News, Spin

It’s Past Time to Woke Up and Smell the Coffee

Is the Guv Limiting Campus Speech?

An Editor’s Note

Maybe it’s my middle age or that my decades as an editor have locked in 20th-century grammar, but I have to be overly conscientious to use preferred pronouns in conversation and even email. Confession: I fail at this about 10 percent of the time and have to backtrack, rephrase and apologize to the person.

I want to be accurate, and I want to respect where life has led friends and colleagues. It’s not just personal conversation and correspondence but my work duties in the communications office of one of the colleges of the University of Arkansas. One would hope that we employees want, need, must be open to the breadth of humanity as a land-grant public university.

Then this happens. Late morning Friday (Oct. 20, 2023) a message goes out from University Relations (the campus communications office) to website managers (and employees in related jobs), citing a recent executive order from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to search and revise any references including changing “pregnant people” to “pregnant women” and “human milk” to “breast milk” — you get the idea — in U of A websites and other virtual communications.

The governor’s order was directed to “all state offices, departments, boards and commissions” regarding “official state government business.” If I had known that my job included curating official Arkansas government documents, why either I’d demand a raise or fear a pay cut.

The state newspaper elaborates in “Sanders Bans Use of Non-gendered Terms” (alternate link if paywall).

I put this search-and-reword task low on my to-do list, yet within 15 minutes I get a direct message about a story that UREL found published in March 2021 in the college’s blog and reposted in the Arkansas News official university news website. It was a feature about one of our graduate students that used the phrase “pregnant people.” UREL was already doing keyword searches, and this was all they found for me to fix, well, so far.

I changed the phrase but wrote them back that I would not change direct quotations or course or lecture titles and the like.

For the second time this year, at least, there seems to be an abundance of caution at the top levels of the university.

We need to talk about this as the union of U of A employees, especially the local’s faculty members. Limits on academic speech ought to freak all of us out.

The first time this happened was less immediate and remains more cloaked.

Gov. Sanders has been tightening her breaking wheel on educators throughout her 10 months in office (seems like longer, no?) via executive order edict and through the state Legislature.

Chancellor Charles Robinson in June began to disappear Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. No staff or faculty member lost their job, but their offices were renamed or shifted into larger offices where their efforts to support all students and employees and to recruit a wide variety of prospective students and job applicants could continue.

The online news source Arkansas Advocate explains this in “University of Arkansas Prepares to Dissolve DEI Division: Existing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resources, Personnel Will Be Moved into Other Units Later This Year.”

Where did DEI go? It has not been stated directly, but it appears to me DEI went undercover, switched to the euphemism “Belonging.” There’s now a website, introduced in August with the ArkansasNews story “Read the Belonging Framework and Learn Insights From Study on Student Belonging.”

(A revelation on language: No euphemism improves a situation in the long run, not when coined by our side or by the other folks.)

The thumb of acquiescence thus continues, this month with terms of gender, biology and identity. What will be turned next? When will there be loud opposition from the chancellor’s office, from other individuals, from the faculty and staff senates? Seems puny so far.

The question for UA-Fayetteville Education Association is how can we address the matter? What do our members want? The more voices Local 965 has the stronger we are — the stronger YOU are.

Copyright 2023 Ben S. Pollock (he, him, y’all)

My Editor’s Note column first appeared in the October 2023 newsletter of UA-Fayetteville Education Association / Local 965, which I’m serving as vice president.

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