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Strategies for Speaking Out

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

Activism is hardly optional in today’s world. I feel the calling in my bones. My family is deeply Jewish, with both Sephardic and Ashkenazic roots, and taught me the core lessons of tikkun olam (repair the world), tzedakah (create justice), g’milut chasadim (engage in loving kindness), pikuach nefesh (life matters), and ometz lev (courage). These values anchored my identity even as the academy challenged it, trying to make me quieter, smaller, and less effective. It also made me admire the incredible scholar activists who lit the way.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabDr. Sara Goldrick-RabHere are ten things I’ve learned can be helpful when you decide to speak up. I suspect they apply whether you are faculty, staff, or student, and perhaps well beyond the academy as well. Please consider them, even if you’re tenured or in a union, as those safety nets alone likely won’t be sufficient.

(1) Put a copy of every file and email you care about on your own computer or cloud. Do not leave anything valuable solely on university computing. (Of course, this doesn’t mean violating intellectual property, university policies, or doing anything illegal with student records, protected data, etc. Follow state laws.)

(2) Gather all written correspondence you have about your employment and put it with those other valuable files.

(3) Connect with your network to find names of local employment attorneys, preferably experienced with your university, and check their references now. Frankly you need that list handy every day you work for a university. Neither university counsel nor HR is there to protect you.

(4) Put all conversations you have with anyone in administration - about anything related to your public voice- in writing. Do not handle any of that by phone or in person without a witness. Write it all down immediately.

(5) No one who works at your university and has any power over your life is a true friend. I don’t care how much you think they are or want them to be. They are not. Try to avoid casual conversations with them, and if you have them document what was said and by whom. Strive to improve boundaries with co-workers; work is not family.

(6) If you think you may want — ever — to go out on your own, outside academia, then start an LLC immediately. Put your honoraria, speaking fees, whatever you’ve got through that. This will help you obtain important supports, such as disability insurance, down the road. Yes, there may be modest costs involved, and you’ll need to pay close attention to university policies about conflict of interest and external compensation, but the payoff could be substantial.

(7) Take walks. Get sleep. Feed yourself. Do not speak out when you are hurting or otherwise not yourself. Breathe.

(8) Set a Google alert on your name so you’ll know promptly if people are talking badly about you. Keep records/copies of all that, even if it’s anonymous.

(9) Keep doing your actual academic work- what you are expert in— especially if it is not in the field you’re speaking out about. Don’t let them say you weren’t doing your job.

(10) Talk to your loved ones about what you are doing. Make sure they understand why- and the risk involved. You will need them.

I hope these starting points help decipher the hidden curriculum of scholar activism. It is a work in progress, and your mileage may vary. I’m a white woman and move through the world with those advantages—those without such privileges will need far more to maximize their safety. Let us help each other flourish as we follow Dr. Angela Davis’s lead: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, senior fellow at Education Northwest, and an adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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