A rabble rouser gets the boot | Column

Monte Bute


OCTOBER 20, 2021 6:04 AM

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In a recent essay in The Atlantic, the historian Anne Applebaum called out cultural institutions like universities, newspapers, foundations, and museums as “The New Puritans.”

“Heeding public demands for rapid retribution, they sometimes impose the equivalent of lifetime scarlet letters on people who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling a crime. Instead of courts, they use secretive bureaucracies.”

Applebaum’s quotation aptly describes Metropolitan State University’s recent retaliatory behavior, censoring a professor emeritus by locking his campus email account. Further, the university’s president also censored the entire institution when she closed an email forum that was dedicated to free speech for university employees.

Both actions were reactions to a public campaign to preserve the university’s name. We had discovered that outside consultants and top administrators were considering changing the university’s moniker.

I sent a university-wide, “disrespectful” email to a vice-president of marketing, confronting her efforts to change the name of the university. I was brought up on charges and found “guilty.” My complainant remained anonymous; I was unable to confront my accuser before a visible and known bureaucratic judge.

“As a result of this investigation and the finding that you violated the policy through your use of email,” wrote the provost, “your privileges for your email address will be revoked immediately.” There is no appeal available . . .

Here’s the final nail in my campus coffin. I was scheduled to co-teach a graduate course as an adjunct in spring of 2022. The College of Liberal Arts dean sent an email to the program coordinator saying that she had removed me as an instructor for the course and purged me as an adjunct faculty member.

Their marketing plan was part of a nationwide corporatizing strategy to “rebrand” universities into more “marketable” entities, in relentless competition with other universities. Rebranding is often seen as the last resort of organizations in decline.

Metro State is the most successful of Minnesota State’s seven state universities and 30 community colleges at maintaining high enrollments in an era of declining populations seeking higher education. The university, its faculty and students continue to receive local, state, regional and national accolades. We are already doing quite well, thank you.

If it ain’t broke, why mess with success? Since its founding in 1971, Metro State has always been a maverick institution. Before it even opened its doors,  the chair of the prestigious Carnegie Commission on Higher Education was proclaiming the school as “perhaps the most innovative institution of higher education in the United States.” During its 50th anniversary year, let’s stick with a winning strategy – stay the course!

The university president also shut down the university-wide discussion forum, a virtual venue where every employee was free to exchange and debate ideas and opinions. She sent an all-campus email: “I’d like to share with you that I and the President’s Executive Cabinet have made the decision to discontinue access to the unmoderated email list, METRO-Discuss, effective Tuesday April 27. . . . This email list does more harm to individuals and campus culture that is warranted by any positive value we might identify from continuing this approach.”

Our campaign to save the institution’s name, Metropolitan State University, succeeded. During Convocation Week in August, the administration gave up its quest for a new name, announcing that the name of the university would not change.

Nevertheless, I remain frozen out of my university email account, and the METRO-Discuss venue is no more, buried in the bowels of an information and technology bureaucratic tomb.

What next? After 37 years of award-winning teaching and institutional stewardship, I finally retired last spring at age 76, so they cannot fire me. Wait, they just fired me as an adjunct instructor! Will my honorific title, professor emeritus, also be rescinded?

Rude, crude and savagely confrontational: These discourses are time-tested measures of any organization’s commitment to free speech.

Free speech is a fine thing, until it begins to threaten the bedrock foundation of an undemocratic academic bureaucracy. Then the authorities begin accusing critics of violating the opaque rules of a “Respectful Workplace” policy, finding them guilty, and punishing them. I admit the emails (including some of mine) sometimes impolitely questioned the president and her administration’s decision making. Additionally, individual administrators were bluntly challenged.

The bureaucracy has won, for now. I am yoked with a lifetime scarlet letter within my beloved university. However, as the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei put it, “Censorship is saying: ‘I’m the one who says the last sentence. Whatever you say, the conclusion is mine’. . . . The people will always have the last word — even if someone has a weak, quiet voice. Such power will collapse because of a whisper.”

At my retirement party in May, my friends and colleagues resolutely whispered in unison; they gave me a plaque with this epithet: “The Great Gadfly.”

Editor’s note: Given the chance to respond to Bute’s allegations, a Metro State University spokesperson sent the Reformer a statement: “As part of research for university branding project there was a survey regarding the name and other attributes of the university. There was a lively campus debate about Metro State’s name, with many differing opinions expressed. The result of the process is that the university will keep its full legal name, and as we’ve done in the past, refer to ourselves as Metro State University. The assertion that there was any retaliation directed at Mr. Bute is not accurate.”