Your Newspapers About Academic Issues
By John K. Wilson
Academia is one of the
most misunderstood institutions in society. Whether it’s tenure
or academic freedom, the general public (and even many journalists)
have a distorted view of what academics do. That’s why it’s
very important to educate the public. One of the most important
mechanisms for doing this is a letter to the editor. Here’s
1) Be quick: respond the same day that an article is published,
or no later than the next day. Always email letters (most newspapers
provide an email address on their opinion pages or website).
2) Be polite: don’t insult anyone; adopt a calm, rational
3) Be non-academic: avoid the big words and jargon.
4) Be concise: follow the word limit rules for your newspaper strictly.
If you want to write a longer article, propose an op-ed to the opinion
5) Be accurate: get your facts straight, and be very careful when
you claim that someone is wrong.
6) Be yourself: avoid quotations or citations, just give your perspective.
Don’t be afraid to include your professional affiliation (along
with your name, address, town, and phone number), since it can add
to your credibility.
Below are some examples
of letters I published earlier this year in response to academic
To the Chicago Sun-Times:
Andrew Greeley (column, Feb. 18) argues that academic freedom should
“protect students from yahoo professors” such as Ward
Churchill. But who gets to define what a “yahoo” professor
is? By this vague standard, perhaps Greeley himself could be fired
by an ignorant administrator. Greeley contends that “class
is not for personal opinion” and ideally he may be correct,
but who can we trust to distinguish between honest presentation
of subject matter and a personal opinion? To fire professors who
seek to challenge the convictions of their students, as Greeley
urges, is to invite a resurgence of McCarthyism in America. Will
students really be better off when professors are terrified of speaking
John K. Wilson
To the Bloomington Pantagraph:
Thomas Sowell’s attack on academic freedom (column, Feb. 16)
is so full of mistakes that his factual errors almost obscure the
larger flaws of his opposition to freedom of expression on college
campuses. For example, Sowell falsely claims that professors control
college investments and ban students from fraternities and Reserve
Officers Training Corps. Trustees, not professors, determine investment
policies. No college has ever prevented a student from joining a
fraternity or ROTC. Shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom
have helped to make American higher education the finest and freest
in the world despite ongoing cutbacks in government funding.
Sowell argues that a
professor should be fired for spending 10 seconds in a class talking
about the war in Iraq or homelessness. Would he also fire a professor
for telling a joke, discussing the weather, or starting class 10
seconds late? Would Sowell ban professors from ever expressing an
idea that someone, somewhere, finds offensive? Imagine what our
newspapers would look like if this standard was applied to them;
they certainly wouldn’t ever include Sowell’s writings.
As a student, it angers
me when censors like Sowell seek to silence my professors, and me.
A college is not a job training course. Professors should expose
students to controversial ideas beyond the narrow scope of a particular
class. There is nothing wrong with a professor expressing an opinion.
Students are not infantile idiots who must be protected from ideas
Thomas Sowell doesn’t like. We can think for ourselves.
Sowell contends that
we need to abolish academic freedom in order to fire professors
who might write or say something offensive. But a professor like
Ward Churchill can be dealt with in a simple way: ignore him, or
argue with him if you like. To demand the censorship of all 1.1
million faculty in America because one of them might say something
you don’t like is dangerous. It endangers the freedom of professors
to speak their minds. It endangers the freedom of students to hear
controversial ideas. And Sowell’s attack on academic freedom
endangers everyone’s freedom to dissent.
John K. Wilson