Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Vectors of Threat for Academic Freedom

The prospect that Temple Professor Marc Lamont Hill might be dismissed from his tenured university position -- the Chair of the Temple University's Board of Trustees said he would "look at what remedies we have", but suggested that many on the board and the administration would like to fire Hill -- has sparked a renewed round of the ever-popular "who's the real threat to academic freedom" game. For all the belly-aching conservatives have issued over liberal universities which can't tolerate opposing viewpoints, there sure are a lot of cases where conservatives have successfully censored progressive academics!

I doubt that Hill will end up being fired, and it's been good to say many conservative academics make clear that any such university sanction would be an egregious violation of academic freedom (see, e.g., Robert George, Jonathan Marks, and Keith Whittington -- FIRE, which sometimes is viewed as conservative though I don't think that reputation is deserved, also has come out swinging backing Hill's academic freedom rights).

But this case did help crystallize in my mind the different vectors of threats to academic freedom, which may help explain how both the left and the right think it's self-evident that the "other side" is the real danger (beyond the usual self-serving reasons I mean). To generalize:
When threats to academic freedom bubble "up" from below -- come from students or faculty -- they tend to come from the left;
When threats to academic freedom percolate "down" from above -- come from politicians or the Board of Trustees -- they tend to come from the right.
Front-line administrators (like Deans), who can encounter pressure from both sources, are "swing votes".

No doubt there are exceptions. And I hasten to add that this typology only holds on a political axis -- along other axes of campus identity (e.g., racial, sexual, or religious lines), there are different stories to be told about who and what prevents certain groups from engaging as equals in campus discourse.

But on the purely political side of things, and based on my admittedly non-scientific recollection of cases, this distinction seems to hold up pretty well. Start with the threats progressives face: It is the Temple Board of Trustees threatening Hill's job. Steven Salaita was "unhired" by the Univeristy of Illinois' Board, validating a decision by the Chancellor. It was UNC's board which voted to shut down centers and clinics which clashed with conservative political priorities, for nakedly political reasons.

If you move over to cases of conservative academics being targeted, examples like Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or Charles Murray at Middlebury are primarily cases of student behavior. Academic BDS campaigns almost exclusively emanate from students or faculty, while facing strong administrative resistance (see Pitzer or Michigan). And the more general claims that conservative views are "unwelcome" or that college is an "unsafe space" to be a conservative are typically directed at the conduct and outlook of students and faculty.

No doubt this divergence is in large part attributable to the relative political make-up of college faculties and students versus governing boards or political overseers (in retrospect, it also explained the instincts behind my "Do Jews Need a Protest Politic" post, which posited that campus groups who protect their rights via administrative action rather than student protests will automatically code as conservative). But the differences between these threat-vectors has significant practical ramifications, that go far in explaining why both conservatives and liberals think they're the primary victims of academic freedom violations.

On the one hand, it perhaps shouldn't surprise -- though many people were surprised -- that there have been more "political" firings of left-wing professors on campus than right-wing professors, and the gap has gotten bigger over the past few years. And if you think of who has the capacity to issue blunt, sweeping, heavy-handed assaults on academic freedom -- terminating employment, shuttering a program, passing a law -- then that figure makes sense. For the most part, students and faculty can't do that (or at least, not with much greater expenditures effort).

So the liberals can justly point out to the conservatives that, if they're the political orientation threatened by the elements within academia that have the de jure authority to end a career or eliminate a program with the stroke of a pen, then they are the group more threatened by academic freedom violations -- period.

But there's another way of viewing the problem. It's true that boards and politicians have greater blunt dominative authority which, when exercised, poses a greater threat to academic freedom than any power faculty or students hold. But it's also true that board and politicians "touch" the day-to-day operations of academia far more infrequently than faculty and students do. What the latter lack in bluntness, they make up for in terms of omnipresence -- the conservative complaint regarding the state of academic freedom tends to rely less on direct cases of censorship by administrators and more about an atmosphere or mood where certain views are shunned or difficult to air (see this profile of conservative women at UNC, or this account from NYU). It is not a single act of censorial pronouncement that silences conservatives on campus, but the constant prick and needle of dismissiveness, eye rolls, "jokes", and shunning that together creates a landscape where conservative views are effectively unable to be aired.

So the conservatives could reply by saying that a few stray bolts of administrative lightning might be flashy, but they hardly overwhelm the suffocating blanket of ubiquitous liberalism which they see as draped over their academic communities. It is nuts, they would argue, to suggest that in general academic squelches liberal ideas and facilitates conservative ones.

One reason that I suspect progressives would find this argument frustrating is that it adopts a view of power that conservatives tend not to find attractive in other contexts. When speaking of racism, for example, conservatives are not generally sympathetic to any understanding of the term other than deliberate de jure action by an official authority. The complaints about eye rolls and dismissals are -- dare I say it -- best characterized as "microaggressions", and we all know how conservatives feel about those.

This framework also has some difficulty distinguishing between bad de facto "censorship" and simple widespread negative reactions to ideas. After all, thinking "this idea is wrong" -- or even "this idea is racist" -- is not censorship, it's judgment. That one's speeches are met with protests, one's classroom contributions are met with snickers, and that nobody wants to date you after that column you wrote calling abortion murder -- none of these would be viewed as a form of oppression by conservatives but for the fact that conservatives are experiencing them.

Hence, the conservative appeal to this framework in the academic context reasonably comes off as opportunistic. It also opens the door to a more expansive liberal retort, identifying a still-further basic threat to, if not "academic freedom", then at least the diverse and pluralistic exchange of ideas. If academia is built for a particular type of student -- one who is, on average, wealthier and Whiter than America writ large, then it follows that certain types of views and arguments will most likely be systematically underrepresented and underconsidered. If, for example, campuses are poorly equipped to engage with and include undocumented immigrant students, that likely has an impact on the way campus debates about immigration will proceed. This argument relies on a similar (albeit not identical) understanding of power as does the conservative case; if they admit one, they really should have to admit the other.

Be that as it may, I do think that a focus on the vectors of threats to academic freedom -- the different ways in which those threats manifest when they stem from politicians and boards (right targeting left) versus when they stem from faculty and students (left targeting right) -- can help explain the sense of talking past each other that is so prevalent in these conversations. 

Brazen acts of censorship, firings, or political interference are more likely to stem from the right. Day-to-day discomfort, including microaggressions, and an overall atmosphere of having to "walk on eggshells" are more likely to be the product of the left -- though any consistent theory of academic freedom then has to also admit that these same dynamics might also "censor" or "chill" other campus outgroups (such as racial, religious, or sexual minorities). The former is more nakedly wrong and more individually dangerous, but also rarer. The latter is more omnipresent, but also primarily an issue in aggregate and in any event more complicated at the case level.

And then even below those, there's a whole additional layer of ideas and perspectives which are not aired on campus because their proponents never make it to campus, because campus isn't built for them. Different vectors, all threatening the pluralistic exchange of ideas in different ways.

1 comment:

Dusty said...

For a fuller understanding of what these "microaggressions" can do a human being, speak to Tammi Benjamin of UC Santa Cruz, or Andrew Pessin of Connecticut College