The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s governing body just made a serious mistake that will have consequences for the entirety of U.S. academia.
I’ll let people who are better thinkers about organizing a political response within academia take the next steps forward in that respect.
I want to talk about what happens to the larger public culture. Here I think the damage that’s been done is reckless and serious, and I frankly resent it. I use the word “colleague” as my general address to other academic professionals and I very much include administrators in that address. I try very hard to think sympathetically about the institutional responsibilities they have, to live up to those responsibilities myself as an administrative actor, and I’m very willing to turn a critical gaze back on faculty on many issues. But to call someone a colleague, to widen the circle of “we”, means that I expect that consideration in return, and I’m dismayed when it’s not forthcoming. Sometimes leaders just make a mess on their own porch. In this case, they’ve made a mess on the village green.
We’re already seeing the spill-over in the painful deformation of conversations about “civility”, in the implication that it is the same thing as “academic freedom”. It isn’t at all. Academic freedom should protect the capacity to be passionate or detached, to use a range of emotional and expressive affects and styles. It’s possible to have a completely different discussion about what makes for generative dialogues and productive exchanges. It’s fine to suggest that certain ways of entering into a conversation, certain modes of producing knowledge, certain performances of self in the classroom, tend to generate predictable outcomes, some of them generative and some of them destructive. You can unreservedly defend academic freedom while criticizing someone who acts like a bully, you can suggest that some kinds of passion shut down possibilities and silence people, you can complain that some ways of framing deliberation or instruction create a narrow range of possible outcomes. You can even call all of that “civility” if you like, as long as you don’t confuse it with academic freedom and as long as you don’t use “civility” as the standard by which you police what faculty can do and must not do, can say and must not say.
Or at least you could think about this interrelationship before today. But today the administration and board of UIUC did something that muddies those waters. Now they’re either going to have to get serious about the foolish way they’ve intermingled civility and academic freedom, which means sending endless memos to their own faculty about the tone of the last faculty meeting, monitoring the social media use of faculty and graduate students, coming up with lists of forbidden phrases and verboten adjectives, hiring a Vice-President of Civility and the like. Or they’re going to just concede that the policy is a fig leaf to cover a badly-executed decision-making process and let all sorts of grossly “uncivil” concern-trolling by people other than Steven Salaita go unchallenged. If you chase the trolls back to their native habitats, many of the commenters on the case who now claim grave concern about “civility” seem blissfully unconcerned by such worries in their own demense.
It’s possible that the pressure that other academics can bring to bear on UIUC will in time be enough to create a new momentum there and elsewhere. However, academic freedom in the longer term cannot survive without publics beyond academia seeing it as a valuable practice to defend and extend. And in that context, academic freedom has become a hard sell lately.
So why is it a hard sell? How is it a hard sell? I’ve found it personally difficult to know how to reply to some people in my social media feeds and elsewhere who point out with some anger, and not from a particularly conservative position, that they can’t understand why faculty should be allowed to write what they like about their own institutions, or to express ideas and sentiments that draw strongly negative attention to their universities. After all, they point out, nobody else in early 21st Century America has that privilege. If you work for a company and you criticize it on Twitter, you’re very likely to get fired. If you’re an appointee in the government and you publically attack your boss or leak damaging information, very likely the same outcome. Most people know that embarrassing their organization, whatever it is, will lead to termination, demotion or discipline.
There are a few other groups of workers who generally can get away with expression that draws a negative public reaction, up to a point. People who own businesses that aren’t immediately vulnerable to boycotts, or in industries where there is tolerance for certain kinds of extreme speech. Celebrities or people with sufficient reputation capital that they can survive (and maybe even benefit from) some kinds of outrage or critique. Elected officials whose political supporters don’t care about the speech in question (or who welcome it). But only a few other groups claim a specific need in their work for the protection of their speech rights: writers, artists, and other cultural producers are the main example.
This attack on academic freedom (why do you get it when no one else does?) comes at us through something of an intramural class antagonism: it is most sharply expressed by non-academic professionals, middle managers in private industry, civil servants, and others who see themselves as the social peers of professors, who have been consumers of higher education themselves, and who frequently anticipate sending their children to college or university. I think this is an audience that public universities in particular simply can’t afford to lose outright, but that even private universities and colleges desperately want as supporters, politically, financially and otherwise.
We often move to defend academic freedom by citing the importance of free speech generally but also specifically aligning ourselves with authors and artists, that the fruits of our labor for the wider society are available only if we are given wide latitude in our working lives to produce our scholarship, our experiments, our ideas, our innovations. This still has a lot of legs in it. It is an easier sell when it comes to the work produced by scholarly scientists, which is valued by many of the people who might otherwise be skeptical about academic freedom. It is a harder sell for humanistic scholarship, which has smaller and more fragmented publics and has a more internally divided and contradictory way of describing its own research projects and their utility or necessity. In any event, I don’t think this is sufficient to build wider support.
The claim that we could make more often and often don’t is that academic freedom is necessary for good teaching. I know it’s somewhat customary for professional teachers to disavow the exaggerated, romantic portrayal of teaching as messianic and inspirational, as in Dead Poets’ Society. Rewatching the film recently for the obvious melancholic reason, however, I have to say that I still can’t help but be attracted to Robin Williams’ character, John Keating. Moreover, I think in the wake of Williams’ death, it’s fairly clear that people remember that character very well for a reason, that they are also attracted to that concept of a teacher: fearless, impassioned, emotionally alive to the inner life of students, and deeply passionate about the subjects they teach. And suddenly here not only do we make the case for academic freedom, the necessity to give teachers the discretionary room to make connections as they will, to feel as well as think, but we incidentally manage to pull down the proposition that “civility” only exists when one behaves as a kind of church mouse might, meek and peaceful in the temple grove of academe. This would be my major plan to engage publics: remind them that the teaching that changes lives is only possible with academic freedom. Without it, you don’t have teachers: you have bureaucrats who are handing out certifications.
Having made that point, we have some issues on our side of the ledger to attend to. If we’re going to defend fearless thinking and speaking, and decouple that from “civility”, we will lose every inch of ground we might gain with wider publics if we’re seen to be defending fearlessness only when it suits or flatters our own political and social preferences. This is precisely why I argued for a kind of “free speech absolutism” in the spring in response to controversies here at Swarthmore and across academia. When we cut the distinctions fine and work the instance so that in this one case, with this one person, in this particular circumstance, we’re right to disinvite and unhire and sanction and deny, even if the person or the case really is troubling, small wonder that many wider publics conclude that academic freedom is just a weapon rather than a principle. It should take extraordinary circumstances before we conclude that the obligations of academic freedom can be set aside.
I’ve pointed out before that even as academic institutions are more and more distrusted, professors oddly retain a good deal of public respect. We have it because we’re free: free to say the unpopular thing, free to teach the passionate course, free to study what we think needs studying. To be free means we have to occupy the whole possibility space that waits for our explorations, and take not just our students but our publics along for the ride. We have to keep a trust as well as walk the paths we see before us.
Which does mean, sometimes, that we have to not just tolerate but consider and listen to and even at times seek out the presences and practices that we in other respects passionately dislike or critique or reject. We do that not as “civility” but as curiosity, as part of what makes us each a free mind and fearless spirit.
There’s every evidence in the world that Steven Salaita has done just that in his career as a matter of his practice as a teacher and colleague. And there’s now every evidence in the world that the Board of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has tragically, catastrophically failed to do it. They now defend neither the principle of academic freedom nor the practice of civility. Their failure exposes all of us to harm.