The Modern Language Association, criticized by some for rejecting a request by The Daily Caller to have press credentials to cover its annual meeting, has also rejected a request by the Jewish News Service. MLA officials say that they are not blocking credentials based on whether groups may be critical, but on whether they meet longstanding criteria, which require reporters to have a history of covering higher education or literary topics. Jacob Kamaras, editor in chief of the Jewish News Service, said that he was frustrated by the MLA's rejecting the request because of minimal past work on higher education by the reporter seeking the credential. He noted that the service has written extensively about higher education. "We feel that MLA's denial of our press credential serves to stifle coverage that would have been a valuable contribution to the public discourse on the convention," he said via email.
What the social-democratic left has always objected to is not the liberal aspiration to universal rights and freedoms, but rather the way that classical liberalism generally ignored the unequal economic and social conditions of access to those freedoms. The liberal’s abstract universalism affirmed everyone’s equal rights without giving everyone the real means of realizing these formally universal rights. The rich and the poor may have an equal formal right to be elected to political office, for instance, but the poor were effectively excluded from office when it did not pay a full-time salary.
For this reason generations of social democrats have insisted that all citizens must be guaranteed access to the institutional resources they need to make effective use of their civil and political rights. The British sociologist T. H. Marshall referred to those guarantees as the social component of citizenship, and he argued that only when this social component began to be incorporated into citizenship did equal citizenship start to impose modifications on the substantive inequalities of the capitalist class system. Today, when neoliberalism is ascendant and the welfare state is in tatters, it is more important than ever to remember the social-democratic critique of formal equality and abstract universalism.
Like other freedoms, academic freedom cannot be practiced effectively without the means of realizing it. At one time, those means were largely in the hands of academics themselves. As the German sociologist Max Weber put it, “The old-time lecturer and university professor worked with the books and the technical resources which they procured or made for themselves.” Like the artisan, the peasant smallholder, or the member of a liberal profession, the scholar was not separated from his means of production. But that time is long past. As Weber understood well, this “pre-capitalist” mode of scholarship had already disappeared a century ago, when he wrote those words.
The modern academic, he pointed out, did not own the means to conduct scientific or humanistic research or to communicate his or her findings any more than the modern proletarian owns the means of production, the modern soldier owns the means of warfare, or the modern civil servant owns the means of administration. Like those other figures in a capitalistic and bureaucratized society, the individual academic depends on means that are not his or her own. Specifically, she relies on academic institutions and the resources they provide — access to books, journals, laboratories, equipment, materials, research and travel funds, etc. — to participate in the intellectual and communicative exchanges that are the lifeblood of her profession. Unless she is independently wealthy, she depends on an academic institution for her very livelihood.
What, then, is an academic boycott of Israel in relation to these facts? The boycott recently endorsed by the American Studies Association, its supporters emphasize, is aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at individual scholars. Consequently, Judith Butler explained in the pages of The Nation in December 2013, “any Israeli, Jewish or not, is free to come to a conference, to submit his or her work to a journal and to enter into any form of scholarly exchange. The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities.”
Butler argues that such a request does not infringe upon the Israeli scholar’s academic freedom because that scholar can pay from her “own personal funds” or ask others to pay for her. Personal funds presumably come from the salary paid to the Israeli scholar by her institution, but for Butler money apparently ceases to be institutional once it changes hands. One wonders why this same reasoning doesn’t apply to conference or travel funds furnished by an Israeli university.
One also wonders how many ASA members are willing to raise their own dues or earmark a portion of their current dues to pay for the participation of Israeli colleagues in the activities of their organization. Furthermore, one wonders why Butler, who has raised concerns about new forms of effective censorship exercised by private donors, does not have similar concerns about the donors who might pay for Israeli colleagues. But the most serious problem with Butler’s proposal is that it imposes special costs and burdens on Israeli scholars, creating substantive inequalities that undermine the formally equal and universal freedoms that she is eager to affirm for everyone in the abstract.
While scholars of other nationalities may use the resources of their institutions, Israeli scholars must make do with their own private means or rely upon charity; they enjoy equal academic freedom in the same way that the rich and the poor are equally free to hold an unpaid office. For the generously paid academic aristocracy at elite institutions, using one’s own personal funds may only be an “inconvenience” (Butler’s word) rather than a hardship. However, not all academics have personal resources in such abundance, and those with fewer personal resources are more dependent on institutional funding.
Because “academic freedom can only be exercised when the material conditions for exercising those rights are secured,” Butler has argued, the academic freedom of Palestinians is vitiated by the conditions of Israeli military occupation. She is indeed right, but the remedy for military occupation is a negotiated peace, not an effort to deprive Israelis of the material conditions for their academic freedom. Butler seems not to understand how her point militates against her own demand that Israeli scholars become luftmenschen. The distinction between an institutional and an individual boycott only makes sense in a world of abstract universalism, where Israeli scholars are entitled to academic freedom in a formal sense without equal access to the institutional means and resources they need to realize it in practice. The great irony of the campaign to boycott Israeli academics is that its proponents consider it a litmus test of left-wing politics when in fact they fail to apply consistently one of the left’s most important insights.
Chad Alan Goldberg is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors and the Jewish Labor Committee.
During December, the two most-viewed stories carried by Inside Higher Ed concerned academic freedom. The first reported on Shannon Gibney, a professor of English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The second was about Patricia Adler, a professor of sociology of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the recipient of awards for both her teaching and her research.
As I think about these two women with very different careers at very different institutions, I hear Big Bird singing a new refrain: “Two of these things are so like the other; two of these things seem so the same.”
Academic freedom is an old issue. In The Lost Soul of Higher Education, Ellen Schrecker reminds us that the concept arose in 19th-century Germany: One part, “freedom to learn,” she tells us, “had to do with the freedom that German students then enjoyed to shape their education to their own desires, while swinging from one institution to another, drinking beer, dueling and attending classes when so inclined. The other half, ‘freedom to teach,’ belonged to professors and not only gave them autonomy within their classrooms but also barred external controls on their research.”
Schrecker, like others, also reminds that academic freedom has had a checkered history in the United States. Mention the term and I think of both the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era and the foolishness of fundamentalist colleges that forbid instructors to suggest that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is superior to creationism. Both topics are controversial in some quarters and some administrators are most likely to commit transgressions against academic freedom when instructors broach topics or introduce teaching methods that may displease donors, trustees, legislators, or parents or arouse a furor in the media.
What’s new is the nature of these instructors’ alleged academic malfeasance. When Gibney discussed racism in her class, some white men felt uncomfortable, even offended. Administrators referred her to the college’s diversity officer for sensitivity training even though she had specified that she was talking about institutional racism, not individual racism (Perhaps neither the students nor the administrators understood the distinction and Gibney’s lecture did not go far enough.)
Adler’s sin was different: In a class that had attracted 500 students, Adler’s teaching assistants, some of whom are undergraduates, performed an interactive skit about the social stratification of prostitutes. Consider the administrators' initial account. (They have offered multiple versions of how Adler provoked retribution. The initial account is revealing, because it announced what CU officials believed would play best.)
In that first version, the university claimed that more than one student in the room felt ill at ease -- sexually harassed, they claimed. The relevant federal statute specifies that sexual harassment occurs when simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents about sex or gender are so frequent or severe that they create a hostile or offensive work environment.
That definition of hostile environment is very difficult to substantiate, and Colorado officials have continued to change their story anyway about what upset them.
Of course, there’s another possibility: Talking about the institutionalized racism and sexism that are embedded in the social organization of prostitution (and in many other occupations) makes students feel uncomfortable. As true of Gibney’s class, Adler’s interactive lecture discussed practices that many students would like to ignore. The infringements on academic freedom committed by Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Colorado at Boulder are indicative of a greater problem: These institutions refuse to realize that social science challenges preconceptions. As Peter L. Berger once put it in Invitation to Sociology, “It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem. This too is a deceptively simple statement. It ceases to be simple after a while. Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole.” Social science and the humanities analyze aspects of life that some students would rather not know about, especially if a discipline’s generalizations appear to apply to them.
Perhaps making students uncomfortable is now academic malfeasance. After all, an administrator might think, the students (or their parents) pay for their college education — what too many call their training for jobs. (That education is increasingly expensive and financed by loans whose cumulative amount is now larger than the debt involved in the mortgage bubble that led to the Great Recession.) As some administrators see it, students are higher education’s customers. Their reports of their experience may influence application and yield rates and so the economic well-being of a college or university.
Punishing professors whose content or teaching methods make students feel uncomfortable may be “just” another aspect of higher education’s accountability regime – a politics of surveillance, control and market management disguising itself as the scientific and value-neutral administration of individuals and organizations, as I discussed in Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Pleasing students seems to have become what corporate managers call a best practice -- “a commercial or professional procedure that is accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective,” as an online dictionary put it. And if one were to believe the administrators at the University of Colorado, best practices trump academic freedom.
As the Adler controversy continued, a University of Colorado spokesman suggested that she might teach her course if her peers in sociology and perhaps in other disciplines reviewed it and “that review resulted in an O.K. of the course and its materials and techniques, or recommended structural changes acceptable to her.” That review took place and she has now been cleared to teach, although she remains concerned about what happened, and hasn't said if she'll go back. The spokesman did not explain why a course that had been taught for over 20 years should be subjected to review. Faculties review courses before they are offered, not after, unless, as the Colorado conference of American Association of University professors explained, there is a compelling reason.
Meanwhile I wonder whether either the Minneapolis Community and Technical College or the University of Colorado has even tried to learn about instructors who make passes at students, behavior that the EEOC regards as quid pro quo harassment -- not whether procedures are on the books, but whether they are used. How many of their departments maintain an atmosphere that is hostile to women, people of color, gay people, or any of the other groups covered by EEOC regulations?
Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News.
As the Modern Language Association gears up for its annual meeting this week, it is facing considerable scrutiny over a session on the push to boycott Israeli universities. Now the association is being criticized for refusing to grant a press pass to The Daily Caller, a conservative website that wanted to attend the meeting in part because of the boycott controversy. The Daily Caller published an article on the rejection, repeatedly calling the MLA "fascist" (and many other things). Further, the article questioned how the MLA could reject The Daily Caller when it has in the past granted press credentials to "pro-fascist" journalists, and the article used as its lead example Scott McLemee, a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, who has in fact attended the MLA in the past. The article was by Eric Owens, education editor of The Daily Caller.
The article complained that the MLA had not given a reason for rejecting Owens. Via email to Inside Higher Ed, Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, explained the rejection this way: "The MLA provides media credentials to qualified reporters who are employees of or freelancers on assignment to locally or nationally recognized print or broadcast media outlets with a demonstrated history of reporting on academic issues. Based on that policy, we have accredited a range of media outlets with a history of serious reporting on academic issues, including several that have been critical of the MLA. In keeping with that policy we reviewed the archive of Eric Owens, the reporter who requested credentials for the MLA convention from the Daily Caller, but determined that his reporting was not of a caliber that merited free admission to the MLA convention."