Agency, Pedagogy, and Academic Freedom: Thoughts on the Sarah Raymundo Case

Posted on July 28, 2010


by Arnold Alamon

Two years hence, and after a grant of tenure from the BOR, the Sarah Raymundo saga has made an interesting turn. The recent University Council meeting last July 19, 2010 finally expurgated what was it that has been eating the Department of Sociology. After two years of staying tight-lipped about their reasons for reversing an earlier grant of tenure, a Professor from the Department finally revealed the position of some of the members of the tenured faculty of the Department in a moment that could count as one of the lowest points in the history of the Council and even the University. Amid much polemic about love for certain personalities from the Department, the Sociology professor reportedly stood before all the tenured faculty of the University to accuse Sarah, who remains a colleague, of being a recruiter of students for the underground movement. What is even more alarming, at present, is that there is reportedly a popular personality who has merrily joined this witch-hunt by asking around parents of student activists about Prof. Raymundo as a teacher.

For this position to be finally articulated is a welcome development since now we know the real issue behind the systematic attempts to block Prof. Raymundo’s tenure. This vital admission had been withheld from Sarah as she appealed her case starting November 2008. Hiding behind the guise of departmental autonomy, various levels of the University including the Sociology Department, the Chancellor, and the University President, never gave Prof. Raymundo the chance to formally refute any of these accusations despite repeated appeals for transparency. By virtue of the principle of departmental autonomy, anyone can now be stripped of employment without being informed of the bases. Even more alarming, is that a faculty members’ perceived political affiliation is enough basis to deny tenure if we were to go by the logic of these offices’s actions.

These glaring instances of injustice perpetrated by the University leadership and the Sociology Department have surely eroded the credibility of our institutions not to mention the acts of betrayal of some Sociology professors to the spirit and promise of the discipline. The long and arduous process had also put to light the problematic appeals process in the University. The BOR decision granting tenure last May 2010 was the only indication of a University system and culture capable of correcting what was essentially wrong and unjust. The decision was a stand for untenured faculty rights and more importantly, regardless of whether it was deliberate or not, a strong defense of academic freedom.

However, the current coordinated efforts of like-minded personalities to relaunch a witch-hunt against Prof. Raymundo in the light of the favorable BOR decision indicates that the fight is not yet over and has actually entered a new arena. We have now left the realm of the appeals process, which we have won through our vigilance and struggle, but we are now in a new stage where the stakes are higher. We are witnessing another historic moment in our University’s history as we debate anew on a primary principle upon which this institution stands – academic freedom.

After hopefully much internal wrangling and soul-searching, the recent admission of some members of the Sociology Department that the Sarah Raymundo case is about the recruitment of students to join the underground movement necessarily brings to the fore important issues regarding agency, pedagogy, and the practice of academic freedom. We shall leave it to lawyers to determine if there is already jurisprudence regarding the concept of “recruitment” in this context. It is a stretch to argue that espousing radical ideas is already equivalent to “recruitment.” But for sure, the term “recruitment” is ripe with many philosophical and sociological dilemmas.

Sociology would, for instance, argue that individuals are imbued with a degree of agency or freedom, shaped by one’s social milieu and personal biography. The importance of this perspective in the development of Sociological theory is that it allows us to depart from the view that human beings are totally predictable in their behavior and that ultimately, individual human choices account for dynamism in society. As an example, intellectual life in the University would stagnate if academics were just to totally believe and parrot the ideas of their senior professors.

By the manner in which they crafted their position, some members of the Sociology Department and their supporters argue otherwise. To their minds, students are not free agents but automatons who mindlessly follow their professors. Thus, full accountablility for students’ actions rests on the professor. By the same logic, the University should therefore strip many of its respected professors of their tenure for producing students that became dictators and fascists. Another position that this group can assume is to push for a kind of pedagogical practice that is sensitive to the power relations that may exist between a teacher and a student. A professor’s ideas does indeed carry great influence given the prominence allowed by the culture in Universities nowadays. And prudence should be exercised in the display and practice of such power. To caution faculty members, however, is different from restricting their passions and convictions which ultimately impact on our practice of academic freedom. This sensitivity to power relations should never be made as an excuse to silence discourse.

Ideas are found everywhere nowadays. To imagine the University as a market place of ideas is already an archaic formulation given that we are well into the fourth decade of the so-called information society. To assert that universities should remain a “neutral” marketplace for ideas, once again, misappreciates the development of our understanding of how knowledge is shaped in society. Ideas become prominent and acceptable because of certain economic and political configurations. To paraphrase Orwell, some pigs’ ideas are smarter than others. The capacity of professors to practice their agency in choosing which of these ideas in the market they are committed to, without fear of reprisal (or in this case, non-tenure) should remain one of the few sacrosanct practices of any University.

Sociological theory did not develop this far only to be betrayed by some of its local practitioners in the Department because of this serious impasse in praxis. What could possibly explain this embarrassing moment?

An attempt to understand this unfortunate situation is in order. Behind all these machinations is a powerful clique who has access to national media and the University leadership and whose social capital, which they easily translate into monetary capital, ultimately rests on their standing in the University. They are acutely aware of this, reflexive individuals they are, since they have acted very sensitively to an unexpected challenge to their power as manifested in Prof. Raymundo’s case. These people may have at some point professed progressive ideas but not to the degree that it would jeopardize their relations with funders and political and economic players in national life. They are the unheralded but ultimately powerful kings and queens in the University who are now emboldened by the recent reconfigurations in the national political structure to what is coming to be a push for a political agenda in the University – to rid the University of what they perceive to be dangerous elements as if the University is their little kingdom. What they fail to realize, apart from the fact that the University and the Department are not theirs, is that in their attempts to salvage their egos and their social standing, they have become themselves dangerous to the practice of academic freedom in our beloved University.

Thus, the tenure saga continues under a climate of uncertainty in the wake of recent killings of three teachers progressive or otherwise. It will take more of our vigilance and struggle to defend not just Prof. Raymundo’s tenure, well-being and safety but equally important, the most cherished of our community’s principles – academic freedom. What is at stake now is the very soul of the University.


The Struggle is Not Over!
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