BY KEVIN L. COPE | AUGUST 15, 2020
Kevin L. Cope is the Robert and Rita Wetta Adams Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He served for ten years as president of the LSU Faculty Senate and of the LSU Council of Faculty Advisors and serves as the vice-president of the Association of Louisiana Faculty Senates. A former member of the AAUP national Council, he is treasurer of the Louisiana AAUP conference and chair of its Committee A.
Anyone engaged in activism sends and receives a lot of email. Many of these letters might be considered confidential or provocative or controversial or just plain “hot,” for most colleagues doing a cold call on an experienced faculty leader are burning mad about something, whether bad policy or administrative persecution or workplace problems. A very large number of the agitated letters that I receive ask, encourage, or occasionally (politely) order me either to reply to a private, non-university address or even to use such an address myself. This request usually originates in a belief that a private email address is exempt from scanning by vindictive administrators who, the party believes, routinely reconnoiter faculty email. Whether distressed or inquisitive or ardent and evangelistic, correspondents are often alarmed when I persist in using my standard university email service. I would like to suggest that colleagues think twice before resorting to supposedly safe or even secret private addresses. Here are some thoughts as to why we should come out of the cyber-closet and proudly use our institutional addresses.
Those in faculty leadership positions should, of course, recognize that colleagues with complaints may have fears that, even if unwarranted, seem real to them. We should be glad to send email to any address that a nervous colleague may request. I never force a colleague to receive email in an uncomfortable way.
However, under no circumstances will I change my own address, the address from which I send email. There are several reasons for this decision.
First, it is something of an urban legend that the use of private email addresses provides protection. In any situation where law is involved, an employer may subpoena any email that pertains to work—and that category, “work,” is a very wide one.
But, second, and more importantly, colleagues should exercise their right and authority to speak on issues of all sorts and should not aid and abet the culture of fear that has not only been imposed upon them but that they themselves propagate. Avoiding controversy is one of the best ways to allow administrations to proceed unchecked in their erroneous ways. Hesitation and trembling are quickly detected by the administration, who interpret these phenomena as signs of weakness and as licenses to move ahead.
Those who talk about their fear of detection often, indeed most of the time, do so with respect to their careers: “you must understand, Professor Activist, that I and my blessed little career might be in jeopardy if I were caught dissenting.” What such a person is saying is that he or she sets his or her personal welfare above the profession and the common good. Such a person is passing the responsibility on to someone else—passing the buck: “let that notorious faculty troublemaker make the statement and take the heat for me.” This behavior is especially malicious when it masquerades as mentoring, i.e., telling the next generation that the way to career advancement is to keep quiet (and quiver).
Colleagues who are afraid even to be seen speaking up are not allies. They are enablers of antagonistic administrations. They are also generally the first to sign up with the regime the minute that they get some paltry little favor.
Now and then, a colleague will come up with an inventive metaphor by way of justifying his or her reticence. Recently, for example, a dear friend as well as fellow activist suggested that using private email addresses could be compared to wearing masks to protect others from coronavirus infection. I do not agree with that analogy to mask wearing. Wearing a mask is designed either (or both) to protect oneself against infection or to safeguard others from infection that one is spreading. With regard to the first purpose, a courageous professor is immune from administrative infection, having informed himself or herself of the issues and having thought rightly and convincingly about them; with regard to the second purpose, the protection of others, the allegorical mask is only necessary when spreading an infection, but what AAUP and other faculty leaders are spreading is truth and solutions.
Therefore, and again, I shall always send my email to any address that anyone pleases, but I shall continue sending from and receiving at my own usual email address.