

Our February 24 Board meeting was filled with authoritarian decision making. A total of twenty-six concerned community members, students, faculty, and regional experts attempted to engage in democratic exchange by explaining why terminating programs and upper-level, full-time faculty positions was problematic, and they did all that just prior to being ignored by BHC Board members who promptly voted to eliminate 8 full-time faculty positions, hack off half the art department and the entire earth science program, and then allocate nearly a half million dollars in spending for renovations. Our union leaders tell us we are at 30 percent full-time faculty and 70 percent part-time. Thatís down from about 80 percent full time and 20 percent part time less than a decade ago. So it should come as no surprise that the authoritarians had not included within their decision-making process the concept of shared governance. Instead, they hired some east-coast consulting firm to facilitate the implementation of ubiquitous prevarications justifying their decrees.

The administrators and Board of Trustees continually blame the Illinois State government for our institutional woes, rather than accepting responsibility for hiring two failed presidential candidates and never having the foresight to replace fading programs with programs that would attract students wanting to learn skills relevant to economic growth area needs. Thatís not to say that Governor Bruce Raunerís authoritarian practices have not plagued education in Illinois, but the fact is, our Board members and upper-level administrators have not allowed for shared governance nor added new programs to match growth area needs. And then there are the prevarications used to facilitate outrageous levels of borrowing in a time of austerity: last August, the Board members approved borrowing 31 million dollars for improvements that included such justifications as needing to make classrooms larger so that wider desks might be purchased to meet the needs of students who are now supposedly too large to fit into the seats all of my students have been using every day for the past fourteen years.

So why do I believe this is authoritarianism playing out in my context? The answer to that comes in the form of an attack on faculty and studentsí free speech and academic freedom. You see, as the BHC Board of Trustees tapped their fingers and twiddled their thumbs while the mass of concerned citizens offered beautiful orations in tribute of those fine faculty members and programs soon to be terminated, another issue unfolded: the three daughters of our recently deceased colleague, Professor Erskine Carter, proposed that their dad ought to be posthumously awarded the title of professor emeritus.

Who was Carter? Well, Professor Erskine Carter taught at the College for just shy of thirty years. He did everything you might imagine a great scholar would do: helped students, wrote books and articles, served on the Illinois Humanities Council, brought authors like Robert Bly, Jamaica Kincaid, Richard Rodriguez, and James Loewen to our community. He was also the advisor for the Black Hawk College newspaper, The Chieftain. When he was advisor for the student newspaper, the student reporters chose to cover a story about how Black Hawk College was in violation of The Illinois State Dual Credit Quality Act (110 ILCS 27/), and they won a bunch of State-level awards for their hard work. Carter retired at the end of that year and was denied emeritus status. Rumor had it that the Board members were punishing him for his role as advisor for the student newspaper, but nobody seemed able to verify any statements that would confirm such an authoritarian practice. The only explanation we were given was that Carter had mistaken a picture of the Board president for a picture of Ted Cruz, which apparently upset the majority of College Board members.

Understandably, after his death, his daughters had worked to correct the situation. Unfortunately, right before the Board of Trustees voted to terminate faculty members and chop off a couple of needed programs, those same Board members saw fit, in a 4 to 3 vote, to deny Erskine Carterís emeritus. The Board members who voted against Carterís emeritus did so despite the fact that Carterís department members and the BHC Faculty Senate had unanimously agreed on not just one but two different occasions to recommend Carter for professor emeritus.

This is the only time the BHC Board of Trustees has ever rejected an emeritus recommendation. Like me, you might wonder why those four Board members chose to make such a decision. Well, I canít tell you what all four were thinking, but I can now tell you what one was thinking because we have eyewitness accounts that verify the story.

A short break followed the February 24 Board decisions. During that break, Professor Carterís daughters confronted Board President Emerick, and all three attest to hearing Emerick explaining his reasoning to Professor Carterís middle daughter, Miranda. She had asked Emerick to justify the decision. Emerick reportedly first said he would not reward ďbad behavior.Ē When asked what exactly that was, Emerick said that Professor Carter was guilty of writing fake news. Miranda reminded Emerick that her father did not write any of the articles published in the student newspaper. Emerick then told Miranda that their dad likely had more than a little to do with writing the articles and that their dad had caused a lot of trouble for the College by allowing the students to cover the dual credit stories.

The last time I checked, Section 15 of The Illinois College Campus Press Act (110 ILCS 13) (110 ILCS 13/15) tells us that ďÖA collegiate media adviser must not be terminated, transferred, removed, otherwise disciplined, or retaliated against for refusing to suppress protected free expression rights of collegiate student journalists and of collegiate student editors.

So now there are three witnesses who attest to hearing Board President Emerick make the claim that he was, in effect, disciplining Professor Carter for facilitating the protected free expression rights of the student journalists and their editor.

That the Board president used terms common to Trumpís American authoritarian rhetoric in order to justify actions that serve to chill First Amendment rights and deny academic freedoms provides a certain example of American authoritarianism playing out in our small community college context. As noted earlier in this essay, this is not the first instance of obfuscation, fabrication, and retaliation, three hallmarks of authoritarian practice, being used by administrators at our college. And I doubt it will be the last. Consequently, though I would welcome the chance to be incorrect, I also doubt Board President Emerick would be willing to explain his Trump-inspired rhetoric and his subsequent determination to punish the dead now in order to send a clear authoritarian warning to current and future student journalists and their faculty advisors.
Galen Leonhardy teaches at Black Hawk College.