The Would-Be Provost Who Quoted Marx

After furor in local press over a 1998 journal article, appointee to senior position at Kennesaw State withdraws.
March 18, 2011

"In the university, the higher up the hierarchical structure, the more one has decision-making power and the further one is from the actual 'work' (discovering and disseminating knowledge)."

Timothy J. L. Chandler, the co-author of a 1998 journal article with that quote about university hierarchies, is going to stay a step closer to actual work. On Thursday, he announced that he is turning down the position of provost at Kennesaw State University -- in part because of furor set off in the local area over the article, which applies class analysis and several times cites Marx.

"I have decided it is in the best interest of Kennesaw State University for me to withdraw at this time. I feel strongly about the commitment that I made to elevating Kennesaw State University’s academic stature. However, I have now come to believe that the recent distractions caused by external forces would interfere with my effectiveness as provost," Chandler said in a statement released by Kennesaw State. Kent State University, where Chandler has worked for 20 years, most recently as senior associate provost, announced that he would stay on in that position and that "their loss is our gain."

Timothy Chandler

Chandler's withdrawal came a week after he said he was not going to be deterred by the local controversy, and after Kennesaw State's president issued a statement defending the hiring. Chandler said at the time that he was "not inclined to withdraw from the provost position under the cloud of a Red scare."

Kennesaw State's announcement on Thursday said that the president. Daniel S. Papp, "emphasized that Dr. Chandler’s decision to remain at Kent State was strictly his own and is not related to any viewpoints that Dr. Chandler has expressed in previous academic work." (He has also been quoted in the local press as saying he was surprised by Chandler's journal article.)

In an interview Thursday night, Chandler said that the experience of being appointed at Kennesaw State and then feeling it was necessary to withdraw left him with renewed appreciation of the role of academic freedom, and some concerns about whether academics have done a good enough job of explaining the nature of scholarly writing to the public.

The news that someone withdrew as provost designee because of a long-ago journal article prompted some Georgia professors to say that academic freedom has taken a beating -- and disturbed some experts on administrative searches.

A search consultant who asked not to be identified because of the industry norm of not speaking about specific searches (and who played no role in Kennesaw State's selection process) said that he had never had a pick for a senior position feel pressured to withdraw because of a past work of scholarship. The consultant said that search committees of course talk about "fit" between a candidate and an institution.

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But he added that "I don't think a person's scholarship and ability to administer" are correlated, and that the institutions he works with "want an able administrator," and have no interest in imposing "a political test." Institutions that let candidates be discouraged because of their politics end up losing good talent and "get what they deserve," he said.

The Column and the Article

Chandler's appointment at Kennesaw State seemed like a logical move up, given that he had served in the provost's office at Kent State, a growing public regional university. The controversy started with a column in The Marietta Daily Journal, written by three of the newspaper's top executives -- who did not respond to request for comment for this article.

The headline of the article suggests that Kennesaw State might need a new color (red) to go with its traditional black and gold. The column goes on to give a series of citations of Marx or of Marxist philosophy that appear in Chandler's 1998 journal article, such as "Increased competition results in increased ethnicity and racism." And: "Ownership is taken for granted in capitalistic societies and is central to the accumulation of wealth and domination. All ownership of land or material means of production was at one time or another obtained by force." And: "While the United States has the most sophisticated propaganda apparatus ever assembled, it is also the most violent nation-state in history."

The column closed by wondering whether Kennesaw State's alumni and business backers would want to work with the new provost. And in case anyone missed the point, a follow-up column said that those who wondered about the fate of Chandler's appointment were among the "Kremlinologists" trying to figure out the situation. (The columns also attacked Chandler for having had as his co-author a Kent State professor who has argued for the possibility of Bush administration complicity in the September 11 attacks, although it should be noted that the journal article in question was written several years before 9/11.) The original column was picked up by right-leaning blogs, with posts such as "Southern university hires Marxist provost?"

The article of Chandler's that led to the furor ran in The Journal of Higher Education and is a critique of the way colleges and universities have applied or failed to apply the ideas of Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered. (The first page of the article is available on JSTOR, and JSTOR subscribers can read the article there.)

Boyer's work argued for a broader definition of scholarship, one that would include research-based efforts related to pedagogy or service, and that would get out of the tradition of defining research contributions simply by the number of books published or grants won. The article's analysis of Boyer's work suggests that he didn't go far enough, saying that Boyer was only "tinkering" with faculty reward systems, rather than considering larger changes that are needed in higher education.

The article argues that "with little or no say in the distribution of resources, faculty decision-making power regarding academic matters has limited impact, at least to the extent that the latter is dependent upon the former. In effect, faculty are given decision-making power as long as they do not upset the social order." To deal with this problem, the authors propose that "true participatory democracy" be brought to the university.

"We suggest replacing career ladders where faculty rise through the ranks to become administrators removed and isolated from the real 'business' of the university, discovery and dissemination of knowledge, with career lattices where administrative positions are webs of roles that change hands and impose fewer limits on individuals, their talents, and their interests. We envision a university where talents better match with tasks, promotion and tenure are reconceived, and a community of scholars works on important problems using a broad array of techniques of discovery. Furthermore, inter- and cross-disciplinary study would become far more common as scholars became more problem-oriented and less paradigm-restricted."

The Role of Academic Writing

In an interview Thursday night, Chandler said that in administrative positions at Kent State, he has in fact promoted collegial decision-making, but that he has also done all of the kinds of things that come with academic hierarchies. He has hired and fired, turned down budget requests, and so forth.

Looking at the reaction to his article, Chandler said that there may be a lesson for academe. "I think it's probably incumbent on us to explain the role of academic writing, and the role of academic freedom -- of the idea of testing and pushing ideas, and of encouraging people to think differently," he said. Many non-academics view academic writing as literal "advocacy," he said, in a way that isn't necessarily the case.

In that context, he said, quoting Marxist theory should be seen -- as is the case with him -- not as an endorsement of all things Marx. "I see it as one lens through which we can observe and look at the world we are trying to understand," especially with regard to issues of social class. "I'm not saying it's the only way or the best way, but it's a way, and those theories do have something to offer," he said.

Some of the writing in Georgia critical of Chandler has noted that he is a native of Britain -- "another strike," he quipped. He came to the United States to earn his Ph.D. at Stanford University and has stayed on, becoming a citizen. Much of his scholarship has been on the role of athletics and education in society, and he is the co-author or co-editor of the books Sport and Physical Education: The Key Concepts, With God on Their Side: Sport in the Service of Religion and Making Men: Rugby and Masculine Identity.

Chandler said that he thinks Britain may be more accepting of Marxist scholarship because of the dominant role of class issues in examining the country. "I think there has been a tradition of listening to and understanding a broad range of ideas on class and hierarchy," he said. "And remember where Marx wrote," he said.

The State of Academic Freedom

Hugh D. Hudson Jr., chair of history at Georgia State University and executive secretary of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors, said that faculty members at Kennesaw State are "very concerned" about the implications of what happened to Chandler. "Public pressure can play an inordinate role. Outsiders made it a very difficult position for him to come into," Hudson said.

Hudson said that "it is the responsibility of the faculty to remind the community" of the value of academic freedom. "It's unfortunate that more people did not rise up in defense of academic freedom."

An education professor who is part of the Marxian Analysis of Society, Schools and Education Section of the American Educational Research Association said she was saddened by what had happened to Chandler (whom she doesn't know). "People think Marxism is the same as Communism, and they are not," she said. "Using a Marxist analysis just says that you know we have a class system and you are looking at it, but class analysis has become a dirty word."

The professor asked not to be quoted by name because she does not have tenure.

Another search consultant, who also has no ties to Kennesaw State and asked not to be identified because of the industry standard of not commenting on other searches, said she thought Chandler "dodged a bullet." "I think it would have been dreadful for him," she said. "The local press would have hounded him, and you've got people in legislatures these days looking for reasons to cut higher ed. He would have been the whipping boy."

But this search consultant said that Kennesaw State may be the real loser. "Would a really good candidate who values intelligent intellectual discourse want to go there right now?" she said. "They just cut their pool of good people dramatically."

As for Chandler, he said he was very happy to be back at Kent State. "I'm in an incredibly supportive environment, and an environment that values academic freedom," he said

Will he ever again apply for a provost's job? "Tonight might not be the best time to ask me," he said. "If I do look again, I will look very carefully at academic freedom as that is a critical feature that means a lot to me."

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