In 2011, Paul Clemens, a writer from Detroit published an up-close and personal look at deindustrialization called Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. It recorded the year he spent on a work team hired to dismantle and gut one of the city’s remaining factories. I wrote about the book when it came out, and won’t recycle anything here, but recall a few paragraphs expressing a particular kind of frustration that a non-Detroiter can only sympathize with, not really share.
The cause was a tendency by outsiders – or a subset of them at any rate – to treat the city’s decline as perverse kind of tourist attraction or raw material for pontification. Clemens had lost all patience with arty photographs of abandoned buildings and pundits’ blatherscate about the “creative destruction” intrinsic to dynamic capitalism. He also complained about the other side of the coin, the spirit of “we’re turning the corner!” boosterism. “No Parisian is as impatient with American mispronunciation,” he wrote, “no New Yorker as disdainful of tourists needing directions, as is a born-and-bred Detroiter with the optimism of recent arrivals and their various schemes for the city’s improvement.”
Dora Apel, a professor of art history and visual culture at Wayne State University, has, in effect, gathered everything that dismays and offends Clemens between the covers of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (Rutgers University Press).
She calls Detroit “the quintessential urban nightmare in a world where the majority of people live in cities.” But nightmare imagery can be seductive, making Detroit “a thriving destination for artists, urban explorers, academics, and other curious travelers and researchers who want to experience for themselves industrial, civic, and residential abandonment on a massive scale.”
That lure is felt most keenly by people who, after the “experience,” enjoy the luxury of going home to someplace stable, orderly, and altogether more pleasant. It’s evident Apel finds something ghoulish about taking pleasure from a scene of disaster, “feeding off the city’s misery while understanding little about its problems, histories, or dreams.” But the aesthetic appeal of ruins – the celebration of old buildings crumbling picturesquely, of columns broken but partly standing, of statuary fractured and eroded by time –- goes back at least to the 18th century, and it can’t be reduced to mere gloating. The author makes a brief but effective survey of “ruin lust,” a taste defined by “the beautiful and melancholic struggle between nature and culture,” as well as the feelings of contrast between ancient and modern life that ruins could evoke in the viewer, in pleasurable ways. She also points out how, in previous eras, this taste often involved feelings of national superiority, as with well-off travelers enjoying the sight of another country’s half-demolished architecture. (At least a tinge of gloating, in that case.)
It’s not difficult to recognize classical elements of the ruins aesthetic as "The Tree" by James D. Griffioen. One of a number of images reproduced in the book, Griffioen took the photograph in the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, in which a sapling has taken root in the mulch created by a layer of decomposing textbooks – an almost schematic case of “the beautiful and melancholic struggle between nature and culture.” But Apel underscores the differences between the 21st century mode of “ruination” and the taste cultivated in earlier periods. For one thing, ““modernist architecture refuses the return of culture to nature in the manner of ancient ruins in large part because the building materials of concrete, steel, and glass do not delicately crumble in the picturesque way that stone does.”
More importantly, though, the fragments aren’t poking up from some barely imaginable gulf in time and culture: Detroit was, in effect, the world capital of industrial society within living memory. In his autobiography published in the early 1990s, then-Mayor Coleman Young wrote: “In the evolutionary urban order, Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.” The implications of that thought are considerably more gloomy than they were even 20 years ago. One implication of imagery such as "The Tree" is that it’s not a reminder of the recent past so much as a glimpse at the ruins of the not too distant future.
Photography is not the only cultural register in which the fascination with contemporary ruins makes itself evident: There are “urban exploration,” for example: a subculture consisting (it seems) mainly of young guys who trespass on ruined property to take in the ambience while also enjoying the dangers and challenges of moving around in collapsing architecture. Apel also writes about artists in Detroit who have colonized depopulated areas both to reclaim them as living space and to incorporate the ruins into their creative work.
The effects are not strictly local: “the borders between art, media, advertising, and popular culture have become increasingly permeable,” Apel writes, “as visual imagery easily ranges across these formats and as people produce their own imagery on websites and social media.” And the aestheticized ruination of Detroit feeds into a more widespread (even global) “anxiety of decline” expressed in post-apocalyptic videogame scenarios, survivalist television programs, zombie movies, and so on. Not that Detroit is the inspiration in each case, but it provides the most concrete, real-world example of dystopia.
“As the largest deteriorating former urban manufacturing center,” Apel writes, contemporary Detroit is a product of an understanding of society in “rights are dependent on what people can offer to the state’s economic well-being, rather than vice-versa,” and “the lost protection of the state means vastly inadequate living conditions and the most menial and unprotected forms of labor in cities that are divested of many of their social services and left to their own devices.”
Much of the imagery analyzed in Beautiful Terrible Ruins seems to play right along with that social vision. The nicely composed photographs of crumbling buildings are usually empty of any human presence, while horror movies fill their urban landscapes with the hungry undead -- the shape of dreaded things to come.
I have spent the last several years participating in the collective hand-wringing that has occupied humanists and liberal arts educators everywhere. There is no point in rehashing the indignities that academe has suffered at the hands of legislators, administrators, corporations, and student-consumers. You know the lament all too well.
There seems to be some sense among us that what we are experiencing is an unprecedented problem; that somehow profit incentives, patriarchal administrators, corporate values – in short, “the Man” – have only recently taken over American education. We like to believe that once upon a time higher education had a golden age that was due, not simply to the nation being flush with cash or to growing populations, not to bull markets or boards full of generous millionaires, but to high-minded, honorable prevailing philosophies about democracy and justice that have since fallen by the wayside.
But, as philosopher Stan Goff points out, the idea of education-for-all didn’t enter American culture until well after the Civil War (even then it remained heavily segregated), and this was for somewhat suspect reasons. Progressives at the turn of the century “were concerned about the feminization of men, the recent influx of non-English speaking immigrants, the temptations to vice of urban life for boys, and a general lack of discipline among the young. The compulsory public school … was a ready-made solution. Progressives equated ‘good citizenship’ with respect for authority.” Widespread education was designed to produce manly men, and obedient women and workers, who would answer their nation’s call in peace and wartime. Football, Boy Scouts, and the National Rifle Association were parallel projects of this era. A flourishing of land grant universities and private institutions – supplementing the already-existing elite institutions – began producing a steady supply of human capital so that America could enhance its economic and military dominance.
In other words, American education has always owed its primary existence to the Man and has never really challenged his dominance. Not everyone is equally invested; there have been student uprisings here and there, and certainly particular persons on the margins have called for radical change. But by and large higher education has never demanded a fundamental re-thinking of the American project.
For example, on the whole, the educational sector doesn’t call for the return of the continent to Native Americans (my house!), payment of reparations to descendants of slaves (my taxes!), the end of industrial economies (my iPhone!), or the radical revision of state or national borders (my scary neighbors!). On the whole, we don’t question the concepts of nation-states, economic and social progress, the primacy of individual choice, or the use of state force – instead quibbling over their limits. Such concepts are the water we swim in and the air we breathe; except for an extremely small number of us who truly live off the proverbial grid, we hardly notice these assumptions, much less interrogate them.
And even those of us who are radical enough to challenge governmental or corporate sectors are almost certain to rebel against any wholesale revision of higher education. We may call for tweaks – more diversity, more tenure-track lines, fewer administrators, better family leave, better need-based financial aid. But the end goal of democracy (not to mention getting/keeping my job) stays the same. It’s not just Arne Duncan who sees educators as “nation builders.” Many times have I heard colleagues bring up “citizenship” when pressed to defend the work that we do.
While we may hope good citizens will speak truth to those in power, we must also admit that most of our students will end up – like us – not as revolutionaries but as more or less comfortable (and eminently replaceable) cogs in the global economic machine. Even in flagship institutions of liberal arts, a mainly white Western canon prevails that is designed to shape students who will foster some variation of American-style democracy, at home and abroad.
This is not the mythology we live by, of course. I, for one, am conscious to include readings in my classes that will anger nice white liberals and Fox News devotees alike. And I like to think of myself as counter-cultural in my educational ideals of “learning to think” or “awakening human beings,” which often involve a soft-focus image of toga-clad ancient Greeks or medieval monks, mingled in with brochure-worthy photographs of diverse and smiling young people doing good works. Such images are what motivated many of us to work in education, and are among the reasons (along with summers, health benefits, and retirement funds) that many of us stay on even after we’ve become disillusioned.
But in the end, I’m pretty dedicated to colleges and universities continuing to exist mostly as they are; the liberal arts education that has shaped me is, in very real ways, my religion. I’m unlikely to renounce it as such. Thus, all the stories I’ve told myself about changing the world are probably indicative of my wishes and best intentions rather than my reality.
What if revolution, not mere reform, is called for? What if we – yes, even those on the margins – have been so indoctrinated into the putative value of education-for-freedom that we can no longer see the ways in which educators – as educators – are part of the problem? If, as Audre Lorde says, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, what makes us think we can somehow make the institutions of American higher education work for something other than the master? Is it at least possible that, just maybe, the American educational system is so corrupt at its roots that we should welcome its passing?
Don’t get me wrong. If the Ivy Leagues and other billionaires are all that’s left when the rest of us crumble, I will be furious. But perhaps, if we take the long view, we could rejoice in the opportunity that this crisis presents – if not for us as individuals, then at least for future generations on the earth. What if our demise will make room for, be the mulch that nourishes, something even better? Perhaps instead of institutions imprisoned by endowments, academic calendars, boards, legislators, tuition discounts, or profit margins, there will be “flying universities,” “artisanal” colleges, online-residential hybrids, or various kinds of micro or macro institutions actually run by the people and for the people, not yet invented or even imagined.
As someone once said, “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” Why not us?
Kate Blanchard is associate professor of religious studies at Alma College.
As we approach the anniversary of Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is worth reflecting on what has and has not happened over the past year. We know much more than we did one year ago about the decision-making process that led to the Palestinian-American scholar losing his job after tweeting during the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. We also know more about the balance of powers within the university, but many questions remain unresolved -- as do the crises precipitated by the decision.
What looked at first like an ill considered, quickly made decision taken without due consultation looks today like a conscious choice to cast aside the usual processes of deliberation and the customary deference to scholarly expertise. The relevance of donor and political pressure on the decision remains one of the uncertainties in the case. What we do know now is that the university had already hired lawyers before sending the fateful letter to Salaita (and that they have since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on those lawyers, with no clear end in sight).
We also know that the chancellor and provost did consult very selectively with faculty members; they simply did not consult with those who had any standing in the hiring or tenure process, nor with those who had any expertise in the various areas that the Salaita controversy — or for that matter Salaita’s scholarship — concerned. In contrast to the first moments of the controversy, today it is hard to see the unhiring as a simple blunder; it appears rather as the result of a calculation — or, better, miscalculation — about the relative “costs” to the university of hiring or not hiring Salaita.
Regardless of how one frames that original decision, it remains the case that we are yet to see redress for the many injustices that were precipitated by the August 1, 2014 letter to Steven Salaita from Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre. Among those injustices are the ones done to Salaita’s career and well being as well as his freedom of expression; to colleagues in American Indian studies, who had their search overturned and their program irreparably damaged; and to those of us in the greater Urbana-Champaign campus,, who have suffered the violation of shared governance and the erosion of our ability to maintain an engaged and open intellectual community that many faculty members have spent years (and even decades) building.
Just as the lawsuits emerging from the case remain open, so does the attempt to think through its implications. In a previous essay, I called the Salaita case “overdetermined” in order to capture the many intersecting forces that came together in the unhiring.
I believe this remains an important optic. Like the medium of Twitter itself, the case involves a ricochet of colliding messages and mixed contexts. Ultimately at stake in the case, I argue here, is the interpretive power to decode those messages and to frame the political stakes of those contexts: the conflict-laden contexts of Israel-Palestine, indigeneity, and the university itself.
The tweets that were the pretext for the university’s withdrawal of Salaita’s job offer were written in a moment of pronounced state violence. Salaita was responding to the latest of Israel’s assaults on Gaza — an assault that followed many others on the blockaded territory in previous years and that eventually cost the lives of more than 2,000 Gazans and injured many thousands more. Sixty-five percent of the Palestinian dead, including over 500 children, were civilians, according to the United Nations. Several dozen Israeli soldiers and several Israeli civilians were also killed by Hamas. To identify Israeli state violence as the first context of the Salaita affair is not to deny or downplay war crimes committed by Hamas, but it is to situate the actions of Hamas in the context of ongoing occupation, blockade, and invasion.
While it is tempting to draw a straight line from the assault on Gaza to the unhiring in Urbana-Champaign, the causality is more complicated. Neither simply a “local” affair nor an abstractly global one either, the Salaita controversy condenses diverse sites of conflict as well as various streams of social transformation. Depending on one’s perspective, one can easily see the contemporary politics of anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism, or settler colonialism at the center of the controversy. It certainly illustrates the transnational dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes diasporic contestations of various sorts by Jews and Palestinians in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The conflict over Salaita also grows out of local, national, and transnational features of indigenous history, from Illinois’s ugly “Chief” mascot history to attempts to construct trans-indigenous solidarities that include Palestine. The particularities of those contests then play out in one instantiation of a widely shared neoliberal program to remake the university through top-down, anti-faculty forms of governance. Finally, all of those currents have converged on a stage shaped by the ongoing transformation of public discussion by new media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Why do these various, overdetermined contexts intersect in the Salaita case and what is at stake in that intersection? While Palestinian and indigenous struggles concern, above all, claims to sovereignty and territory, those are not the immediate stakes of this controversy. I want to propose instead that the kernel holding together the multidimensional event of the unhiring is a contestation over interpretive power — a form of contestation that has an indirect though still critical relation to the struggle for sovereignty.
In the most obvious sense, the case involves a contest over the meaning of Salaita’s tweets: are they anti-Semitic or ironic? Within or beyond the bounds of acceptable speech? Relevant or not to an academic appointment? But the real struggle over interpretation lies not in assessment of the content of Salaita’s controversial statements, but rather in the institutional framing of the act of interpretation. What is really at stake is not what these statements mean but who gets to decide on the meaning of scholarly and public discourses and under what conditions. Should non-specialist administrators and politically appointed trustees have the authority to override the carefully vetted decisions of faculty? Should outside pressure — whether from donors or politically-motivated bloggers — be allowed to insinuate itself into academic considerations?
In the struggle over the institutional framing of the Salaita case, resistance to the neoliberal transformation of the university comes to occupy a social location provisionally analogous to Palestinian and indigenous resistance to colonialism and state power. The content of those three struggles is not identical by any means; the histories, scales, and stakes vary decisively. What links them — contingently but powerfully — is the fact that in all three cases, activists and scholar-activists confront powerful hegemonies of interpretive power.
In the United States, at the least, neither the Palestinian cause nor movements of American Indians and indigenous people more generally confront a neutral public sphere. The dominant “common sense” is aligned against the claims of these groups. Similarly, the struggle for control of the university confronts a market logic that has increasingly saturated the idea of the university in recent decades. Within that logic, critical thought of the kind practiced by Salaita and his defenders can only be considered beyond the boundaries of the acceptable: it is, in the shorthand evoked by Chancellor Wise and the university’s Board of Trustees, “uncivil.” Indeed, as Joan Scott and others have argued in relation to the Salaita case, the discourse of civility provides the “positive” vision that guides the hegemonic interpretive framing of the controversy. In this case it sutures together the three very different contexts I have highlighted.
In principle, the struggle over interpretive power could link together any number of radical and progressive causes; that is precisely the point of stressing the contingent, overdetermined nature of this case. But that point alone is far too general to be helpful. A return to the specific histories activated by the affair can help elucidate the particular configurations of power at stake.
It is not “accidental” that American Indian studies should be at the center of this controversy given the University of Illinois’s history of anti-indigenous stereotyping and hostility. It is not “accidental” that Israel’s far-away occupation and blockade of Palestine should have ignited the controversy given the central role that the US plays in propping up Israeli policies and the importance that Jewish-American opinion (as divided as it is) plays in maintaining U.S. support for Israel. Finally, it is not “accidental” that these two fields of conflict should intersect with struggles over the balance of power between faculty and administrators in the university.
In a context in which the university’s mission has been undermined by privatization, and fund-raising has replaced public funding, administrators increasingly feel the need to protect the “brand” by enforcing stricter limits on acceptable speech by faculty and students. Certain radical claims to sovereignty by Palestinian and indigenous activists exceed the bounds of acceptable liberal political discourse in the US and seem to threaten the university’s ability to raise money from wealthy private donors and to make its case for public funding to skeptical state legislatures. “Incivility” must be kept well hidden in order for the public university to function in such a precarious environment.
Yet, it is important to insist that these hegemonies are not total. Indeed, there would be no Salaita controversy — not to mention no boycott of the University of the Illinois — if capitulation to common sense were total. And this is another reason that Twitter and the university have served as sites for this mediated struggle over Israel-Palestine and indigeneity. Those are sites that remain partially open, that remain spaces of possibility despite the pressures of liberal consensus politics and neoliberal normalization. They are spaces from which alternative interpretations and counter-narratives can emerge.
Although the boycott under which some scholars are responding to the Salaita unhiring by staying away from Illinois has had a significant negative impact on faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences at Illinois (with numerous lectures and conferences being canceled), it has also served as the occasion for creating alternative venues and institutional structures. A number of speakers, including Katherine Franke, Bruce Robbins, and Todd Presner, have paid their own way and engaged with the Urbana-Champaign community in non-university spaces. The Salaita case thus illustrates how, as the university is opened up to market forces, scholars cannot simply retreat into the walls of the Ivory Tower: new solidarities that can serve as platforms for the struggle over interpretation need to be created that cut across the boundaries of the university.
There is enough at stake in the Salaita case by itself, but as a point of condensation for multiple conflicts it is also a kind of mirror that reveals a larger political landscape. For those of us who do not share the consensus views on Israel, indigeneity, or the privatization of the university, the case has been an opportunity to engage in a struggle over interpretation.
Like everything else that matters, interpretation is saturated with power. But as scholars trained in the arts of critical analysis — some of whom have far greater job security than many Americans — we possess the tools to engage the uneven field of interpretive power. We have the means to offer counter-narratives, to show how Urbana and Gaza are linked, but also to suggest how complicated those links are.
Michael Rothberg is professor and head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. His most recent book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization.
If the long-term implications of the Salaita affair should be discussed when the case can be recollected in tranquility, then we certainly are nowhere near there yet. Passions remain high, even though the practical actions that can be taken by either side outside the courtroom, save for Salaita’s supporters maintaining the boycott of the university, are for now largely exhausted. Whatever can be said about the roads taken or not taken by both parties, we cannot guess what shall be said “somewhere ages and ages hence.”
University of Illinois officials have said they approached Salaita to make a settlement offer a few months ago. But whatever outreach the university made was rejected on Salaita’s behalf by his attorneys.
The case is in the courts, where the outcome is of course uncertain, though the courts have traditionally been more inclined to award financial compensation than a tenured position, since they are reluctant to override university decision-making about faculty appointments. Remember that Ward Churchill received but $1 when he said he did not want money; he would only accept his job back, and the court refused to force his reappointment. And that was a case decided in Churchill’s favor. Whether the courts will find Salaita’s tweeting behavior befitting a faculty member, or whether they will be willing to consider his conditional offer the equivalent of an unconditional contract remains to be seen. Should he lose his case, the university would have less to gain by offering a settlement, especially since the value of a standard non-disparagement clause would seem minimal. Salaita has been denouncing the university’s actions far and wide, and he has written a book about his case.
But there are nonetheless some lessons to be learned, even if they are mostly based on contested evidence. The foremost of these, I believe, is that the whole academic hiring process disintegrates when a program or department attempts to initiate a faculty hire outside its areas of competence.
The one constant throughout Salaita’s career has been his opposition to the Jewish state and his support for Palestinian rights to all the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river. Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies Program. But his first (of six) books is the only one dealing with Native American texts and issues, and even that book is focused on a claim that American Indians and Palestinians are comparable indigenous peoples who were subjected to similar colonialist oppressions.
His main job at Illinois would have been to teach “comparative indigeneity.” Native Americans and Palestinians — the first group objectively indigenous, the second only polemically and politically so — were the indigenous examples he was scheduled to teach. Salaita’s two books on Arab American fiction were neither within the department’s area of expertise nor part of its mission. And his highly polemical Israel’s Dead Soul also served goals outside the program’s mission, even if all but one of the program faculty embraced its argument.
Not only the local but also the credible national support for Salaita is founded on the conviction that a properly constituted academic search committee’s hiring recommendation should be honored. There is of course a not-so-credible local and national component to Salaita advocacy: hostility to Israel and support for the boycott movement’s efforts to discredit and eliminate the Jewish state. Salaita himself asserts that “donors” (read “Jewish donors”) bullied the university and the Board of Trustees not to proceed with a final offer. And others, including members of the American Association of University Professors’s national staff and its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure share that conviction, despite the lack of clear evidence. Still others, including a group of historians, were willing to state that Salaita’s tweets only said what we all knew to be true about Israel. But the principled basis for outrage is really only the assumption that a faculty search committee is a sacred entity. The AAUP has traditionally agreed with that position, and so would I when a search is properly conducted. The AAUP maintains that search committee recommendations should be honored except in exceptional cases. Some of us believe Salaita’s case is exactly that, exceptional.
That said, college and university review committees examining departmental appointment papers do not typically confront doubts about whether either the position being searched for or the candidate being proposed is illegitimate. They can question whether the candidate’s credentials match the job description, whether he or she meets the institution’s standards, whether the outside letters offer only qualified support, what the candidate’s future research prospects are, and so forth. In this case, “comparative indigeneity” was one of the search goals, and there was no serious effort to ask whether the candidate’s obsessive focus on Israel and the Palestinians matched a responsible effort to include comparative indigeneity within the department’s mission or whether experts in Middle East history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played an appropriate role in the decision-making process. Nor had the implications of the American Indian Studies Program’s decision to embrace comparative indigeneity received sufficiently critical review.
At a spring 2015 meeting of the campus’s Faculty Senate, a local law professor, Matthew Finkin, rose to say an authority in anti-Semitism should have reviewed Salaita’s publications. If any members of the university review committees harbored such concerns, they either did not voice them or did not press them hard enough. Perhaps there was an understandable inclination not to challenge the American Indian Studies Program. In any case, the program was not well served by its own evolving standards or by the subsequent review process.
Rather than stay within its academic mission and the academic standards appropriate to that mission, the program acted out of political solidarity and proposed an appointment that was more political than academic. That made the situation still worse and is a warning to those humanities and soft social science departments that have become increasingly politicized over the last generation.
There are still more lessons, challenges, and questions built into this case: What kinds of criteria are appropriate to a search process, as opposed to a tenure decision? What role might a major presence on social media within a candidate’s research and teaching areas play in evaluating a job candidate? How does academic freedom bear on evaluating either a job candidate’s publications or public statements about his or her areas of research? What role should political solidarity play in seeking outside reviewers for a faculty appointment? What questions should college and university reviews pose for problematic proposed hires? Does a Board of Trustees have any meaningful role in the awarding of tenure? In the light of the standard warning that bad cases make bad law, I am not hopeful about the general principles that might be derived from the passions still surrounding the Salaita affair.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I have a picture saved in a folder on my laptop. It is a picture of me, and it was provided to me somewhat reluctantly. It’s a photograph of my face, taken from my faculty profile page at the religious college where I used to work, placed onto the body of a scantily clad lingerie model. This Photoshopped image was part of an annual tradition, one that used such manufactured images of many of the faculty and staff members at the institution as part of a presentation designed to “skewer” faculty and staff for humorous effect. Sometimes it was a suggestion that a religion professor who was also a Baptist minister actually wanted to be the pope. Sometimes it was a joke that one of our very tall business professors was secretly an Olympic beach volleyball player. The year that I was on the docket, I was a Vegas showgirl, and thus my head was superimposed upon the body of a midriff-baring, garter stockings-clad lingerie model in a semitransparent bra.
This performance was done during a convocation for students, but it was popular among faculty members and administrators, who made a tradition of attending the annual “roast.” Aside from the general fact that mocking faculty members in front of a group of students already skeptical of us is pedagogically questionable, the sexually suggestive Photoshopped picture of me -- and similar photos of some of my female colleagues -- was a clear case of sexual harassment.
But this had been done for years. It was simply “tradition” and we were supposed to be part of a family -- and what family doesn’t pick on one another just a little bit?
I like to think of myself as a strong woman, one who won’t put up with abusive comments or disrespect. I’ve learned to ignore street harassment; I’ve spent a lot of my life figuring out which battles are the ones to fight, and complaining about the minimal harassment I’ve experienced in the workplace really wasn’t worth the disruption to my life, though I would like to think that if it represented a pattern of behavior -- and others were being harassed as well -- that I would step forward and tell my own story.
But this I was afraid to complain about. I wasn’t present at this convocation, but all the same, it was humiliating -- so humiliating that some of my colleagues who were at the convocation wouldn’t tell me about it and refused to make eye contact when I asked them directly about what had happened. It was several days before someone involved with the program finally acquiesced when I said I wanted to see the image myself and sent me a copy of it. The experience undercut my authority in the classroom, as many of my students were already inclined to believe that women should not have positions of authority over men.
Nevertheless, I was afraid to complain.
I was afraid to complain about it, because the person who did the presentation every year was an administrator, one who, when we had our first mandatory sexual harassment training session for the campus employees, started with a joke: “If these rules had been around when I met my wife, I wouldn’t be happily married today.”
What was I going to do? This was a prominent member of our small-town community. I had seen administrators retaliate against faculty members for asking what I thought were reasonable questions or making reasonable complaints about their treatment, and I was untenured in a work-at-will state. Did I really have any choice? I had the evidence. It was a clear case. Quite likely, it would have simply resulted in administrators apologizing and being embarrassed, but it also like would have resulted in having to hear multiple times that “he’s a part of an earlier generation” for whom such things were different. More importantly, I feared I also risked losing my job, but without any proof that it was retaliation. I’d seen other people at that institution fired (or, more euphemistically, told that their tenure-track contracts were “not being renewed”) under mysterious circumstances. Because there was no record of any discussion -- and the fact that work-at-will means that employers don’t have to give you a reason to let you go -- those people could not prove any discrimination had taken place.
While this is certainly anecdotal and only my own experience, it does color the way that I think about claims of sexual harassment, both by faculty members and by students. When we think about harassment and our approach to it at universities and colleges, we need to remember that they are workplaces, despite all the talk about being members of a family or part of a community, with real disregard for equity. It’s difficult in many environments to come forward with complaints of harassment -- particularly when young scholars are being discouraged from doing so, either through well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded advice like Alice Huang’s a few weeks ago, or through the outright attack on those who bring complaints about the harassment. It’s also difficult when so many of our institutions have steeped themselves in decades-long traditions that blur the boundary between work and personal lives, particularly when we forget that colleges and universities are not always the bastions of progressivism that the public sometimes thinks we are.
We need to think about these places and their traditions, and consider how an unexamined status quo can contribute to a larger environment that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked for years and that preserves and promotes a culture that thinks of women in positions of authority as merely objects to make fun of, not as leaders of institutions. Academe is part of a larger culture that promotes such objectification constantly, and I think it’s important to hear the voices of women who claim to have been marginalized or discriminated against, when those women are brave enough to come forward, and think about the legitimacy of those complaints. What seems like acceptable “good fun” to some people may seem unacceptable and hurtful to others, and their opinions and insights need to be considered.
Is there potential for abuse of Title IX or sexual harassment statutes as they currently exist? Of course. The potential for abuse of the system exists in any system. But even as we discuss the merits of Title IX complaints, we cannot forget the continuing problems that exist, those continuing problems that gave rise to the need for Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the first place.
These things are still happening, and we do ourselves and our students a grave disservice by cloaking them in the name of tradition and “good fun.”
The author, an assistant professor of English, no longer works at the institution described in this piece.
Point Park U recognizes a faculty union -- after 12 years and many battles. Could this be sign that NLRB has eroded power of a Supreme Court ruling that limited collective bargaining at private colleges?
It’s a widely noted fact that colleges and universities are under new pressure to justify their value and function. The same is true of tenure-track faculty members, who are at the heart of the higher education system whose benefits much of society now claims to find mysterious, and whose job security is increasingly criticized.
While colleges face criticism for converting most of their teaching posts to non-tenure-track status, they also face criticism for offering tenure to the rest. The final decision by the Wisconsin Legislature to weaken tenure and shared governance in the University of Wisconsin System teaches a lesson that should resonate beyond Wisconsin: the standard defense of tenure and shared governance isn’t good enough to address widespread skepticism about their public benefits.
Faculty members have gone as far as they can by pleading an academic exemption from the financial control and autocratic management that typify the U.S. workplace, crystallized in the power of summary dismissal. Faculty members now need to explain the value not only of their own job security but also of job security in the workforce as a whole. We will need to be much clearer about why tenure and shared governance enable core functions of the university and also of any productive, creative workplace.
I am aware of the dangers of this kind of escalation and expansion of what we’ve been taught are unpopular job protections. And yet academics can no longer defend tenure and shared governance as minority exemptions. We need to explain their principles and benefits for an overall workforce that has suffered from their absence -- and is now unmoved by our special pleading.
In the important case of Wisconsin, the state Legislature and governor have now passed and signed major qualifications of UW System tenure and governance, including student governance over the expenditures of their fees. One section introduces language legalizing layoffs of tenured faculty “due to budget or program decision,” and then offers a long, ornate set of procedures for dismissing tenured faculty as a result of pretty much any programmatic change. Another section eliminates statutory language that gives faculty members direct managerial authority in the university by vesting them “with responsibility for the immediate governance of [their] institution” while expecting them to “actively participate in institutional policy development." Though tenured faculty members aren’t yet living in the at-will employment utopia of the American right, where one can be fired without cause or due process, the plan makes them vulnerable to restructuring strategies that a range of commentators equate with making universities more efficient.
Since these proposals will now change UW significantly, and perhaps model changes in other states, what should faculty members do next?
The Typical Faculty Response
Let’s start with what faculty members usually do. The current state of the art was on display at a multicampus academic senate meeting in Madison where faculty members had gathered to discuss the situation. One much-admired intervention was delivered by Professor David J. Vanness, who argued that the weakening of tenure and of faculty governance threatened core academic activity:
"This is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. This is an issue of academic freedom. Freedom to discover and to teach new knowledge, regardless of whether it offends (or enriches) a specific business interest or political party …. If we allow ourselves to be led down this path laid out before us … there will be nobody left to 'follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.' We will sift where it is safe to sift. We will winnow where we are told to winnow. Our pace of discovery will slow and our reputation will falter."
I heartily agree. But I am already inside the academic consensus that the pursuit of truth requires intellectual freedom and professional self-governance. Since most people don’t enjoy either of these in their working or even their personal lives, they wouldn’t immediately see why empowering chancellors will hurt teaching or slow the pace of discovery.
Rather than revealing the inner workings and effects of tenure and shared governance, faculty members generally do three other things. We cast tenure and shared governance as constitutional principles beyond the legitimate reach of politics. We instrumentalize these practices in the name of competitive excellence. We put our defense in the hands of our university’s senior managers. Each of these three moves made sense at various times in the past, but they are now serious mistakes.
First, what happens when faculty present academic freedom as transcending politics? The question was brought home to me again by a good op-ed called “What is driving Scott Walker's war on Wisconsin universities?” The author, Saul Newton, an Army veteran studying at UW-Waukesha, discusses the conservative Bradley Foundation’s role in intellectualizing reasons to bring education to heel. He cites a 1994 article by the foundation’s president that, in Newton’s phrase, justified “demolishing public institutions, specifically public education.”
I followed Newton’s advice and read the Bradley Foundation article, whose ideas about K-12 governance are now being applied to public universities. I was struck by two features. First, the piece advanced a quasi-Foucauldian vision of society in which any group’s principles lie within society’s structures of power rather than outside them. “Educational policy is always and everywhere a profoundly political matter,” wrote foundation president Michael S. Joyce. Second, it defined its attack on an “exhausted” progressivism as a movement for democratic accountability: “If educational policy is finally and irrevocably political, then surely, in a self-governing polity, the people themselves are the source of educational policy -- not a distant bureaucracy.”
When Joyce moved on to demonize teachers for wielding the “political hegemony of the ‘helping and caring’ professionals and bureaucrats,” he did so in the name of restoring democracy. It doesn’t matter whether this framework is right or wrong (it’s wrong). Once it has been established, and faculty then defend tenure as a privilege of their intellectual status, they don’t rebut the right’s democratic critique but validate it. The democracy frame makes academic freedom look like a license to ignore public concerns rather than to engage them in dialogue from an independent position.
On the second error: university administrators and faculty alike predict that quality decline will follow any weakening of tenure. A group of distinguished chaired professors at UW-Madison stated that qualifying tenure would make the university “suffer significant competitive disadvantages.” Competitiveness is often measured in rankings shorthand: UW-Madison is 47th in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings this year, is among the top 15 among public universities, and has a large number of top-20 departments, all of which may fall in the rankings as they come to lose every contest for top candidates to peers with stronger tenure protections.
But how much would lowered rankings reduce faculty quality and public benefit? Top rankings mostly concern the Madison campus, and so involve only a minority of the students and faculty in the UW System. Politicians also know that hundreds of qualified people apply for every good tenure-track position, and thus assume that the UW system will still enjoy a surplus of excellent candidates. Wisconsin departments may have a harder time landing their top one or two picks who have offers from other major universities, but politicians may reasonably doubt that their third or fourth candidates will offer a noticeably lesser student experience.
More fundamentally, departmental or university stature is an inaccurate proxy for the competitiveness most people care about, which is the economic kind that raises the standard of living. Universities have constantly asserted their direct economic impact, and conservatives are taking this rhetoric literally. Thus an alleged blueprint for the Walker changes, a report called “Beyond the Ivory Tower” that was published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and authored by the longtime chancellor of UW-Stout, justifies its call for more flexible tenure and governance on the grounds that this will “help the UW System better fulfill its mission to help produce economic development.” University administrators agree that this is their mission, and STEM fields have benefited for decades from the emphasis on technological outputs, often at the expense of funding broad liberal arts-based capabilities. So faculty members’ talk of staying competitive encourages conservatives to ask UW to show them the money. In the U.S. business system, making money normally involves giving management a free hand over employees, thus hoisting professors on their own petard.
We arrive at the third faculty habit, in which a faculty assembly calls on senior managers for protection for tenure and shared governance. There are two issues here. One is the academic freedom to produce research even when its evidence contradicts the beliefs of politicians or business leaders, who then may seek to discredit the study, as recently happened in Wisconsin, by calling it “partisan, garbage research,” and/or by defunding an entire program, as happened in North Carolina. Senior managers often hang tough on this point, and defend the research autonomy of their faculty and their institution.
The other issue is direct faculty control over university policy that goes beyond offering nonbinding advice. I noted that the now-deleted Wisconsin statute expects faculty to be directly involved in “the immediate governance of [their] institution.” Governor Walker does not want this strong version of shared governance. But do System President Ray Cross or UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank? Careful Wisconsin faculty observers like Nicholas Fleisher, Richard Grusin and Chuck Rybak think not, and I can’t call to mind a senior manager who does want full co-governance with faculty.
In addition, UW’s senior managers have some history of efforts to increase their own authority. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noteman argue, former Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin’s “New Badger Partnership” sought to delete much state oversight over the university’s budgeting and human resources policies. The current UW administration continued the campaign under another name, even at the cost of accepting state funding cuts. Chancellor Blank told local television that the university could make up for cuts with more freedom from the state, if they just had more time. In other words, senior university managers de facto agreed with the core tenets of movement conservatism that state oversight lowers efficiency while executive authority increases it. Since so much of the conservative business position matched the university’s official position, the voting public could be forgiven for not seeing why the statute changes would affect faculty much.
General Public Benefits, Not Special Privileges
So what would motivate the wider public to fight for academic tenure and shared governance? To present them as general public benefits rather than as our special privileges.
To do this, we will need to undo each of the three mistakes I’ve described. First, rather than casting tenure and shared governance as necessary exceptions to normal workplace politics, we should define them as necessary to workplaces in general. Tenure is a simple idea: protection from the at-will employment practice of firing any employee without cause or due process. Tenure places an obligation on the employer not only to identify specific reasons for termination but to convince others of their validity.
Tenure doesn’t just protect academic freedom; it protects all employees’ investments in their skills, relationships, know-how, and commitment to their organization. I have always thought that tenure should appeal to conservatives, since it defends liberty by protecting one party against another’s arbitrary exercise of authority. Tea Partiers who accuse Barack Obama of being a dictator should logically favor limits on the lawful tyranny of the private sector supervisor. At the same time, Democrats should like generalized tenure for enabling a limited type of workplace democracy. A hundred years ago, the American Association of University Professors constructed academic freedom as the great exception to the autocratic managerialism of American business life. Faculty members will now need to promote workplace freedom from at-will dismissal as right for employees everywhere.
On the second mistake, of touting their competitiveness, faculty members should reject competition as a main driver of high-quality work. We enjoy top rankings and status as much as managers do, and yet in the long run they depend on research and teaching achievements that come from persistence, security, obtuseness, heretical thinking and collaboration. It’s not just that competition encourages wasteful duplication and intellectual imitation, but also that intellectual progress depends profoundly on complicated forms of cooperation among all kinds of people and expertise. Universities teach people to address massively complicated problems that require both individual originality and collaboration. The U.S. doesn’t have a competitiveness disadvantage: it has a collaborative disadvantage, and universities are needed more than ever to develop new kinds of collaborative capabilities. In addition, public universities help their regions, states and nations not by being better than other universities but by doing transformative work in the place they are and with the students they have. Faculty should help the American workplace move in the same direction.
The third mistake: instead of looking to senior management for defense, faculty members should look to employees in other workplaces in advocating democratic rather than autocratic organization. Until our current neo-Taylorist management revival, the efficiency of peer-to-peer self-management was widely understood. The uber-mainstream features the historian David Montgomery chronicling the contributions of indigenous and immigrant craft skill to 19th-century American industrialization, the management gurus Tom Peters and Robert Waterman advocating employee empowerment in their 1980s blockbuster In Search of Excellence, the sociologist Richard Sennett analyzing the centrality of mutually developed craft practices to effective work, and, in a backhanded way, the neoclassical economists now warning about the “skills gap,” since if top-down management were so great companies could simply boss their hirelings to competence.
Such research has established academic analogs, starting with peer review. Wisconsin faculty have pointed out that tenured faculty members must meet their own colleagues’ rigorous performance standards to get tenure and must then continue to satisfy them to progress. Another common academic practice is the combination of outcomes evaluation with freedom to organize everyday work. Although professionals have had an easier time claiming this right to direct their own work, to whom does this principle not apply? Everyone needs training and ongoing feedback, and everyone needs latitude to shape their own efforts.
The faculty’s central political problem is that their assertion of their tenure and governance rights is read as their tacit denial to everyone else. The problem starts with the “new faculty majority” of non-tenure-track professors on campus and spreads out from there. This sense of tenure as a special privilege (error one) is the cornerstone of the politically powerful stereotype of the elitist professors who proclaim their superiority to other people (error two) and can’t deal with regular people directly (error three). In making these mistakes, we have played into our opponents’ hands.
Rather than claiming academic freedom, tenure and fair governance as a special perk of our unique standing, we should hold them out as the general economic and social justice virtues that they are. Faculty have models of collaborative self-governance that we now rarely bother to develop, that we have allowed to serve an ever-smaller share of our colleagues, that are not taken seriously by many administrations, but that are designed to allow both intellectual originality and decent, honorable workplaces. Faculty must now model how shared governance, if spread to other workplaces, would improve society as a whole. And we are going to have to do it soon.