What Happens to Democracy When the Experts Can't Be Both Factual and Balanced?
Does democracy require journalists and educators to strive for political balance? I’m hardly alone in thinking the answer is "yes." But it also requires them to present the facts as they understand them — and when it is not possible to be factual and balanced at the same time, democratic institutions risk collapse.
Consider the problem abstractly. Democracy X is dominated by two parties, Y and Z. Party Y is committed to the truth of propositions A, B and C, while Party Z is committed to the falsity of A, B and C. Slowly the evidence mounts: A, B and C look very likely to be false. Observers in the media and experts in the education system begin to see this, but the evidence isn’t quite plain enough for non-experts, especially if those non-experts are aligned with Party Y and already committed to A, B and C....
A little over two years ago, more than 600 philosophers petitioned the American Philosophical Association to “produce a code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the academic discipline of Philosophy.” The immediate motivation for the petition was several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by philosophers, which together amplified what many viewed—rightly, in our estimation—as a widespread and endemic culture of hostility, predation, exploitation, and intimidation within the profession. Shortly thereafter, in March 2014, we co-authored a piece entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating our concerns about the problematic effects of tone-policing, generally, and about the drafting and institution of a “Code of Conduct” by the APA, specifically. In that piece, we argued that there was good reason to worry that such a Code would:
1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to "fit in" on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession.
The Executive Board of the APA subsequently decided in favor of producing the document and, earlier this week, published the final version of the discipline’s official “Code of Conduct” here.
Reading that document over, our original worries remain unassuaged and unabated, if not also intensified. We are especially concerned now that this quasi-official document—which elaborates a set of norms, but does not include any mechanisms for enforcement, adjudication, or sanction—will inevitably be used at the local (department-, college-, or university) level in unofficial, ad-hoc ways to undermine or sabotage already vulnerable members of the profession. Worse, we worry that this document will provide pretext for attempts to pressure APA members by complaining to their employers that they have in some instance or another behaved ‘unprofessionally.’ We recognize that any law or regulative code as such allows for the possibility of perverse application, but we maintain that the current iteration of this Code of Conduct is particularly susceptible to manipulation for a number of reasons.
This piece is in response to the discussion over at Daily Nous here. You should read it first; I’m posting here partly because what I’ve got to say is longer than would reasonably fit into a comment, and partly because I want to think a bit about how difficult the question of whether to launch a boycott is, and Justin wanted to avoid that topic (I may be a little slow in approving comments the next couple of days, be patient). Since I live in Charlotte, NC, I do however think my subject position gives me some space for speaking on the topic. And to be honest, I have very mixed feelings – David Wallace’s first comment on the Daily Nous post (that we need to know the details) seems right to me. Here’s an example of why: One might boycott Charlotte on either of two grounds: the police shooting of Lamont Scott, or the state’s passage of HB2. I want to leave aside the police shooting for the moment, because the politics behind HB2 lend support to the difficulty of deciding whether to boycott, and if so, what to boycott (plus, police shootings are an aspect of the boycott idea, and it remains to be seen whether the protests in Charlotte manage to get anyone’s sustained attention about the city’s deep racial problems).
For those who haven’t been following the news, there was a police shooting in Charlotte the night before last. The facts of the case are still being investigated: the police claim that the black man who was shot had a gun; his family says he had a book. I’m not sure the distinction matters, as North Carolina is an open carry state, so “he had a gun” isn’t obviously relevant. There were violent protests both last night and the night before. Yesterday afternoon, I put the following statement on the Ethics Center’s webpage (including the italicized portion marking it as my own). I woke up this morning to an email ordering me to take it down, and to call my dean. I am not going to die on this hill, so I removed the post. But we live in a world where University Ethics Center directors are not allowed to attempt to exercise moral leadership in the communities they serve, even as those universities claim to commit and recommit to their communities. And where Ethics Centers are forced to be strangely silent on moral issues like HB2 and police violence.
I reproduce the statement in its exact form below, in case someone may find it useful. Systemic violence against people of color is worse than the loss of our universities - including public ones, as I was sternly informed UNC Charlotte is - as places of intellectual engagement. But the latter is not trivial or insignificant, as the steady collapse of meaningful public discourse is a disaster for any viable understanding of democracy.
UPDATE (9/22): There is dashcam footage of the shooting, which the CMPD has. The family has seen the video, and wants it made public. Earlier in the day, the CMPD chief had declared that the video would not be made public, because "The video does not give me absolute, definitive visual evidence that would confirm that a person is pointing a gun." Unless this is a misstatement (but this is the exact quote I have seen, in several sources), this means that the CMPD Chief has essentially refused to release the video on the grounds that it does not clearly exonerate his officer. Someone please show me how I am misreading this statement! In any event, there are already too many issues to discuss here, but the national conversation has to include discussion about what to do with video footage of shootings. North Carolina has passed a law that generally suppresses the public availability of that video. It takes effect Oct. 1. I do not know what the legal situation with the footage is now, but the conflict between the CMPD Chief and the family on whether the video should be released is important.
As I remarked on Facebook yesterday, there is a lot of spectacular mendacity involved in the current crisis at Mount Saint Mary's Unviersity. As of yesterday, the University's provost has been forced to resign, and two faculty members have been summarily fired, one a tenured associate professor of philosophy and another an untenured professor of law. The justification for these firings, where available, made explicit reference to violating a "duty of loyalty," which adds to the already overwhelming impression that they come in retaliation for the exposure of the university president's plan to cull incoming students deemed likely to leave school without completing their first year before the school was required to report enrollment data to the federal government.* As a whole, the case is outrageous—and one hopes that these firings will be reversed, that the president and any board members who engineered them will be forced to resign, and that the principles of academic freedom, tenure, and the university's contractual obligations to its employees and its pedagogical obligations to its students that have been abrogated in the whole mess will be restored, reaffirmed, and strengthened. (Anyone who hasn't should consider signing the petition begun by John Schwenkler, located here.)
But while our attention is held by outrage over what is happening to these faculty and the cavalier attitude toward students reflected in the plan, we run the risk of overlooking the way that this case is an instance of a much more general problem. With the rise of various forms of quantitative assessment protocols (many of which, in practice, have been implemented ad hoc, and not always by folks with the training or expertise to produce reliable social science), we have also gotten a substantial increase in pressure to improve performance on such metrics, and thus to improve one's position on the rankings that are inevitably derived from them—rankings which have very real consequences for institutions, both in terms of their ability to recruit students (and their tuition) and in terms of other funding flows, like federal student aid money.
As is being widely reported, Steven Salaita has settled with UIUC, which has agreed to pay him $875,000 (some of which will resolve his legal fees). The press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented Prof. Salaita, is here. A bit more detail about the trustees' meeting where the settlement was approved can be found here.
Prof. Salaita has not been reappointed to the faculty at UIUC as a result of this settlement. This is certainly disappointing, especially for his supporters at UIUC. But in assessing the significance of this outcome, it should be borne in mind that it is apparently rare, even when cases reach a litigated conclusion, for judges to force employers to reinstate employees who have been wrongfully terminated. The fact that Prof. Salaita has received significant compensation does constitute, then, as his attorney points out, "an implicit admission of the strength of Professor Salaita’s constitutional and contractual claims."
We should, and I certainly do, offer Prof Salaita congratulations for the vindication he has received and thank him for being willing to fight for a number of principles that are of great importance to all of us working and studying in the academy. I also think it is important to acknowledge the many faculty at UIUC who have supported Prof. Salaita, borne the burden of the academic boycott, and all too often seen their departments and programs suffer significant retaliation. One would certainly hope that, as part of UIUC's efforts to have the AAUP censure lifted, it will move to ameliorate the damage that has been done to its departments and programs, especially the American Indian Studies program.
Finally, for those who have questions regarding the status of the philosophers' boycott in light of this settlement, John Protevi has made the following suggestion, which I endorse:
While I was not in any sense the "director" or what have you of the philosopher's boycott, I was a catalyst, so I think I should say something here.
Unfortunately, there was some inconsistency in my statements: the letter sent to UIUC and BOT officials said "until Professor Salaita is reinstated" whereas many of the blog posts which alerted people to the boycott effort said "until an equitable resolution is reached." On reflection the latter standard seems the right one to me, but people should make up their own minds here.
Update: Kirk Sanders, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at UIUC, has released a statement regarding the Boycott, which you can read here.
Update 2: There is a statement calling on the AAUP not to lift its censure of UIUC until some of the problems at the institution which remain unaddressed by the settlement are resolved. Those interested in signing may add their names here.
Update 3: Salaita himself has a long piece in The Nation, reflecting both on the significance of this settlement and articulating his sense of what remains to be done at UIUC, throughout the larger academic institution, and in the broader political sphere.
Update 4: Corey Robin posts a useful corrective to those inclined to see something wrong with Salaita's decision to settle the case—which, again, I wholeheartedly endorse.
There is probably an interesting post to be written on the moral standing of the scapegoat — on whether, that is, being put in the position to take a disproportionate share of the blame for something, or even simply to shield other guilty parties from blame, entitles one to claim that one has been treated unjustly. Interesting, that is, from the point of view of the universal seminar room.
But we’re not in seminar, and this is not that post. Instead, I want to do two things that seem more timely and important in the real context of the events that are unfolding this week.
First, I want to pick up on a point that Corey Robin has been making a lot recently, and to which he devoted a whole post this morning, namely that we would be making a major mistake to allow Phyllis Wise, now a fairly obvious scapegoat, to successfully plead for some measure of our sympathy—obviously despite the fact that she played a material role in the genuinely unjust treatment to which Steven Salaita has been subjected.
Yesterday brought two major developments relating to Steven Salaita's firing by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
First came the news that the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled to uphold the validity all of Steven Salaita's key legal claims, rejecting the University's motion to dismiss them. This does not mean, of course, that the claims have been adjudicated in Salaita's favor. But it does mean, as Brian Leiter helpfully explains here, that "taking the facts as alleged by the plaintiff, [the claims] state legal causes of action." The claims in question allege promissory estoppel, breach of contract, and violation of Salaita's first amendment rights.
Secondly, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced her resignation and return to the faculty, effective August 12. It is difficult to imagine that her resignation (with a transition time of less than one week) is not a more or less direct result of the above legal developments.
Corey Robin has a rundown of and commentary upon all these developments which is well worth reading. And of course, hearty congratulations to Dr. Salaita, his legal team, and his many supporters. Yesterday was a good day for academic freedom.
Readers may recall that last December we co-hosted an open letter in opposition to a draconian law that had been instituted in Macedonia, substantially abridging the autonomy the country's universities (more info here). The letter ended up with more than 100 signatures, of which more than 50 came through New APPS.
A little while ago, I received an email update about the situation from Katerina Kolozova, Professor of Philosophy, Gender Studies and Sociology at University American College-Skopje. The news is good: the law has been suspended and, negotiations have begun between the government and the 'Student Plenums' that have been organizing against the law.
Professor Kolozova writes:
Dear friends, Thank you so much for supporting us! And it hasn't been in vain. The plenums have won today: the law on higher education against which we have protested for months, against which we have been occupying universities, writing legal analyses we had no place to present except the social media, combating the Government propaganda through arguments presented on our blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the law which practically killed the university autonomy has been abolished. The Parliament voted a three year moratorium two weeks ago, and today the negotiations between the ministries and the plenums kicked off based on a concept proposed by the Plenums.
Thank you again for your signatures of support. They helped incredibly!
I would like to congratulate all the organizers, especially those on the ground who have worked for months to prevent this law from taking effect, but also those who have been working internationally to support them. And I would like to echo Professor Kolozova's thanks to all who signed on here and elsewhere in support of the campaign.
As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.
I want to make note here, very quickly, of a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).
I was intrigued by Robin's opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read--and sometimes written--a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what's next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.
But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, 'the Palestinian' is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected. The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. ('All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from'?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us 'where he is coming from' - whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born - Appalachia, if I heard him right! - is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided--for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question--did this too.)
For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a 'new kind of American,' as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita's embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.
As you will notice, on the link for the event above, there is a disclaimer, in fine print, which reads:
Co-sponsorship does not imply agreement with, or support of, views expressed at a student-hosted event.
This disclaimer was deemed necessary--in this case, at least--because departments are made skittish by accusations of anti-semitism and anti-Israel stances. But that is not all. The SJP's use of the word 'allies'--again, in the link above for the event--has not sat well with some of my colleagues in the philosophy department: it seems to imply the department is engaged in active endorsement of the 'content' of the event. Perhaps the philosophy department shouldn't be co-sponsoring any such events for fear of not being able to 'control the message'?
In response to their expressions of concern, I sent the following email to my colleagues:
Because I had suggested--during the 'new business' section of our department meeting--that the department sponsor the event, and because the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College focused so much attention on the business of academic departments 'sponsoring' supposedly 'political' and 'one-sided' events, I offered some arguments about the desirability of the philosophy department signing on as a co-sponsor, even if our vote to do so would attract some of the same hostility the political science department at Brooklyn College had during the BDS event.
Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds; his academic freedom was violated; he lost his livelihood because he espoused his political opinions in a manner offensive to some. A debate about these issues, conducted with a law professor and moderated by a political theorist (who also teaches Constitutional Law), would offer to our students--even if they disagreed vehemently with Salaita's political viewpoints--a chance to engage with many philosophical, political and legal problems, all of which they are exposed to, in theoretical form, in their many readings across our curriculum.
Most broadly, philosophy students would see philosophy in action: they would see arguments presented and analyzed and applied to an issue of contemporary political and moral significance. (One of my colleagues pointed out that our department offers a popular Philosophy and Law major, which ostensibly prepares them for law school admission and careers in the law; this demographic would be an ideal audience for the discussion.)
As might be imagined, given the furore generated by the BDS event last year, there was some trepidation over whether such a departmental vote, or the use of the language of 'sponsorship' was a good idea. In response, I analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion of a reading on a class syllabus (During the BDS controversy, I had made a similar argument in response to the claim that sponsoring an event entailed 'endorsement' of the speakers' opinions.) When a philosophy professor does so, she says no more than that she thinks her students should read the reading and engage with it critically; it is worth reading, even if only to criticize it. (This semester, I had included Gobineau in my Social Philosophy reading list; I certainly did not intend to promulgate a theory of the Aryan master race by doing so.)
Lastly, I suggested issues of academic freedom are of utmost relevance and importance for all academic disciplines today. Every department on campus should be interested in a discussion centering on them.
To the long list of rich entities trying to generate academic research that supports their business model, add (maybe) Google. This piece in ProPublica discovered that the Stanford Center for Internet and Society had promised not to use any Google money to fund privacy research, after research done at Stanford led to a substantial fine for Google. The article was immediately followed by a lot of backpedaling and denials on everyone’s part (there’s an update on top), and it’s unclear at this point exactly what’s happening. The Stanford Center has also been the source of a lot of very good work on the Internet over the years.
That said, the blurring of boundaries between corporations and the academy has been going on for some time, and Stanford has always been at its epicenter. I suppose it’s encouraging that folks at least felt the need to deny the allegations
How we ought to understand the terms "civility" and "collegiality" and to what extent they can be enforced as professional norms are dominating discussions in academic journalism and the academic blogosphere right now. (So much so, in fact, that it's practically impossible for me to select among the literally hundreds of recent articles/posts and provide for you links to the most representative here.) Of course, the efficient cause of civility/collegiality debates' meteoric rise to prominence is the controversy surrounding Dr. Steven Salaita's firing (or de-hiring, depending on your read of the situation) by the University of Illinois only a month ago, but there are a host of longstanding, deeply contentious and previously seething-just-below-the-surface agendas that have been given just enough air now by the Salaita case to fan their smoldering duff into a blazing fire.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll just note here at the start that I articulated my concerns about (and opposition to) policing norms of civility/collegiality or otherwise instituting "codes" to enforce such norms some months ago (March 2014) in a piece I co-authored with Edward Kazarian on this blog here (and reproduced on the NewAPPS site) entitled "Please do NOT revise your tone." My concern was then, as it remains still today, that instituting or policing norms of civility/collegiality is far more likely to protect objectionable behavior/speech by those who already possess the power to avoid sanction and, more importantly, is likely to further disempower those in vulnerable professional positions by effectively providing a back-door manner of sanctioning what may be their otherwise legitimately critical behaviors/speech. I'm particularly sympathetic to the recent piece "Civility is for Suckers" in Salon by David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford) who retraces the case-history of civility and free speech and concludes, rightly in my view, that "civility is in the eye of the powerful."
On Friday Sept. 5, Chancellor Dirks of UC Berkeley circulated an open statement to his campus community that sought to define the limits of appropriate debate at Berkeley. Issued as the campus approaches the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Chancellor Dirks' statement, with its evocation of civility, echoes language recently used by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (especially its Chair Christopher Kennedy) concerning the refused appointment of Steven Salaita. It also mirrors language in the effort by the University of Kansas Board of Regents to regulate social media speech and the Penn State administration's new statement on civility. Although each of these administrative statements have responded to specific local events, the repetitive invocation of "civil" and "civility" to set limits to acceptable speech bespeaks a broader and deeper challenge to intellectual freedom on college and university campuses.
CUCFA Board has been gravely concerned about the rise of this discourse on civility in the past few months, but we never expected it to come from the Chancellor of UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. To define “free speech and civility” as “two sides of the same coin,” and to distinguish between “free speech and political advocacy” as Chancellor Dirk does in his text, not only turns things upside down, but it does so in keeping with a relentless erosion of shared governance in the UC system, and the systemic downgrading of faculty’s rights and prerogatives. Chancellor Dirks errs when he conflates free speech and civility because, while civility and the exercise of free speech may coexist harmoniously, the right to free speech not only permits, but is designed to protect uncivil speech. Similarly, Chancellor Dirks is also wrong when he affirms that there exists a boundary between “free speech and political advocacy” because political advocacy is the apotheosis of free speech, and there is no “demagoguery” exception to the First Amendment.
Especially given the attention we've paid to the case here (see our new tag, and also Samir's posts here and here, and Eric Schwitzgebel's here), it is important to note that Steven Salaita had a press conference today, at which he issued this following statement.
The full audio of the statement and the press conference is here. And in addition, there's a short video (embedded below) of Salaita addressing two of the core questions that have been raised in the affair, that of the nature of his engagements on Twitter and that of his approach in the classroom.
[Update: here is the full video of the event, including Salaita's full statement and the press conference.]
Finally, as many of you surely know, the Board of Trustees at UIUC is meeting on Thursday. This is a very crucial day, and it is important to produce as many visible expressions of support as possible in advance of the Trustees' meeting. If you have not already done so, there is still time for you to email the Trustees. Corey Robin's post on how to do so is here. Also, John Protevi is managing the philospher's boycott statement (see here for info on how to add your name).
Following a suggestion from a friend that some of what’s come to light about the roles of the administration and the board in the Salaita affair might not be consistent with accrediting principles regarding shared governance, I decided to check out the specific rules that UIUC is supposed to be operating under.
The upshot of my survey, which I'll explain in detail below, is that UIUC is at least generally bound to respect principles of academic freedom and shared governance by their accreditation regime, and more specifically, that 1) the Board of Trustees is bound to remain free of undue influence by donors and other exteranl parties where this is contrary to the interests of the university, and 2) that the Board and the Administration are bound to let the faculty oversee academic matters. These last two considerations seem to create a real problem given what we now know about the role of external donor pressure on the board and about the way in which the Trustees and the Chancellor seem to have avoided any consultation with the faculty in making the decision to 'dehire' Salaita. (For those who need an update, your best bet is to read Corey Robin's blog, especially this post.)
As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence. I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness. As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.
First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.) I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time. But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind. In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.
Mark Graber (Law and Government, Maryland) has an interesting post up on the Salaita case and academic culture over at Balkinization. Here's the paragraph that jumped out at me, as I haven't seen this particular point made before:
Each year, more and more pressure seems to be put on faculty to spend less time on traditional forms of publishing and rely more on social media in which significant incentives often exist for vulgar, juvenile, and insulting speech (I’ve never been told I should be especially careful to avoid such temptations). Take a look at the website of many law schools and other academic institutions. Many strongly suggest that the way to gain fame and respect at the institution is through the social media or other outlets where eight second soundbites are norm and footnotes forbidden. More and more of my friends who do traditional, lots of footnotes, scholarship complain that they have fewer and fewer friends (if any) in the administration and they are becoming the first to be asked about buyouts. In short, Salaita strikes me as doing exactly what a great many professors are now doing to get ahead in our professions. Having pressured us to get on the social media, the administrators at our universities can hardly complain if we adopt the conventions of the social media rather than what I think are the better norms of academic discourse.
In other words, and in a perverse sense, Salaita is being unhired for doing precisely what new academic norms and academic institutional imperatives of "relevance" encourage.
[Update 2: The report on which this discussion has been based is now being called into question. UIUC English Professor Ted Underwood tweets as follows: "@Ted_Underwood: Regret to say that last night's report from students appears premature. Faculty have since met with Wise, & report no change in position."]
[Update: Thanks to John Protevi for providing the correspondence address for the UIUC Board of Trustees in the comments below.]
Yesterday evening, reports began to emerge that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise has forwarded Steven Salaita's appointment to the University's Board of Trustees, who will vote on it at their meeting ten days from now, on September 11th.
Obviously, this is a hopeful sign, given that the Chancellor's position until how has been to refuse to submit the appointment to the board—as Corey Robin puts the point, what amounts to a 'pocket veto.' That said, it's difficult to feel too much confidence that the process now underway is intended or should be expected to terminate in the restoration of Professor Salaita's position. Robin has spent some time parsing a couple of scenrios here; but the key thing to recognize, as John Protevi also noticed very quickly last night, is that this could easily be a move that the University is legally required to make or that it would be in its best interest to make if it wants to avoid being sued for denying Salaita due process.
Nevertheless, as Robin points out in his post, these developments also mean that those supporting the causes of academic freedom and faculty governance* in this case now have an important opportunity: ten days in which to bring maximum pressure on the Trustees to vote in favor of Salaita's appointment. In other words, the game is still on, and it must continue to be.
As I write this, at least 543 philosophers have signed our disciplinary pledge to boycott UIUC until this matter is resolved in Salaita's favor—see this post by Eric Schwitzgebel, where he explains his rationale for honoring the boycott.** Please consider adding your name if you have not yet done so. Additionally, please consider writing to the trustees directly expressing your support for Salaita's appointment, as well as your sense of the cost to the Unviersity's reputation should it fail to respect the principles of academic freedom and faculty governance in this case.
I rarely post on hot political topics (unless quantitative analysis of philosophers' lack of diversity counts), but one hot political topic has been very much in my mind this week: the boycott of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I've been forced to consider the issue especially carefully because I was scheduled to give a talk to the Philosophy Department there in December, and UIUC was starting to invite speakers for a proposed mini-conference on experimental philosophy the next day, where I would give the keynote address.
[3 updates below] A quick informational note apropos of my previous post.*
In addition to the email-writing campaign and the various petitions that have been circulating re: the Salaita case, there is an initiative, begun by Corey Robin (see here), to organize groups of scholars by discipline who would commit to refusing to make any visits to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus until such time as Professor Salaita's appointment was reinstated.
So far, this effort has borne fruit among philosophers (organized by John Protevi, here) and political scientists (organized by Joe Lowndes, for info see here). Those with appropriate disciplinary affiliations who are inclined to participate in these initiatives should contact the organizers, as noted. Those in other disciplines who are willing to organize their own list should contact Professor Robin, as detailed here.
Update: A statement by professors of English is being managed by Elaine Freedgood (info here.)
Update 2: A statement by professors of Sociology is being organized as a petition and a statement by professors of Rhetoric and Composition is being managed by Matthew Abraham (info on both can be found in this post on Corey Robin's site).
Update 3: There is now a statement of refusal for faculty in women’s studies, gender studies, and feminist studies being managed by Barbara Winslow and a general statement that is not limited to scholars in any particular field (info on both can be found here.)
* Please note that this post is offered in an informational capacity, and should not be taken as an endorsement by NewAPPS or any of its individual authors of these campaigns.
By now, readers are likely aware of the case of Steven Salaita, who was hired away from Virginia Tech by the University of Illinois, as a tenured associate professor of American Indian Studies, only to see his position terminated weeks before he was supposed to begin teaching on account of his remarks on Twitter regarding current events in Gaza. If you need to catch up on the details, a good place to start would be this story in the Chronicle. Also, Corey Robin, who has been a leading advocate for Salaita, has written a number of posts tracking the conversation as it unfolds (see his blog here).
While this sentiment is not universal, many, many people—including the AAUP—are treating this case as a serious breach of key principles of academic freedom. How that is so has, perhaps, been best summarized in this piece by John K. Wilson over at Inside Higher Ed.
Without trying to reproduce a rich set of discussions, it seems important to take note here of several points that have been made in recent days,* and which connect to discussions we've had here previously: 1) that this firing** constitutes a case where statements on social media are being treated as exempt from the principles of academic freedom; 2) that this firing constitutes an example of the way that civility standards (or, shall we say, matters of 'tone') are worrying not only from the point of view of their differential impact on variously positioned members of the profession, but also from the point of view of academic freedom; and 3) that terminating Salaita's appointment at this stage in the hiring process effectively means that the basis on which many people accept new academic jobs (and leave their old ones) has become unreliable.
This is part 3 of a 3-part series of interviews with philosophers who left academia right after grad school or in some cases later. See part 1 to see what jobs they held, and part 2 on how they evaluate their jobs. This part will focus on the transferrable skills of academics.
The burning question of academics who want to leave academia is: What transferrable skills can they bring to the private sector? The responses of the seven people I interviewed clearly indicate that the skills that are transferrable are broad and fairly high-level.
Is there a word for this, where you not only have to waste time doing something absolutely meaningless ("Kafkaesque"?), but where it's also the case that successful completion of the meaningless tasks requires enthusiastic pretense that the task isn't meaningless?
Whatever the term is, it increasingly applies to university assessment procedures. Not only do you have to do a week or so of make-work, but more and more of the make-work is showing the people who check your reports exactly how the assessment process helps your classes get better and better to infinity.
Is this a violation of academic freedom? I did enough philosophy of mind (and virtue ethics) in the past to know how foolish it is to think that simple quantitative surveys of the type acceptable to the assessment Czars (who know nothing about the academic subjects in question) could yield useful information of the sort that would help improve programs. Decent practical reasoning doesn't work this way. I even have a paper with Jason Megill relevant to this topic, and a substantive blog post on four sources of stupidity relevant to assessment. Yet the metastasizing assessment (which at LSU has gone from yearly to now three times a year and almost certainly soon to be quarterly) regime forces me to say things inconsistent with commonsense and the relevant scholarship (again, some of which is my own).
Brian Leiter and Simon Evnine have already signed this letter from students at The University of Saskatchewan who are attempting to convince university administrators not to gut their humanities programs. The organizers are inviting people to add their signatures by sending an e-mail to email@example.com with your name and any relevant information you would like to share (institutional affiliation, education, etc).
It's a very nice letter, citing Nussbaum and Bromwich on the value of the humanities while still explaining to the administrators how fantastically bizarre it is to claim to be building a top research school while destroying the humanities. With respect to the proposed changes, the authors write:
Such poor definition entails that the university has failed in whatever duty of clarity it possessed. We know from reading the brief only that some future program shall exist, taking ‘the best parts’ from each of four programs: Religion and Culture, Philosophy, Women and Gender Studies and Modern Languages. Forgive us if we remain sceptical of the virtues of such a combination. The attitude of presumption that must be required for university administrators to suppose that they, and not the cumulative force of tradition, are sufficient to develop a new program from the base materials of these four programs is beyond us, and our understanding. Most plausibly, the four programs shall be made into one ‘interdisciplinary’ program, which offers more upper-level classes than any of the four previous programs individually, but fewer than the four programs collectively. Most students, however, are not interested in a poorly-defined ‘interdisciplinary’ program, but instead are interested in Modern Languages, or Philosophy, or Women’s and Gender Studies, or Religion and Culture. Most universities, considering applicants for postgraduate degrees, are not interested in students who have taken poorly-defined ‘interdisciplinary’ programs, but are instead interested in philosophers, or linguists, with a thorough education in their subject.
Anyhow, please take time to read the letter and if you support it send in your info to the above e-mail address.
Long-time Philosophers Anonymous discussion contributor Glaucon SonofAriston has started a Philosophy Metablog* here. The purpose:
Don't like their comment policy? Think blogger x is a doofuss? Tired of threadjacking to air your grievances about other blogs? Here's a blog for you.
It will be interesting to see if this works as a pressure valve for discontented anonymous posters who are being blocked at pre-moderated blogs and/or threadjacking at non-moderated ones (e.g a not untypical example here and Spiros' response here). I think it's a very nice idea independently of that though.
I wish a smart Habermasian would write a book on internet communication. His theory of ideal speech situations might help people set up good policies, and the way communication characteristically breaks down on the internet is probably good grist for testing and ammending the theory itself.
We all know of the thing where not being face to face or even hearing the person's voice, yet still communicating in real time, leads to a rapid ramping up of negative affect. But I also think that we haven't quite mastered the art of communication between people who are not anonymous and people who are, especially in a culture where anything you say probably will be used against you.
There’s a new piece up at TheAtlantic by Elizabeth Segran on the adjunct crisis in U.S. Higher Ed and the growing movement to contest the situation. The piece has a number of helpful aspects, including providing a summary of some of the most recent research on the effects of adjunctification on faculty, students, and the overall shape of the institution of U.S. Higher Education. Especially welcome is the recognition that, aside from its obvious economic consequences and its effects on student outcomes, faculty precarity has significantly eroded academic freedom, scholarly production, and done a great deal to compromise the university as an institution of learning and critical thought. This makes it all the more disappointing that the solutions the author seems most inclined to accept would only improve the economic situation of contingent faculty while doing nothing to make them less precarious or offer more support for research and scholarship.
In what follows, I’ll explain the above in a bit more detail.