Campus Cops vs. University Professors

Cross-posted at DailyKos.

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

On occasion on these pages, I have written about higher education and about labor rights, mostly in the context of the abysmal state of affairs when it comes to the political climate here in Michigan. I write from the perspective of university professor, president of our faculty union, and engaged citizen. And usually I write about things that happen to other people. But today, I have a story to tell about something that happened at my university, something that helped to clarify some things for me in a new way, about cultural problems on my campus and in our society more widely.

This story is about how the administration of my university called the campus police on a bunch of professors as if they believed we might riot and how the campus police behaved when they responded to that call.

Since April, our faculty union, a collective-bargaining chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been negotiating a new contract to replace the three-year contract that would (and did) expire at 12:01 a.m. on September 6. As anyone who has ever served on a negotiation team well knows, collective bargaining is an interesting exercise in asymmetry. In all workplaces, including universities, the management side has all the resources and all the money and therefore most of the power. Yet if there is a union in the workplace, the side with all the resources and all the money and most of the power has no choice but to sit down with the people on the other side. They can’t just dictate. They have to try to get us to agree to what they want. And they have to hear us out. But still, the management side has a considerable advantage. They have access to resources and money and a claim to authority. That’s a lot of leverage, even with a union in the workplace. (Without a union, of course, management can do pretty much whatever it wants, whenever it wants.)

On the other hand, our chapter of the AAUP has over 800 members, many of whom followed the negotiation process closely. As chapter president, part of my job has been to remind my colleagues that our strength is in our numbers. Since we kicked off our contract campaign last fall, I have worked with the other chapter leaders, including our officers, our 12 executive committee members, and our 57 departmental reps, to make the case to our colleagues that the success of our team at the table would depend in large part on the active, vocal, and visible support of the faculty. To that end, we sponsored a series of events beginning in the fall of 2013 through the summer of 2014. We had decent turnout for all these events, although our local media outlets seem to make a point of ignoring most of what we say or do, and it was clear that momentum had been building steadily since last fall as more and more of our faculty colleagues came forward to stand with our bargaining team.

At the end of August, as the contract expiration loomed, the situation became more urgent, as it will when the contract expiration date is nigh. The administration increased its pressure on our team, and things occasionally got fairly tense at the table. But our team refused to knuckle under and remained firm in their resolve. There was talk around campus of a possible impasse and speculation about whether the contract would expire before we reached a tentative agreement.

On August 28, the week before classes started, a time when many of our colleagues were not yet back on campus for the new academic year (a lot of people don’t realize that most professors don’t actually get paid in the summer), 150 faculty members rallied in front of the administration building, along with students, alumni, and retired colleagues. Our signs and chants expressed our concerns about the priorities of the university’s senior administrators, whose financing decisions in recent years suggest a declining interest in providing robust support for the instruction and research that are our raison d’être and a growing interest in investment in athletics, swanky (and expensive) new residence halls, and administrative hiring, bonuses, and perks.

The rally on August 28 was not covered by any of our local media. And at the bargaining table later that day, the administration’s team members pretended not to know anything about it, although this was clearly disingenuous on their part. And just as clearly, they were not happy about it.

Faculty rally at WMU on August 28, 2014. (Photo by David Topping.)

Faculty rally at WMU on August 28, 2014. (Photo by David Topping.)

Progress continued to be made at the table in fits and starts in bargaining sessions on the 28th and on Friday the 29th, but things were also getting heated and occasionally even ugly. Because time was running out on the contract, the two teams agreed to meet for a special Labor Day session on Monday, September 1. It was of course a no-brainer for us to organize a Labor Day rally.
Meanwhile, the administration continued to send out negotiation updates from their perspective to an unknown group of recipients they addressed as “Campus Colleagues” (and yes, they capitalized “Campus” and “Colleagues” for some reason that also remains unknown to us). They disseminated this information via their exclusive access to campus-wide email lists, e-newsletters delivered to all employees of the university, and other official university communication media.
On the morning of September 1, Labor Day, I wrote an email to the university’s communication director, copied to two of the lead administrators on their negotiation team and to the president of the university, in which I requested that they “discontinue the practice of presenting the administration’s negotiation updates in university communications as if they are objective reports of progress at the table, which they are not.” I also copied the message to the WMU-AAUP office staff. The full text of my letter can be read here, but this was its central point:

The administration may be eager to take advantage of its access to university resources and to use them to try to frame the issues according to their own interests, simply because that possibility is available to them. However, because Western Michigan University is an institution of higher learning, we are all held to a higher standard. All of us who are engaged in this enterprise are obliged to promote and model the practices and values that are fundamental to our common mission. These include collaboration, the promotion of free inquiry, and the advancement of human knowledge and understanding. As tempting as access to official university mouthpieces and publications might be for the administration, using those media to present a one-sided view of the negotiation process, and especially without identifying it as such, conflicts with the values and principles we are all obliged to uphold. By deliberately representing as fact that which is very much a subjective point of view, as well as by excluding alternative viewpoints, the core academic values we all share in common are subverted.

After I sent this message, I posted it on the chapter blog, linked it to our Facebook page and Twitter account, and headed over to Montague House, our union headquarters, for our Labor Day rally. Over 130 colleagues also showed up, and after walking our team across the street to the building where their sessions were held, the rest of us stayed outside for another 20 or 25 minutes or so, chanting and displaying our signs to the administrators inside the bargaining room, which is conveniently located on the ground floor and features nice big windows.

Later that day, I guess during a break in the bargaining action, a member of the administration’s team sent a response to the email I had sent that morning. She didn’t mean for me to see the reply, I don’t think, because she took me off the list of recipients before she sent it. However, she apparently did not realize that I had copied the WMU-AAUP office staff when I sent it, because they were copied on the reply, which reads thusly:

Do you think this bears responding to? Were you planning to respond? Is there anything I could do? We’re at the table this morning; a small contingent (40 max?) of mostly [College of Arts and Sciences] faculty chanted and yelled for the first 15 minutes, but they’ve since gone home. Best regards

That is my emphasis added. (For now I will ignore the part about why it might matter to her if there were a lot of faculty in attendance from what is by far the largest college on campus.) Of course, from where she was sitting inside the conference room, she could not possibly have seen everyone, which could explain why her count was off by almost 100 people. And I realize that of course she was attempting to put a brave face on an event that by all accounts made the administrative team uncomfortable.

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

Still, her email suggested to me that our message was still not getting across. The administration did not seem to hear us when we showed up first on August 28 or when we came out again on September 1, on Labor Day, to say that the faculty is behind its team, that a university that brags about its “top 100 national university” designation is hypocritical when its faculty salaries rank “far below median,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and that we were not going to tolerate moving any further behind in our next contract, especially while our university president is pulling down a cool $776,000 in salary and bonuses. He is now the 18th-highest paid public university president in the country, while his faculty languish in 342nd place, and he doesn’t seem to have the good grace even to pretend to be embarrassed about that appalling discrepancy.

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Mary-Louise Totton.)

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014.

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Mary-Louise Totton.)

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014.

Meanwhile, faculty concerns about the dearth of tenure-track hires are routinely brushed off and contradicted, but the numbers don’t lie. Part-time faculty are increasingly used to cover faculty vacancies, at working-poor salaries any college president making three quarters of a mil ought to be ashamed of. Senior colleagues delay retirement because they know they won’t be replaced and worry that academic programs they have spent decades building will simply disappear when they are gone. Massive, multi-year administrative pet projects bury all of us in extra work on endless committees, task forces, “project management teams,” and “tactical action communities,” all of these in addition to our already full workloads. Legitimate faculty grievances are routinely denied, often with little more than “Because we say so” as an explanation. Every faculty mistake, large or small, real or imagined, is treated like a capital crime, yet no administrator is held accountable even for the most egregious violations of the contract or unprofessional behavior. Faculty members are treated with barely disguised (or undisguised) contempt by some of our senior administrators. A colleague with 40 years of service to the university recently told me he can’t remember ever feeling so disrespected by the administration. All the while, we fall farther and farther behind not only our peer institutions but even those institutions for whom our university is aspirational.

Anyway, with our contract scheduled to expire at a minute after midnight on Friday, September 5, we scheduled a chapter meeting for Friday afternoon so that the faculty could come together to talk about where we were, what they wanted us to do, and what they were willing to do to support our team. “Depending on what happens in the next few days,” I wrote to my faculty colleagues in an email inviting them to the chapter meeting, “we may need also to make our feelings known in a more public way immediately following the chapter meeting, so please be prepared for that possibility on Friday afternoon.

We had a wonderful chapter meeting on September 5, with a huge turnout that filled to capacity (and probably beyond capacity) our large meeting room in the student center. Building staffers wheeled in stack after stack of additional chairs. Every new seat was immediately filled. And probably a hundred or more faculty colleagues remained standing throughout the meeting simply because there was nowhere left to sit. There may have been a violation of a fire code or two. The discussion was lively, spirited, intense, and upbeat. True to our usual character as a university faculty, we were not all in agreement on everything. But the consensus on the big-picture issues and challenges facing us quickly emerged: We could not go backwards in the new contract – we would not. Colleagues from departments and colleges all over campus spoke up. Their words were wise, thoughtful, and passionate. We applauded and cheered and felt empowered by the words that were spoken, by the friends and colleagues who had spoken them, and by the resulting positive energy and power in the room.

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

With the contract set to expire in about nine hours, I asked my colleagues if they were ready to march with me in support of our team, if they would march through a major event that happened to be getting underway on campus right about that time, and if they would continue to the administration building. “Only this time,” I added, “why don’t we go inside? This is our university, too. We shouldn’t always have to stay outside.” After a few more minutes of discussion, a colleague stood up to say he thought it was time we headed out to begin our demonstration. The room erupted in cheers. I closed the meeting by saying to my colleagues: “Your negotiation team has heard you. Your chapter leadership has heard you. Now it’s time for the administration to hear you!” And with that, we grabbed our signs and our solidarity banner, and we went outside.
WMU-AAUP solidarity banner. (Photo by Kent Baldner.)

WMU-AAUP solidarity banner. (Photo by Kent Baldner.)

The event they call Bronco Bash is a huge welcome-back party for the campus community that is said to attract about 20,000 people each year, mostly WMU students. It includes live music, activities, and booths where student organizations do their things and local businesses do theirs, and it’s just a big, loud, fun party to celebrate the new school year. It happens every year on the campus of Western Michigan University, on the Friday at the end of the first week of classes. This year, that happened to be September 5.

Things were just getting into full swing at Bronco Bash when our long, long parade of WMU professors, several hundred strong, marched out of our chapter meeting in the student center and into the plaza, which was already jammed with students and booths and activities. The WMU marching band was performing down at the far end of the plaza, so we decided not to head too far down in that direction, quickly passing the word among our parading colleagues that we would not disrupt any student performances or activities (which of course none of us would ever dream of doing). We carried signs, moved through the crowds, and chanted our simple call and response: “What do want?” “A fair contract!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

One thing I did not think to anticipate was how many students would immediately pull out their phones and start taking photos and videos of a few hundred of their dorky old professors dusting the chalk off our moth-eaten cardigans and raising a little hell on a blazingly sunny and gorgeous (and hot!) afternoon at an event where our presence probably immediately upped the median age by at least a decade or two. I wish I could see their footage, but because these are university students, they are all way too cool to be hanging out on the social media where their profs hang out, so I haven’t seen much of it so far. (Their parents probably have, though.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

It is hard to describe the feeling as we walked through the plaza and saw and heard our students cheering us on and raising their hands in the air as we went by. Some of them joined us to march for a while, others cheered as we passed by, and occasionally a student would call out to an individual faculty member (“Go, Dr. Al!”). All in all, the students we encountered were tremendously supportive and absolutely wonderful. But then, that is who they are all the time and why professors do what we do.

After we made our loop through Bronco Bash, we circled around toward the administration building. We queued up on the wide walkway out front as the rest of our party caught up. It was a long, long, line of professors out there, and it took a few minutes for us all to reconvene. At that point, we decided to follow through with our original plan and go inside.

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Patricia Villalobos Echeverría.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Patricia Villalobos Echeverría.)

The faculty continued to chant loudly as they approached the doors to the building, but polite professors that they are, everyone kind of just automatically took it down a couple of notches as we entered the building. The student receptionist at the front desk looked up, a bit startled, as the first among us walked in, but then she immediately smiled and said hello. We returned the greeting and moved into the stairwell to go up to the next floor to the senior administrative office suite.

Another student greeted us when we got there and began to enter through the glass doors leading to the suite. But immediately after that, a senior administrator came storming down the corridor toward us, looking furious and not speaking to or making eye contact with any of us, even though many of us were of course known to him (including me, and I was at the front of the crowd and would have been hard to miss).

He began gesturing to the student workers and members of the office staff who were present, although it appeared to be something of a skeleton crew, which was not surprising given that it was Friday afternoon and there was a big, loud party with 20,000 attendees going on right outside. One young staff member was holding out his iPhone toward us, although it wasn’t clear whether he was attempting to photograph us with it or whether someone was on the phone wanting to know what in tarnation was going on. There was a bit of scurrying about and then some slamming of doors, as most of the staff on the scene disappeared into a conference room.

Faculty continued to file in, probably over 200 of us, and we filled the outer office area of the administrative suite. We did not enter any private offices or cubicles. We did not touch anything, break anything, or stand or sit on anything. We stayed in the public area and continued to chant for another maybe 10 minutes. The president did not seem to be around, nor did any other administrator, apart from the angry one who had met us upon arrival but who had since disappeared, probably into the conference room he seemed to be ordering everyone into. The president’s receptionist and executive assistant were in their offices, however, and they will both always hold a special place in my heart because neither of these two lovely women closed their doors to us for as long as we were there. I won’t claim they were thrilled to see us (or to hear us), because they probably could have done quite nicely without our visit, but at no point did they treat us as though we didn’t belong there or behave as though they believed they were in danger, and we appreciate that.

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

After we had chanted for a while, a few colleagues raised a cheer to signal to everyone that we should take a break. When everyone had quieted down, there were a few good-natured comments and jokes, and then one of my colleagues called out to me: “Lisa, what do you want us to do next?” I called back, “Let’s take a few minutes and enjoy the air conditioning, and then we’ll go back outside.” I noticed that I was near a water fountain at that point, so I added, “And I’m going to refill my water bottle while we’re here.”
I had just screwed the top of my bottle back on when the campus police arrived on the scene.

I want to stress that the behavior of most of the police officers was professional and respectful as they carried out the task of removing us from this building on our university campus at what was already pretty much the end of our demonstration.

Unfortunately, several other officers behaved aggressively and disrespectfully, storming into the administrative suite and ordering us to leave immediately. They appeared angry and emotionally charged from the moment they arrived on the scene, treating us with considerable hostility and threatening us with arrest if we did not get out. With raised voices, they ordered us to leave immediately and yelled at us that we were disrupting the business of the university. When a faculty member asked one of them what law we were breaking, he was informed that he would be taken to jail if he didn’t get out immediately.

Even more unfortunately, the worst behavior was that of the chief of campus police. He was not in uniform and did not identify himself to us when he arrived on the scene. He simply yelled and threatened and acted like a bully. That was the example he set for his officers. And because he was not in uniform, we had no idea who he was or what right he thought he had to order faculty members out of a building on our university campus.

Several other officers unfortunately followed his example and raised their voices to us and otherwise acted like bullies as they circulated among us ordered us out.

When they told us to leave, we complied. No one resisted. Everyone moved in an orderly fashion toward the exit. I mean, we’re professors. We’re pretty non-threatening. But there were probably still over 200 of us, so it took a few minutes for everyone to get out the door and down the stairwell. But everyone complied.

Because I was the first one in when we arrived, I was at the far end of the suite for most of the time we were there and therefore among the last to leave. As I was walking out through the glass doors toward the stairwell, I heard a woman’s voice just to my right say, “Get your hands off me!”

I stopped then and turned toward the colleague who had spoken. She was barely five feet tall (and, I found out later, 67 years old) and she was glaring at the big, angry guy who had been behind her, who was not in uniform.

He responded by ordering her to get out. His tone and posture were hostile and aggressive. He was at least a foot taller than she was and probably had nearly a hundred pounds on her. She told him to keep his hands off her and demanded his name. I wish I could remember the exact words of his response, because he did not deny having put his hands on her and essentially said that he would do it again and arrest her if she didn’t get out. She continued to insist that he tell her his name and informed him that she would be filing charges against him. He said he was the chief of police. She replied, “I didn’t ask your job title. I asked you for your name.” He finally told her his name and then threatened her again with arrest if we didn’t get out.

She and I turned to go, and I ended up walking next to one of the other officers on the steps going down. “What exactly were we doing that is illegal?” I asked the officer, whom I had seen around campus many times before and who is not at all a jerk and did not behave like one that day. “It was disruptive,” she replied. “What we were doing is constitutionally protected,” I said. “We were exercising our rights to free speech and peaceable assembly.” She gave me a look like she got that, but all she said was, “It was disruptive.” I thanked her for maintaining a calm and professional demeanor and went outside.

Once we were all outside, the word came around that the president of the university would be arriving at 4 p.m. for a scheduled meet-and-greet and photo op with students as part of the Bronco Bash activities. It was about 3:20. I decided that even if no one else wanted to hang around for that long in the blazing heat, I needed to stay to tell him what had just happened: that a loud but clearly peaceful protest by a bunch of professors with a median age of about 57 and a combined length of service to this university of about 3,000 years had been met with a ridiculous overreaction on the part of the ranking administrator on the scene (who seemed to be drawing on training for what to do in an active-shooter situation) and an even more ridiculous overreaction on the part of the campus police, including an incident in which a big, angry chief of police shoved a petite 67-year-old professor from the College of Education.

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

But it turned out that almost everyone else also wanted to stay. So we decided to wait for the president in front of the administration building. However, we were immediately ordered off the sidewalk and onto the grass by some of the officers, several of whom then staked themselves out around our (still pretty large) group, photographing us and recording video as we hung out, looked for shade, and waited for the president to show up. I’m sure their footage is very exciting. The rest of the officers positioned themselves in front of the entrance to the building, as if anyone in their right mind could have possibly believed we might be thinking about trying to storm it.
WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

The president showed up at 4:00, as promised, and he staked out his position under his photo-op tent. I was standing with the colleague who had been pushed by the police chief, and I told her that I thought he needed to know what had just happened, meaning the general overreaction and hostility with which we had all been treated but also what had specifically happened to her. She agreed and said that she wanted to tell him that part herself. We walked together over to the tent and got in line to wait our turn, still carrying our signs from the demonstration. When it was her turn, I stepped out of the line and off to the side to join other colleagues who were still holding up their signs and talking with students. As I was walking away, I could hear the president, who had his arm around her for the photo, say to her that he was sorry about what had happened to her.
WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

Meanwhile, the negotiation teams had gone back to the table at 3:30. The rest of us talked about gathering outside the bargaining room at 6 p.m. and making an evening of it, hanging out, ordering pizza, and supporting our team. But the weather did not cooperate with that plan, and severe storms began blowing through town at about 5:45. A bunch of us decided to hang out at the union HQ, where we ordered pizza, planned our long game, and exchanged texts with members of our team during their caucuses. Unbeknownst to all of us, trees and powerlines were down all over town from the storms and power was out for thousands of local residents. I sent everyone home at 11:15. What happened between 11:15 and midnight was dramatic and tense and exciting and and infuriating and awesome and all kinds of other things, but I am already committed to one long story here, so in order to avoid getting into another, I will just say that the teams reached a tentative agreement by midnight, when our old contract expired, and that it was a much better contract than I believe we would have gotten had the faculty not made its feelings known so clearly and unequivocally earlier in the day.

This has been a very long story, I realize, and maybe some of you are hoping that there will be teargas or at least pepper spray at the end of it. There isn’t. There wasn’t. (Not for us, anyway.) Rather, this is just a story about over-the-top hostility toward the faculty of my university by its administration and by the police force they deployed on their behalf.

Understand that in no way do I delude myself by thinking that this incident compares in any way to the devastating violence and dehumanizing treatment that police behaving inappropriately have unfortunately visited on far too many of our citizens in this country. It does not.

But still, it suggests some disturbing things.

1. If the highest-ranking member of the campus police at my university, along with his subordinates, go directly into jackbooted-bully mode to respond to a peaceful (if loud) faculty demonstration, where the participants are mostly white, mostly middle aged, and all professors who are well known on campus and in this community, it troubles me deeply to imagine how our students are treated in incidents that involve interactions with these same police. For what I think must be obvious reasons, I am especially fearful for our young male students of color.

2. In my privileged experience as an educated white woman, for most of my life I have had no firsthand knowledge of something many of my fellow citizens have long known all too well, and that is how the demeanor and behavior of police can escalate a situation if they mishandle it by confronting citizens with anger, hostility, and intimidation. The campus police arrived on the scene of a peaceful protest that was already winding down before they got there, but by the time their work was done, a lot of my professorial-type colleagues were pretty righteously pissed off. The behavior of the officers not only did absolutely nothing to defuse the situation, but it went a long way toward making many of us very, very angry. If we had been anything but completely nonthreatening and nonconfrontational, which is what we were (and you can see for yourself in the video of the demonstration linked here), I can’t imagine what might have happened.

3. The officer who identified himself as the chief of police failed to remain calm or conduct himself professionally in his interaction with the faculty of the university that employs all of us. In addition to his unprofessional and inappropriate interaction with the colleague whom he allegedly pushed, his overall demeanor toward all of us was hostile and disrespectful from the moment he arrived. His emotionally charged response was completely inappropriate and unprofessional, and several of the officers under his command unfortunately followed his example. Once again, if this was his response to a peaceful protest involving a bunch of middle-aged professors, I can only imagine what might happen when he is called to respond to a situation involving our students.

Over the past two weeks, colleagues have been sharing photos that they took that day, and in every one the police chief appears in, his body language and facial expressions are aggressive and angry. (Some of these pictures are included in the diary. You can see more pictures here.) His demeanor on Friday and the way he treated and spoke to us should raise serious questions about his fitness for such an important position at our university. I hope the senior university leadership is exploring these questions and taking them seriously. If they are not, the faculty and the campus community deserve an explanation as to why they are not.

However, I am not optimistic. A colleague texted me on Thursday from where she was having lunch at the student center to say that she had just overheard a campus police officer tell an administrative staffer that the faculty union “entrapped” the campus police at the protest. The staffer replied that she thought “those images of the police were obviously Photoshopped.” Such is the culture of denial on my campus.

4. Was the approach the chief used with us on September 5 condoned by the university’s senior administration? We don’t know. The student newspaper covered the incident but no administrators are quoted in their story, which is so far the only coverage the incident has received. The faculty member who was pushed has filed her complaint about the officer, and so now the administration is probably circling its legal wagons and clamming up. Until and unless the administration says or does something (convincing) to the contrary, the overreaction to our peaceful protest unfortunately suggests some disturbing things about how faculty are viewed by the administration (and apparently also by the campus police), about our campus culture, and about the university’s overall leadership style. Their actions – administration and campus police – should raise serious questions with the university’s board of trustees and in the community about what is going on with the university’s leadership and with the increasingly toxic culture at WMU for faculty, staff, and most importantly, for our students.

(Sadly, it probably won’t. There are a lot of heads stuck in a lot of sand round these parts. And as I’ve mentioned, there is no local media to pressure the administration to come clean and do any real soul-searching.

5. As we’ve seen in the news lately, campus police around the country are now being provided with military weapons, including M-16s and grenade launchers, by the Department of Defense. Can I just say what a breathtakingly stupid and dangerous idea that is?

I have a few additional thoughts, but I think this is already way longer than anyone’s got the patience to read all the way through, so I’m going to stop where I am and just leave it where it is.

The Vernacular of Privilege

Cross-posted to FunctionalShift (my linguistics blog) and Daily Kos.

This post is adapted from a presentation I gave recently as part of the Race Matters Lyceum Lecture Series at the Lee Honors College, Western Michigan University. The presentation was titled Language Variation and Language Attitudes: Race, Class, and Standard-Language Ideology.

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Let’s start off with some basics. First, language is by its nature variable and in a constant state of flux. That means the normal states of affairs for language is variation and change. That’s because human beings do things to language when we use it. Some of the things we do to it go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Other things attract our attention: She says pop; he says soda. You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. (I don’t, really, but you know.) He says the car needs washed; she says it needs to be washed.

Language variation is an interesting phenomenon to study because language has a way of tricking us into thinking that it has an existence that is independent of its users. It doesn’t. You can theorize about language – a lot of scholars of linguistics do – but if you are interested in analyzing actual language, you are going to need speakers. Speakers bring language into being. All speakers of all languages have this power. This means that every speaker has a strong claim to ownership rights when it comes to the language or languages they speak.

But it is the nature of certain ideological orientations to assert claims of ownership that exclude certain people, certain groups. My position is that these claims are illegitimate.

Before we get into why I think that, let’s get back to our overview of what we talk about when we talk about variation.

How you talk has to do with who you are. And the way you talk is shaped by the people around you and the ways they talk. For most people, their first and most immediate influences are members of their family, the people who take care of them when they are babies and children. Over time, as our spheres widen, so do our linguistic repertoires, the inventory of ways of speaking that each individual speaker has available.

Think about all the different ways of being you have, all the different facets of your personality, the different settings and contexts within which you interact as you move through your days, the various ways you communicate and shift your style depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, what the situation is. Think about how skilled you are at drawing on the right way of being and the corresponding way of speaking in most situations. You do it all the time, shifting easily between styles – and some of you shift between languages – and you do it mostly without even thinking about it.

Your linguistic repertoire is like language itself: variable and in a constant state of change. And it expands as it adapts to new situations in which you find yourself and have to figure out how to be, linguistically and otherwise. You build it over a lifetime, from earliest childhood. As you get older, your world widens. Maybe you start hanging out with some cool kids at school. You may begin to share some of their ways of speaking and develop new linguistic norms collaboratively, often without even realizing you’re doing it. And then later on maybe you get a job, let’s say waiting tables in a restaurant. You learn the language of restaurant work and the in-group styles and terminology of the people you work with. And you also develop a game face, your style for interacting with customers. All these experiences add to your linguistic repertoire, which you will continue to build over time.

Everyone has a linguistic repertoire, although not everyone has the same languages, varieties, or linguistic features in their inventories. Linguists call the external (that is, social) factors that affect the way people talk independent variables. Independent variables are characteristics of individual speakers that interact with language and cause variation.

Some independent variables that interact with language:

  • region/geography
  • race/ethnicity
  • socioeconomic status
  • age
  • educational background
  • communities of practice

Communities of practice are cultural/familial/social/professional communities to which speakers belong and contribute, like the cool kids at school or the restaurant workers we were talking about earlier but they also also include your family, your cohort at school, colleagues at work, the WMU marching band if you are a member of that community, your sorority, people in your neighborhood, place of worship, etc.

When independent variables interact with language, we get what a lot of people think of as dialect. I prefer the term language variation to dialect because I think dialect suggests a closed, discrete way of speaking. This person speaks this dialect (and only this dialect); that person speaks that dialect (and only that dialect). I don’t think that is a good way of thinking about variation because variation tends not to distribute itself into neat categories and groups of speakers that we can draw lines around. Unlike some of my colleagues in the profession, I don’t believe there are such things as dialect boundaries. I don’t even find it that helpful to use the idea of dialect boundaries metaphorically. And I think there are more interesting and useful ways of thinking about variation, its patterns, and its distribution.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the idea of dialect for a minute. A common understanding of what dialect is seems to be something that other people speak. In other words, a lot of mainstream speakers define dialect in relation to themselves, meaning that they don’t think of themselves as speaking a dialect. As it turns out, they’re wrong about that.

Of course, there are some people who know they speak a dialect. These are almost always speakers who are aware that the way they talk is stigmatized. They’ve been hearing all their lives how wrong they are.

But the reality is that every speaker of a language speaks a dialect. There is no dialect-free version of a language. As the linguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling have put it, “To speak a language is to speak a dialect of that language.”

Remember what we said before about how people do things to language simply by using it? Well, all those independent variables and all those life experiences that add to your linguistic repertoire factor into the processes of doing things to the language. All these things cause variation. They are not the only causes – there are internal, physiological, and other causes – but independent variables are the causes that are among the most interesting to linguists who study language in interaction.

Now, just because everyone speaks a dialect doesn’t mean that all ways of speaking are created equal. Far from it. As everyone in this room well knows, some language varieties and the linguistic features associated with them are valued more highly than others. That is to say some dialects are valued more highly than others.

When we say some varieties of language (or some linguistic features) are valued more highly than others, what we are saying is that there are some ways of speaking that are privileged compared to other ways of speaking. Linguists are likely to explain this by saying there is a prestige dialect that is held as the preferred way of speaking and that other ways of speaking are stigmatized in relation to that prestige variety. Other folks who aren’t linguists might say that there is “correct” speech and then there is everything else: “incorrect speech,” “bad grammar,” “broken English.” There is unfortunately often an explicit value judgment that goes along with these observations.

But languages, language varieties, and linguistic features themselves have no intrinsic status. They do not have greater or lesser linguistic value or validity in relation to other features or varieties. in reality, though, it is hard to separate a linguistic feature, set of features, or language variety from the social status of the speakers who use it. And that is really the issue here: The status of the speakers determines the status of the speech. When speakers are not valued by the wider mainstream culture, the way they speak is often stigmatized as a result. And so judgments about “correctness” are often more about the social value of the speakers than about the linguistic qualities of the speech, even though the judgments profess to be about language and even though those making the judgments often believe that to be so. In other words, the relative value of language varieties – and by extension, of their speakers – is socially imposed.

Conversely, linguists are interested in observing and documenting the ways languages and language varieties actually work. Languages, varieties, and linguistic features that don’t meet the communicative needs of their users don’t survive for very long. This is one way in which the language bends to the will of its users, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. A feature either does what its users need it to do – say, mark past tense or possession, for example – or the feature will not stay in use. The survival of ways of speaking, whether we’re talking about individual features or language varieties, is itself, in the view of linguistic researchers, evidence of their effectiveness.

Linguists understand all human languages and varieties as rule-governed, which is to say that a given language functions according to a system. Not all systems are the same. What may look ungrammatical about one system to users of another system may be working smashingly for its own users. One system is not more or less “correct” than other systems. Linguistically, that kind of value judgment doesn’t make any sense. In other words, there is no correctness continuum; there is a value continuum that is created perceptually; that is, by way of people’s perceptions and attitudes about features, varieties, and speakers. And the attitudes about the features and varieties derive from attitudes toward the speakers. It really is that simple.

In other words, we humans have a bad habit of interpreting things and assigning value in relation to what we’re used to, and that includes what we’re used to hearing and saying. And mainstream cultures in many societies – including this one – have institutionalized these interpretations into widely acceptable and highly powerful ideologies. One of these is the ideology of standardness.

A good definition of standardization is institutionalization of prestige variety of a language (‘institutionalization’ meaning to establish as norm or convention).

Standardization is often supported by authorities like dictionaries, grammar and usage manuals, English teachers, curmudgeonly newspaper columnists, and other commentators who claim the language is deteriorating at the hands of (some of) its users. More recently, a genre of Facebook memes about language use, some of them incredibly hostile toward certain groups of speakers, have joined in on the unhealthy fun of self-proclaimed language authoritarianism.

For example, there is this:

Visual representation of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is unkind.

And this:

Visual expression of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is also unkind as well as ill-informed. (Linguistics: Knowing the difference between grammar and orthography.)

In the U.S., we have an interesting situation, which is that in American English, the prestige varieties have a negative definition. That is, Standard(ized) American English (SAE) is identifiable by what is missing from it rather than than by any specific identifying features it contains. In other words, for American English, the prestige variety is one in which there are no (or few) features that are socially branded as nonstandard: SAE is a variety with no stigmatized features. At least theoretically. I say “theoretically” because no one speaks SAE without ever producing any stigmatized features. No one.

Lots of Americans speak what mainstream speakers (that is, speakers of what is perceived as SAE) would consider nonstandard varieties. For example, think about how the speech of the Southern U.S. tends to be perceived and represented by the wider American culture. When the linguist Dennis Preston asked research participants to illustrate on maps where they imagined dialect areas to exist in the U.S., many singled out the southeastern U.S. as not only a salient dialect area but as one they perceived negatively.

This may suggest that the attitudes at issue have to do with regional variation, but there is more to it than geography. Similarly, New York City speech tends to score low in measures of language attitudes, but again, there is something more going on here. As we’ve noted, the attitudes aren’t really about language at all but about speakers. Attitudes about Southern speech may be more about judgments about rural speakers, perceived lack of education of these speakers, and perceived low social status. For New York City speech, perceptions about ethnicity and class are clearly implicated. For example, negative attitudes about New York City speech tend to focus on features produced by working-class speakers and by those perceived as “ethnic,” such as Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish-Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, etc.

Looking into language attitudes goes beyond simply observing and describing linguistic differences. It focuses attention on the social dimensions of variation, including what social and ethnic variation can reflect about differential access to resources, power, and status and about the role of language in maintaining social, racial, and ethnic hierarchies. These emphases are particularly important for variationists working in education, and it is important for teachers – and education majors, future teachers – to learn about them so that they will be well equipped to meet the needs of all the students who populate the diverse classrooms that await them. Teachers are on the front lines of this issue.

Our lyceum topic this semester is Race Matters, so let’s talk now specifically about the ways in which race does matter when it comes to attitudes about language in American culture. Let’s talk about language in the African American community.

First, some definitions of what I am going to refer to as African American English (AAE). [1]

Here’s one definition I like a lot:

Lisa Green (2004: 77):

African American English is “a linguistic system of communication governed by well defined rules and used by some African Americans (but not all) across different geographical regions of the USA and across a full range of age groups.”

“Characterizing features of the variety are uniquely related to the history, culture, and experiences of [African Americans] although the variety shares many features with other varieties of English.”

Here’s another good one:

John Baugh (2004: 305-6):

African American English is “the linguistic legacy of the slave trade.” Speakers are descendants of those “historically deprived of access to schools and to equal justice under law.”

These definitions engage the question of whether African American English is characterized by the linguistic features used by its speakers or by the identities of the speakers themselves. In these definitions, Green and Baugh suggest that it is about both: AAE is characterized by features, or more precisely clusters of features, as well as by independent variables that for many speakers cluster as well, resulting in shared — although not identical — experiences. We’re still talking about individual speakers.

AAE has a grammar and it has rules that govern it. As we have discussed, all productive varieties of all languages are rule-governed and systematic. If they didn’t, speakers would not be able to understand one another and the variety would therefore cease to exist. These rules apply to phonology (pronunciation), grammar, and vocabulary. Speakers have to adhere to these generative rules to communicate effectively. The rules that govern AAE and other stigmatized varieties are differentially valued externally — socially and politically — but there is nothing linguistically “wrong” or “ungrammatical” about these varieties. The system is just different. Different doesn’t mean wrong.

AAE is probably the most stigmatized variety of American English, and you better believe its speakers know it. Yet AAE persists and in fact thrives, with tens of millions of speakers nationwide, despite the overt stigmatization its speakers are subjected to and despite decades of eradication attempts through misguided educational policies that are themselves the results of misconceptions about language diversity that unfortunately persist today.

Since the 1960s, when researchers first began to turn their attention to it, AAE has become the most studied variety of American English.

AAE also continues to be linguistically healthy, adaptable, and fully capable of meeting the communicative needs of its speakers. When it doesn’t meet their needs, speakers adapt it so that it does. That is how language works. Its continuing success as a long-thriving language variety suggests that speakers clearly value it for reasons that its critics can’t understand or don’t respect. It suggests that AAE is culturally valuable and helps to build and maintain community and solidarity. It may also appeal to speakers who are not interested in trying to talk like people who seem not to like or value them very much. Linguistically, AAE is a resounding success. Politically, on the other hand, it is a target.

A widely held attitude about AAE views its use as a linguistic deficit. This view assumes that AAE reflects lack of linguistic competence or even intelligence on the part of its speakers. This view is simply not linguistically valid. For one thing, AAE speakers, like speakers of all other varieties of language, are a highly diverse community of individuals. For another, there is no correlation between the language variety (or varieties) spoken and intelligence.

To believe otherwise is a prejudice.

Attitudes about AAE and the value of its speakers have real-life consequences. When you have schoolchildren who are written off by their teachers who assume that students are uneducable because of the way they talk, educational outcomes are going to be severely compromised, which means that economic well-being is likely to be significantly compromised as well. Beyond the educational experience, speakers of stigmatized varieties also experience job discrimination, and their testimony in legal cases is even sometimes seen as less credible, including in the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

John Rickford and others have commented on the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him until shortly before he died and who testified for the prosecution in Zimmerman’s trial. As Rickford notes, “a torrent of invidious commentary” dominated the public reaction to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony, and much of it was “grotesquely racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing.”

Rickford also points out that in her post-trial interview with Anderson Cooper, juror B-37 said she thought that “because of her education and communication skills,” Ms. Jeantel “just wasn’t a good witness.” As Rickford observes, “it’s clear that Juror B37 was clueless about the role of race.”

“She didn’t notice, for instance, what Anderson Cooper did—how completely she identified with Zimmerman’s perspective, and how her references to Jeantel and Trayvon (“the way THEY talk . . . the type of life THEY live”) distanced them,” Rickford writes.

He also asks whether “jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades” and suggests that if juror B-37 (and possibly other members of the jury as well) had found Ms. Jeantel “incomprehensible and not credible,” it was possible that “race, credibility, communication and misperceived ‘evidence’ perhaps influenced the verdict.”

If you have a strong stomach, check out Sherri Williams’s compilation of “good, bad, and ugly tweets about Rachel Jeantel,” including quite a few that focused on the way she talks. As Williams notes, “Instead of focusing on her testimony social media erupted w/criticism about her speech, looks, mannerisms, race & education.”

I said earlier that I think that ideological orientations that position some speakers as owners of the language and others as answerable to those self-appointed owners are illegitimate. Here is why I think that: It is because language ideologies based on unequal ownership of the language and a hierarchy based on an arbitrary notion of “correctness” are inherently racist and classist. Look at the speakers whose speech is stigmatized: Is it wealthy white folks? Of course not. It is people of color, poor and working-class people, “ethnic” people. Coincidence? Please.

Another ideological problem is that a lot of people seem to think that there are only two possible options: inflexible policing of standard-language ideology (although that’s not what they call it, of course) or total linguistic anarchy, which is what some of my English-professor colleagues sometimes accuse me of advocating. (And they say it like it’s a bad thing.)

But this is a false dichotomy. Racism and classism, including the linguistic kind, aren’t just going to go away by themselves. This means that not only do students from nonstandard-speaking backgrounds need serious language and literacy instruction in the privileged ways of speaking and writing but also that all speakers, including standard speakers, need equally serious instruction in the understanding that the privileged ways of speaking and writing are just that — privileged — as well as in the understanding of language variation and change and of the existence and functions of linguistic attitudes and ideologies.

Focusing on this is a way for those of us who are educators – and those of you who are future educators – to start doing some of the hard work of shifting cultural discourses and practices so that more of the burden of confronting discriminatory language ideologies might someday begin to fall on those doing the oppressing (whether unwittingly or not) rather than keeping that burden solely and squarely on the oppressed.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never actually get this kind of instruction (correction is not instruction, by the way), in considerable part because many elementary and secondary English teachers simply don’t ever get any rigorous instruction in linguistics as part of their coursework or training. This means that teachers are without the tools they need for understanding and responding to language variation in their classrooms, which is a serious barrier to teaching language and literacy effectively to diverse student populations.

The teachers and education majors I know care passionately about students and are highly motivated to act in their best interests. That is what drives them to pursue the work of teaching in the first place. But without an understanding of language and how it works, along with an understanding of variation and what it means, they not only can’t fix any of this but they – often unwittingly – exacerbate it. And while we dither, serious harm comes to generation upon generation of children who come to school speaking something other than a preferred variety (like standard English) as their language of nurture. They don’t get the instruction they need and have a right to because the teachers not only often don’t know how to do it but they also often harbor negative attitudes developed over a lifetime of exposure to the pervasive ideology of standardness. And their standard-speaking classmates never learn how unjust and damaging the language attitudes that dominate educational institutions as well as the wider culture really are. And so the cycle continues.

Some of you may already know that much of my teaching involves the training of undergraduate education majors. Students in my classes are called upon to do considerable work in the critical analysis of language ideologies. This work begins with the assumption that all students are entitled to be treated with respect, including linguistically, regardless of the relative esteem in which their languages and varieties of nurture are held. As many of our graduates go on to discover as teachers in their own classrooms, not stigmatizing nonstandard speakers in the process of privileging the way some but not all of the kids speak is a lot more effective than sending nonstandard speakers the message, from day one and in a million different ways, both overt and subtle, that the way they talk is bad and wrong and they just need to start talking right already. Because believe me, that is what a lot of kids are still hearing in their K-12 classrooms, even in 2013. Sadly, they are sometimes still hearing it in their college classrooms as well.

And while we’re on the subject of reality, here is another one: Those who come to school speaking standard English as their language of nurture are in fact really nothing more than lucky. They are the possessors of a privilege that is just as insidious and just as invisible to most of them as the advantage of their own whiteness is to many white students and the advantage of their social status is to many middle- and upper-class students. And it is in just as desperate need of critical inquiry.

The suggestion that a linguistic variant that functions effectively in a speech community but is considered nonstandard by mainstream speakers is a “linguistic error committed out of ignorance,” as a colleague who teaches literature at another university recently wrote on a Facebook thread on this topic is itself an error committed out of ignorance. It suggests ignorance of the way languages actually work; ignorance of the history of the English language, including its ideological history but also its lexical, grammatical, and phonological development; ignorance of the role of prescriptive grammar and the ideology of standardness in maintaining and reinforcing social and racial stratification. Saddest of all, it suggests ignorance of the unspeakable and incalculable damage the attitudes it springs from do to real people who start to learn beginning on their first day of kindergarten that not only do the people with power and authority over them think that they themselves are “wrong” and “incorrect” and “ignorant” but that so is everyone they love.

Imagine having to sit there and listen to that every day of your life. Now think about the millions of kids who experience that as their reality. Maybe you were one of them. Maybe your child is now. Now think about the parents, many of whom endured the same thing. And the grandparents. When you consider how many lives this kind of thinking has had the power to define and to thwart, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is an intellectual crime against humanity.

Linguistically, nonstandard variants are only “incorrect” from the perspective of speakers of privileged varieties. It is an inherently biased perspective that deserves to be challenged, but it is often defended by the very people — teachers, professors – who have the best shot at shifting the paradigm and helping the rest of us to move beyond this persistent prejudice. Because that is what it is: a prejudice. Language varieties work according to their internal structures and they respond to the communicative needs of their users. The structures and systems don’t all work the same way. A variety that works differently from how yours works or how mine works is just different. That’s all. The so-called “standard” isn’t better or purer or more correct or more of any of the other ideologically driven characterizations that so many standard speakers believe and have been so successful at convincing nonstandard speakers to go along with. It’s just the variety with the most power and status. That’s all.

So instead of being high-handed about it and thinking that there is something inherently superior about the standard and inferior about everything else, and therefore that standard-speakers are somehow ordained with the right to pass judgment upon those who didn’t get to be born as lucky, I think the more humane and just thing to do, for those of us who got lucky by being born into standard-speaking families or who have subsequently learned and acquired the prestige variety, is to try working a little harder — make that a lot harder — to think about the effects of our language beliefs and attitudes on the lives of the real live human beings who are hurt by them and to try to stop it already.

There is so little at stake for people like us when standard ideologies are challenged in serious and systematic ways, and there is so much at stake for many, many people who aren’t nearly as lucky as the people in this room. I am talking especially to my faculty colleagues who are hearing this today and to the future teachers. Rather than perpetuating the generations of inequity to which these stubborn, irrational, and incredibly damaging language attitudes have contributed, let’s use the power that comes with our great good fortune to work for justice, acceptance, fairness, and empathy.


[1] Linguists generally use the terms African American English, African American Language, and African American Vernacular English for the large group of related varieties of language used in African American communities. The term ‘Ebonics’ is still used in some contexts, but it has been so politicized and stigmatized, especially after the controversy surrounding the school board Ebonics resolution in Oakland, California (which the linguist John Rockford has written about extensively), in 1996 that many linguists have now abandoned it.

See also: