A Doubleplusungood Week

My university – “my” as in the place I grew up as a child of faculty, where I received part of my university education, and where I have taught for the last decade or so –made international headlines again this week, and not in a good way.

My university fired a dean for blowing the whistle on a gag rule. As we learned this week, my university expected its deans not only to keep shtum on the discussions and reasoning behind a hotly debated round of budget cuts-related shenanigans but also to parrot the talking points that insisted these budget cuts were a good thing.

Buckingham's letter of termination.

Buckingham’s letter of termination.

Others can discuss concepts of academic freedom, collegiality, and even whether or not the budget cuts are warranted. I could offer an analysis of the grammatical and stylistic elements of the dean’s walking papers (numerous problems with comma use, flawed parallelism, disingenuous use of passive voice to cloak agency and responsibility). However, right now, I want to reflect on the role of language in the past few days, weeks, and months.

First, the event itself involves language. As the dean – excuse me, the Executive Director of the School of Public Health (the president and provost stressed his title was not “Dean”) – revealed, he and his colleagues were enjoined not only to maintain confidentiality on sensitive discussion but also to offer verbal support of all decisions made, whether or not they agreed with them.

Just to clarify: deans were expected not only to refrain from criticism but also to praise the decisions, regardless of the impact of those decisions on their constituencies. So, here we have not only an order to silence but also an order to potentially false speech. Keep quiet and, if you must speak, lie.

Now, what about the language used when speech was allowed?

In his much-cited “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell connects rigourous language with rigourous thought. In 1984, he presents a dystopian society in which language serves as a means to enslave humanity. Language becomes both tenor and vehicle of propaganda, medium and message. In addition to a constant barrage of contradictory messages (“War is peace”), the inhabitants of Orwell’s London experiment with “efficient” language. Thus, “good, bad, and worse” become “good, ungood, plusungood.” Simplifying language eliminates the effort of thought: “Doubleplusungood,” for example, requires less brow wrinkling than “betrayal of core values of academic practice.” How we describe an event, the words we use or are instructed to use, becomes instrumental in our view of that event. Or, in Orwell’s words, “if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.”

Over past year or so, I’ve noticed a change in the way my university communicates – the words it was using to communicate its values and vision. Language was being used not just to share information, but in an attempt to shape our responses to the information. That use of language is not new; what struck me, however, was the graceless and cynical way with which it was used in an attempt to persuade — or even gull — an academic audience.

To begin, this wasn’t a budget-cutting exercise: this was a metamorphosis! The name given to the process signaled our pleading desire for reconfiguration: TransformUS! At the same time, a new terminology emerged as senior players discussed the process and the tensions arising from it.

The literal terms of the conflict were set by the university’s upper management or, as they repeatedly referred to themselves, “our leaders” (and, in one publication, “fearless leaders”). We aren’t a community of students, scholars, and supporters. We are leaders, non-leaders, and workers. According to our Provost, we are “leaders” and “non-leaders.”

Who are these leaders? Leaders are those who don’t fear change. Leaders are those who don’t criticize change. Conversely, those who criticize change — because they “fear change” — are “non-leaders.” (It gets worse.)

Our Associate Vice-President, Communications offers his own view. In his words, our university could be divided into leaders — who lead change — and “those who work at the university.” Who are these people who “work at the university”? The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of “worker” chiefly as one involved in manual labour (“a farm worker”) or in the lower echelons of an enterprise (“one who does manual or non-executive work”). Certainly, the university requires people willing to perform manual labour. But, who are the “non-executive” workers?

The AVPC’s taxonomy lumps into the category of “those who work at the university” not just those who don’t lead the university (see above: “non-leaders”) but, more significantly, the faculty: the faculty, whose output – in teaching and research – is the sole purpose of the university’s existence. So, according to the expressed view of our leaders, faculty – as “those who work at the university”– occupy the low position in the university’s great chain of being.

As faculty, we are not leaders. We are non-leaders. We are workers. None of these revelations would be troublesome if the university could exist without faculty, people conducting research, building knowledge, and teaching students. Our “leaders” seem to have lost sight of that fact.

So, if you’re not a “leader,” what are you?  And what, as a “non-leader,” should you do when you’re not “working”? For our convenience, our leaders have delineated the differences between leadership and non-work related non-leadership action. In the words of our Provost, you can either “lead the university” or you can “oppose the university.” No middle ground exists. Working from Dr. Buckingham’s experience, we can understand the significance of these categories:

  • “Lead the university”: don’t criticize, follow orders, and repeat the lines given to you.
  • “Oppose the university”: demand and present evidence, argue your case, and criticize policies and directives that fly in the face of centuries of academic practice.

Or, we could use Orwell’s simpler terms:

  • Good: Leaders and “Transformation.”
  • Ungood: Non-leaders and workers.
  • Doubleplusungood: Protests of the betrayal of the core values of academic practice.

By George, I think I’ve got it!