Academic labour and academic freedom: What does it mean to be ‘fired’?

Academic labour and academic freedom: What does it mean to be ‘fired’?

While The-Author-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has been the most prominent example of a public figure going all-in on a so-called “gender critical” argument that works to essentially justify transphobia, over here in the tiny world of academic anthropology, we have had our own example. Happy Pride Month, y’all.

The background on this story concerns Kathleen Lowrey, a tenured associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, who was removed from her role as departmental Associate Chair of Undergraduate Programs after serving one year of a three year appointment. Lowrey remains a tenured associate professor, and has been removed only from this particular service role. While the exact reason for her removal has not been confirmed by the university due to privacy concerns, Lowrey and others are widely reporting that it connects to her views on trans rights. As I have tried to express some central thoughts about this event and the conversation surrounding it, I realize a basic background post and some comments on the framing of it are necessary, and that I have several more things to say about it in follow-ups. I am writing these posts from my perspective as a supporter of the university’s decision, as a straight, cis feminist professor who endeavors to support trans and nonbinary people, especially students, and as a linguistic anthropologist. Here, though, I don’t get in to those views just yet – first, let’s look at the story itself.

 In the story that Dr. Kathleen Lowrey and those who support her are telling, the professor has been “dismissed” or even “fired” as a result of her “views”. See, for example, the following selection of articles, with their full headlines provided:

Sigh. First, credit where it is due: the article by the student newspaper at the U of A provides the most thorough and clear articulation of the counter-argument to Lowrey’s story, and it’s the only one in which the headline actually appropriately represents the nature of the university’s actions toward Lowrey.

The first point I want to make here is relatively simple – words matter, and the lens through which this story is being reported is creating an extremely distorted view. Both in the headlines and in the text of the articles themselves, the unqualified word “dismissed” is used frequently, and the word “firing” is also used several times (it’s telling to me that of the three articles from the Edmonton Journal, the one that purports to offer the alternative perspective represents it explicitly as “firing”). Whatever additional qualifying information is provided in the articles, headlines carry a lot of weight in shaping the conversation, as they circulate much more extensively and in different ways than they have in the past (h/t to fellow ling anth @neoyorquinanerd for pointing me to this article in connection to that theme – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1464884916688290).

While entirely anecdotal, this framing has produced at least some outright misunderstandings, as more than one person, in casual responses to my Twitter threads, has interpreted the situation as one in which she has lost her full time job. Is it within the conceivable semantic scope of the verb “to fire” to use it in this context? Sure. Same with “dismissed”. But without any other clarification, akin to what the Gateway headline provides, these representations make it sound a lot more significant. I’m imagining this conversation between Lowrey and some hypothetical friend or family member.

Lowrey: I was fired today.
Hypothetical friend: What? Oh my God, that’s terrible.
Lowrey: Yeah. I’m really shaken up about it.
Hypothetical friend: I can only imagine! Are you going to be okay? Can you afford to pay your mortgage? Will you get a severance package? I thought your job was totally secure?!?
Lowrey: Oh, I still have my full paycheque. And I’ll continue working on my research and teaching.
Hypothetical friend: …oh. OK. Well, that’s a relief. Um, what did you mean by “fired” then?

I could go on, but you get the point. The word can be technically correct, but remain misleading – as evidenced by the still-more exaggerated positions taken by the even-more right-leaning newspapers like the Sun and the Post-Millenial. Lowrey further represents complaints that students have brought forward about her as “charges against” her, that the university has prevented her from seeing. The focal point here is what is happening to her, rather than students expressing, for example, concerns about their education.

To be clear about the material consequences of what has happened here – Lowrey supplies an email from Dean Lesley Cormack, published in one of the articles in the Edmonton Journal. That email specifies that the teaching release associated with the role would be allowed to continue for the remainder of the two year term that she was supposed to serve, and that the salary stipend would be reapplied toward her research activities. I’ll leave it to you to interpret the balance sheet in this situation – the reduction in actual teaching and service work, along with a small increase in research funds is on one side of the equation, while the opportunity to build the administrative side of a CV is on the other. This raises questions about how we, as academic faculty members, consider the administrative and “service” sides of our work, and the extent to which those roles are governed by “academic freedom”. There is a much more in-depth conversation to be had about the nature of academic freedom in general, and how different parties, in different places, understand it (see for example this post by Alex Usher surrounding its role in shaping our pedagogical decisions). I would argue that such roles should very explicitly not be attached to discourses of academic freedom, as the nature of the work involved in various positions requires not only particular qualifications, but also specific orientations and understandings of the issues to which they connect. A professor who has argued that campus sexual assault is not a significant problem should not be in a position to sit on a committee on responding to campus sexual assault. Someone who has written articles outlining how REBs (Canadian for IRBs) hinder the research process should not chair the university’s ethics board. While we are entitled to publish the results of our research and speak on political issues in ways that we see fit, we are not thereby entitled to occupy any role that we want regardless of how our previous comments on those issues relates to that role. One can argue whether Lowrey’s role fits in to that category, but the default assumption that we should even be talking about this within the domain of “academic freedom” is one that I think should be challenged.

With these basics in mind, my next post will address Lowrey’s use of her door as a site of communication and interaction regarding her views.

(**edited June 19 to add two missing links)

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