Posted by: Catherine Lugg | August 29, 2011

Speaking up and speaking out

The following was originally posted to the UCEA web-site on August 28, 2011.

Your silence will not protect you. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider.

An important role for professors is to “speak the truth as we know it.” Regardless of our academic home, as scholars, we work in the area of “mind expansion.” Consequently, we need to model the scholarly norms of rigorous, independent and disciplined inquiry, as well as to engage in informed dissent and commentary. These are activities that we encourage our very own educational leadership students to pursue. Ideally, scholars are called to be what Michael Eric Dyson has labeled “paid pests.” Unlike think tankers and foundation- and corporate-sponsored scribblers (both on the political left and right) who are paid to craft tightly ideological policy prognostications,1 scholars must pose uncomfortable questions and inconvenient facts. We must do more than engage in mere “problem solving” which is the labor of non-scholars.2 We might occasionally annoy elected officials and their handlers; but more often, university administrators and some of our own colleagues are likely to be displeased with our public utterances.

Like any other organization, higher education has its own set of norms and values. While academic freedom is one long-standing value, collegiality is another. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive ideals, but they do co-exist with a certain degree of tension. Thanks to fears surrounding the politics of tenure, we are socialized to err on the side of caution, defaulting to collegiality when in doubt, even long after we have earned tenure. We remain silent in the name of collegiality. Yet these strategic silences mean we are complicit with policies, programs, and actions that are not only professionally problematic, but on occasion, morally reprehensible. These pressures can further intensify if they also involve issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and other markers of identity. The ethical quandaries raised by our silences can become most acute, for our consciences might scream out that our silences are deceitful. And living with a liar, particularly when it is yourself, is not an easy thing to do.3

The quote by Audre Lorde at the beginning of this post underscores this basic truth: Silence, even professional silence, will not keep us safe.4 Furthermore, “playing it safe” has not been a hallmark of virtue, much less of scholarly independence, which is a critical criterion for promotion with tenure. If we are unwilling to “speak the truth as we know it” to our own colleagues, it is improbable that we’ll be able to do so when the stakes involved are considerably higher–when there are issues of liberty and justice involved. To a large extent, we must learn not to be silent. We must learn to speak up with our colleagues and speak out to our elected leaders. All of this takes careful practice. Like other scholarly activities, speaking up and speaking out demand a high degree of judiciousness and forethought. Speaking, as a form of intellectual and political discourse, is more than mere spouting off, particularly when we can easily anticipate the unhappy responses that our speaking is likely to engender.

Nevertheless, as scholars, I would argue that we are paid and pampered pests. We are called to profess the truth as we understand it. Unlike most Americans, we are unlikely to suffer job loss as a result of speaking up and speaking out, although more petty forms of retribution may very well occur. Yet, these are more inconveniences than career-ending occurrences. Furthermore, if we are truly concerned with issues of social justice, which are fundamental issues of truth and liberty, we daren’t remain silent. To grossly condense Arendt, we must think, we must judge, and then we must act. To remain silent, or even worse, to withhold judgment, is to give implicit consent to what others will easily judge as stupid at best and evil at worst.5

As we move into a new academic year and the fall electoral session, education, public schooling and educational leadership are bound to be in the news and subjected to extensive political posturing and debate. As scholars, “we need to speak the truth as we know it,” both to our colleagues and the larger public.


1 While think tanks have more explicit political agendas which limit the intellectual directions in which resident scholars are allowed to go, private foundations and corporations also place “golden handcuffs” on their paid researchers. See Ellen Schrecker, The lost soul of higher education. Corporatization, the assault on academic freedom, and the end of the American university. New York: The New Press, 2010.

2 Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition, 1972, p. 37. “[P]roblem-solvers did not judge; they calculated. Their self-confidence did not even need self-deception to be sustained in the midst of so many misjudgments, for it relied on the evidence of mathematical, purely rational truth. Except, of course, that this “truth” was entirely irrelevant to the “problem” at hand.” While Arendt is taking the highly-educated architects of the Vietnam War to task, you can see similar situations play out in various contemporary policy making arenas.

3 Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and judgment. New York: Schocken Books, Kindle Edition, 2009.

4 While Lorde was addressing closeted queers who refused to come out, silence is a poor strategy for professors who remain “closeted” on vital issues confronting education including higher education. See Schrecker, 2010.

5 See Arendt, 2009.



  1. Kind of the main point of my Academe Mag piece of ’05, “The Ivory Tower and Scholar-Activism.” Many assume that being provocative in the classroom is the essence of speaking up and speaking out, but that’s the easy stuff compared to speaking truth to power and being true to oneself. Seems to me, the ultimate ambivalent academician, that collegiality is a clean word for acquiescence, especially around issues of real injustice and cultural phobias. In that sense, then, working at a college or university isn’t much different than working in the State Department, for a government subcontractor or as a investment banker for Goldman Sachs. Silence really = death in academia too, though it usually is a slow one, of values, integrity, and real education.

    The one difference in my experiences over the past two decades is that there is one sign of disapproval that is often the loudest in academia. It’s more than mere silence when a troublemaker or whistle-blower like me comes along. It’s ignore-ance. It’s a deliberate attempt among department faculty or chairs, deans, provosts and even presidents to ignore those who do speak up and speak out, who do stir the pot. Their ignoring of those who put themselves on the line is just as deadly, sometimes literally. Collegiality, then, can be defined as going along in silence and willful ignoring of colleagues to get along. Which, ironically, also makes academia similar to the Roman Catholic Church, which, by the way, is the essence of collegiality.

    Not only is true scholar-activism a rare thing. True self-awareness, a prerequisite for scholar-activism, whether for oneself or others, is equally rare. Especially in a place where your paycheck, research dollars, publications and tenure depend on you lacking self-awareness, self-reflection and the willingness to speak up and out. By the way, I love Audre Lorde.

  2. Good post, Cath. Maybe predictably, your perspective reminded me of the classic Chomsky essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Anyone interested can read the whole thing here (it’s pretty short): He talks about intellectual complicity during the Vietnam War, and really hints at some of the things people like Lorde, Arendt, Wiesel and Hoffer wrote about the malaise and moral numbness that sets into some intellectuals when they achieve a certain rank or status in their career. The previous comment (above) is a voice with lots of wisdom. Good points…

  3. Donald,

    *DUH* on forgetting your Academe piece. Serves me right for writing so darned quickly. I apologize for that stupid oversight. Anyway, here’s the link to that terrific piece:

    Perhaps a better term than “collegiality” is “contrived collegiality” which is getting along to get along (a la Hargreaves work). Then again, as you note, there are these “clenched silences,” where those in power, or even with a modicum of power are going to ignore and even actively disparage–through clenched teeth–those who speak out.

    On Lorde: I starting reading her LONG before I started a Ph.D. program. Her compass is far better than any other….

  4. I just found this blog and I’m tearing through it. I’ve been needing to read something like this, and I just re-read this post three times. I have “Your silence will not protect you” tattooed on my right forearm. It reminds me to be brave.

    I’m a grad student in a college of education and the only one who’s out. I also look “weird” – tattoos, piercings, funky hair, genderqueer/dykey. AND I teach history, and include queer history and perspectives, which really freaks out some of the students. It’s the deep south. They’re used to silence from people like me.

    I got moved onto the faculty hallway for whatever reason, and there are rainbows shooting out of my office. Faculty – except my department chair, thank goodness – tend to just put their heads down and run past my office. In the last two months alone I’ve heard: “If students think you have a gay agenda you need to tone it down,” “you can’t present at that conference [on precisely my research area] because we’re trying to raise money,” and – when I suggested that queer history be added to the graduate level history of ed class – “Ha! We’re not doing that.”

    I’ve won the university-wide teaching award, writing awards, and I’m published. I know that I’ll probably never get an academic job and a lot of people who love me tell me that I need to just chill out til I get tenure, but I can’t. My silence has never protected me.

    And my silence won’t protect my students, either. Last semester I had a 19 year old gay kid sit in my office for hours every week because he didn’t know where else to be. He still calls me almost every day. I heard more from former students on Christmas than I heard from my own family [ugh, another story], some of whom were distraught at the homophobic language and bullying they got from family members and didn’t know who else to talk to. Students who aren’t in my class come to my office in tears because of something homophobic some other instructor or faculty member said, and they felt they couldn’t stand up for themselves. Is abandoning these kids – which is what my silence would do – worth it, so that the homophobic straight kids don’t get freaked out by the out queer graduate instructor? Nope. Silence really DOES equal death.

    Sorry to ramble. Had some stuff to get off my chest, I guess. This blog is fantastic, I can’t wait to read the rest.

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