Peforming the Role

The short summary of the way that UIUC’s administrative and board leadership (and some of their closest faculty supporters) handled their reaction to Steven Salaita is that they screwed up and that serious professional consequences are completely appropriate.

And not just that they screwed up in “handling the fallout”, as if this is a question merely of public relations tactics. They screwed up substantively, philosophically, in terms of fundamentals. The archive of emails now available for critical examination document that error and how pervasive and systematic it was. Chris Kennedy’s interventions in particular are almost textbook examples of what academic freedom as an ideal is meant to prevent: a prejudicial, ideologically-derived attempt to target particular individual scholars using ad hoc standards that are not (and should not be) imposed on the rest of the faculty.

Until Steven Salaita himself says that he’s satisfied with whatever settlement UIUC offers, whether that is rehiring him or some other compensation, I would urge other academics to continue refusing to do service for UIUC as an institution. I know that imposes a burden on the many great faculty at UIUC by isolating them but I think it’s important to keep the pressure on. UIUC has more work to do in any event than settling with Salaita. And it’s not just UIUC that has these problems.

I do have two modest reservations about some of the responses to the email releases by academic critics. The first is that I don’t know that we should exult overly much about the release of the emails. UIUC’s leadership is ultimately responsible for creating the circumstances in which the release had to be sought through legal means, and thus is ultimately to blame for whatever larger consequences this might have. But the use of legal mechanisms to probe into the professional communications of faculty and staff at public universities has already been abused for political ends in the last decade and I fear this is only going to recommend that tactic further. We shouldn’t be too blithe about telling colleagues at public universities that they’ll just have to meet in person more, use the phone more, stick to their personal accounts more, and so on. That creates yet another kind of large-scale structural inequity for public institutions in a landscape increasingly full of such inequities. The acceleration of many work processes through electronic communication is a mixed blessing, but I personally have no longing at all for laboriously printing out recommendation letters, grant applications, dossiers, and many other kinds of professional labors that I handle at least partly through email. I also find it very valuable to get quick takes on institutional questions from colleagues via email and yes, sometimes to exchange cathartic observations about the week’s business with trusted colleagues.

The second reservation is more complicated, and has to do with the hostile commentary being directed at Phyllis Wise’s faculty confidants and to some extent Wise herself. I’m struggling to figure out how to express this feeling, because there’s a lot of inchoate things bundled inside of it. The place to start might be this: I think some of my colleagues across the country are potentially contributing to the creation of the distanced, professionalized, managerial administrations that they say that they despise, and they’re doing it in part through half-voiced expectations about what an ideal administrator might be like.

Occasionally folks in my social media feeds articulate a belief in faculty governance that has a sort of unexamined wash of nostalgia in it. That we had it all in the good old days and lost it, either to some kind of ‘stab in the back’ or through our own inattention or mistakes. (‘Stab in the back’ narratives generally worry me no matter what the circumstances, because they usually inform a politics that’s one part ressentiment and one part scapegoating.) Sometimes the same folks believe that if only faculty were in charge of everything (whether that’s “once again” or “for the first time”) the university would be working again as it ought to.

Now when I push some on that sentiment, it’s usually not hard to get the same critics to concede that there are a host of specialized professional jobs that have to be done in contemporary universities which can’t be done just by any old Ph.D-holding person who walks in the door. So the conversation refocuses. Who’s the problem, in this view? Basically the upper leadership hierarchy, especially at large corporatized universities that have added numerous vice-presidential positions to their administrations in the last decade. These are the administrators that faculty critics believe either are managing portfolios that no one needs managed or that are exercising forms of leadership that faculty are capable of leading on their own through their traditional structures of governance.

I agree completely that many institutions, especially large universities, have created administrative positions that are redundant or unnecessary. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that administrative leadership per se is largely unnecessary, nor do I think even many critical faculty really believe that–and it shows in some of the contradictory edges around the critical response to the Salaita affair.

First, you don’t have to go very far into the discussions and debates on social media about UIUC to find that faculty who believe in the sufficiency of faculty leadership don’t actually trust many other faculty to participate in governance or leadership. Most notably, there’s an undercurrent of debate about why many STEM faculty at UIUC either endorsed the administrative leadership or were indifferent to the issue–and one common explanation is that STEM faculty are already in thrall to the corporatist university or have actively connived in its making. Which means suddenly that the putatively capable-of-self-governance-faculty have been pared down to “just the humanists and social scientists, and maybe not even all of the folks in the latter group”. Which is sort of like saying that you believe in democracy as long as it’s just the people who share your politics who get to vote. Additionally, there’s a lot of contempt directed at the faculty who were exchanging emails with Wise, who are seen as collusive. But any self-governing faculty is going to have people whose genuinely held views of institutional policy are going to resemble the positions now commonly taken by administrative leaders. If Nicolas Burbules had no vice-chancellor to seek favor from, it’s possible that he (or someone like him) would still think as they think and drive deliberation in that direction. Certainly there will be Cary Nelsons on every faculty, aggressively expressing their views in every forum and meeting and doing in governance what Internet trolls often do in online discussions, which is driving the terms of the conversation towards more extreme or narcissistic terms.

Ultimately I think that the people who believe we can do it all on our own know that sooner or later we would all be desperate to delegate some of the responsibility for institutional leadership to appointed individuals, to not have to sit in shared deliberative session and endure an endless plague of Nelsons trying to cat-herd us towards whatever precipice they favor. In a sense, I think every faculty member who has held any sort of administrative responsibility is familiar with exactly how this works: colleagues who believe they should have a say in everything also want someone else to handle all the tedium of acting on all the contradictory imperatives that emerge out of deliberative process.

Moreover, most of us turn out to want at least some of the sausage-making involved in the life of an academic institution to happen with some kind of confidentiality. Even the most radical demands for transparency (and I’m usually one of those inclined to such) balk at doing everything out in the open. Tenure cases are only one part of a larger landscape of necessary judgment and assessment of the professionalism and practice of other professionals in a university. That’s what believing in self-governance means! Professionals often assert that only they can judge other professionals, that this is a prerogative of their training. Ok, but if that means, “And by the way, everybody who has the necessary minimal qualifications to be a professional is definitionally ok in our eyes for life, and everything we’re presently doing is exactly what we should go on doing forever”, then that’s doing it wrong. Even if we banished the spectre of neoliberal austerity, we’d still need to ask, “Are we doing what we should be doing? Are there things we should stop doing?” We’d still need to think about whether there are changes worth pursuing–say, the academic equivalent of Atul Gawande’s “checklist” reform in hospitals. At least the initial stage of many of those conversations is not something I want to be broadcasting to the largest possible audience in the most indiscriminate way. That too is something that I think we turn to “administration” or something like it to accomplish.

I think here is also where Wise’s critics occasionally end up with some strangely unreal implicit expectations of administrative decorum, a vision of leadership performativity that implicitly envisions administrators as more distant, more isolated, less human than the rest of us. For one, I almost feel as if people are expecting Wise to have had discretionary agency where I’m not sure she did or could–where I don’t know that any of us, faculty or administration, do. I think it’s reasonable to have expected Wise to tell Kennedy, for example, that his desired intervention into the Salaita case was unwise and unwelcome and that she would not do it. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect, as I feel I’ve seen people expect, that she should have excoriated him or confronted him. I think we somehow expect that administrative leaders should be unfailingly polite, deferential, patient, and solicitious when we’re the ones talking with them and bold, confrontational, and aggressive when they’re talking to anyone else. We seem to expect administrative leaders to escape structural traps that we cannot imagine a way to escape from. There’s a lot of Catch-22 going on here.

We as faculty all have confidants, people we can talk to who help us work through our choices and our feelings. I would guess that most of us turn to people who are going to make us feel better, support us, reassure us. Ideally we should also have friends or trusted colleagues who will be honest with us, who will tell us when we’re making mistakes, but there are days when I suspect even the most iron-willed and psychologically robust person is not not looking for that.

And that’s just when we’re rank-and-file people. Imagine anyone in the role that Wise plays, anyone at all. Pick someone with your exact convictions. Pick yourself. Are we really expecting that the person in that role ought to listen judiciously, patiently and indiscriminately to every single person on their faculty with perfect equity and equanimity? We seem to desire leaders who are able say bluntly what we ourselves cannot or would not say and to mobilize institutional power with executive force in ways that we cannot and also desire leaders whose job it is to serve as a kind of infinitely passive psychic dumping ground, to receive every grievance and grudge within the institution without blinking. To decide what we know we can’t decide and to have never decided any such thing and to disavow any intent to make such decisions. To me that’s another kind of managerialism: the administrator as something other than fully human, needing to perform a professionalism that removes rather than connects them.

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One Response to Peforming the Role

  1. Thanks for writing this. The earlier the release of deliberations, the greater the impact on future knowledge. So I’m struck by your insightful concluding paragraphs, begining with the sentence, “I think here is also where Wise’s critics occasionally end up with some strangely unreal implicit expectations of administrative decorum, a vision of leadership performativity that implicitly envisions administrators as more distant, more isolated, less human than the rest of us.”

    What you describe affects government officials, too. From the President on down. (George W. Bush saiid in 2001 as he took office that he would not use email because what he wrote would be sought and used “by those out to embarrass.”) Historians have not yet seen the impact of the partial collapse of record keeping in some areas of the Federal government–federal agencies and departments–in the last two decades. Archival records usually are not transferred into the National Archives, where I once was employed to do disclosure review of the Nixon tapes, until they are at least 20 years old. But as an Air Force historian observed over a decade ago, a common topic when federal historians gather is, “whatever will our successors do?”

    The reasons for future knowledge gaps are many.

    These days, the technological challenges receive considerable attention from information professionals on whom we historians rely–government, corporate, and academic organizations’ records managers (a different profession than archivist). The psychological impact less so. Yet what you describe about the dehumanization of executives and critics’ refusal or inability to place themselves in their positions is a part of this. It goes against human nature to throw your deliberations open for cherry picking or place recorded thoughts at risk of demagoguery while you hold a position in government, in the academy, anywhere. Unfortunately, many of those whose actions we as historians seek to understand react to dehumanization by shielding their humanity in records they create. They learn to write in what lawyers call “discoverable language.” (As Michael Beschloss has said, they hide.) The result is greater opacity, more distance, more risk of dehumanization.

    In an essay this past March, Washington lawyer Suzanne Garment quoted a friend who once worked in the federal government . He noted the richness of Eisenhower-era records.

    “’It was amazing,’ he said, ‘the unvarnished things these people said because they were confident their remarks would never be in the newspapers.’

    By the time my friend told me this story, bureaucratic communications had changed. ‘You get a memo,’ he explained, ‘and you want to comment. You don’t write the comment on the memo, because the comment becomes part of the public record. So, you put the comment on a Post-It Note and send it to the next guy, who reads it and throws the Post-It Note away.’

    So much for the historical record — and for the idea that you can force people to make their private thoughts public. Leave aside the question of whether it is a good idea to do so. If you try, you may be sure that those people will find ways around your high-mindedness.

    They will use Post-It Notes. They will establish private email domains. They will do business verbally instead of in writing. The public record they create will be sanitized into something incomprehensible that requires a machine designed by Alan Turing to decode.”

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