The University Record, March 1, 1993

Academic freedom, free speech may have been an issue in tenure battle

Opening her lecture, titled “Dirty Minds, Dirty Bodies, Clean Speech,” on an autobiographical note, Catharine Stimpson said that prior to her tenure review she was devoted to the First Amendment and academic freedom. That devotion, she recalled, was “strong but theoretical, casual, even lazy.”

Although her struggle for tenure in the early 1970s was long and painful, Stimpson said she was not tested as rigorously as Davis, Markert and Nickerson.

Stimpson said she received tenure because “some strong people fought for me.”

In the 1960s, Columbia University was the setting for a student uprising on the part of African American and radical white students. Never a central player, Stimpson said she did support student causes and joined peaceful picket lines.

Members of her department who opposed the strike warned her to get off the lines.

“I stayed on. A few years later, these people vigorously opposed my tenure. I cannot prove that I was being punished for exercising my right to political speech, but I suspect I was.”

She was also told she would not be eligible for tenure because she was teaching in a new field, women’s studies. “Surely academic freedom protects both political speech and fresh intellectual speech, if such speech is rigorous and reasonable,” Stimpson said.

Her sexuality also became an agenda item at a departmental committee meeting where her promotion was being discussed.

According to a witness, Stimpson said, “The discussion was not whether I was an appropriate role model for students but what I might do, on the couch or in a bed, what possible gestures, what possible caresses. Some of the professors who were to vote on me had fantasized about my body—covertly, voyeuristically, lasciviously, maliciously.”

Stimpson said that 20 years later she cannot think of the colleague’s account of the scene without anger and shame.

“What was at stake was more than the freedom of my ideas and speech. My body was at stake. The dirty minds of my opponents were making my body dirty and then voting as if their speech were clean and cleansing. I could not speak back, for I did not know there was bad speech to answer. My opponents ironically, were in camera, in a closet called ‘departmental committee.’”

Stimpson said each of the three elements of her tenure case foreshadowed issues of intellectual and academic freedom that are alive on campuses today.