The letter arrived on my desk on the first day of my first year as head of Bard College at Simon's Rock. Four juniors and seniors, who claimed to speak for the student body at large, objected strongly to a new college policy -- and threatened a sit-in that Friday night if the administration did not respond satisfactorily to their demands.
The issue? Library hours. Students were upset by a plan to close the building on Saturdays.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Simon's Rock is an early college; we accept bright, highly motivated students after the 10th or 11th grades. We emphasize the life of the mind – and as I was about to be reminded, our students take learning seriously.
Like most colleges, especially small ones, Simon’s Rock tries to economize wherever we can without hurting our core mission. Following the departure of a library staff member, colleagues and I decided to close the facility on Saturdays, a day it typically sees light use. We thought it was an easy trim – students have plenty of other options for quiet study spaces on weekends.
The students who wrote had a very different notion. Their letter – thoughtfully composed, beautifully written, and cogently argued -- contended that the library was, in fact, a hub of college life. To close it on Saturdays, especially without having consulted students, would be a grievous mistake. The letter took pains to assure me that students understood the need for painful choices in uncertain financial times. The authors also made clear they intended their letter with great respect and hoped to enter into a dialogue with the administration about how best to serve the needs of the entire community.
And then it concluded with the statement that, if discussions did not lead to the library being open at least some of Saturday, the students were prepared to lead a peaceful sit-in on Friday evening.
I read the letter with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was delighted not just by the eloquence of students’ objection to the closure but also by the importance they attached to their cause. College students ready to sit in for more time in the library? Really? How could I object? After all, the enthusiasm for learning at Simon’s Rock is what made me want this job in the first place.
But I was also piqued that students had planned a sit-in even before asking for a meeting. Real dialogue is an honest conversation in which both parties are prepared to change their minds, not a negotiation coerced by a display of power.
The standoff, I’m happy to say, ended amicably after a few hasty conversations. The head of the library and the dean of academic affairs arranged for coverage of the library for five hours on Saturdays to begin the semester. In addition, I promised (in best administrative style) “to review the library’s role in the academic life of the campus as the semester proceeds and to modify this arrangement as necessity demands.” The authors of the letter called off the sit-in. The semester has begun without further incident.
I am glad that this first potential fracas resolved itself so cordially. And I have taken from the event a few lessons that will help guide my work in the months ahead.
Say yes when you can so you can say no when you have to. Leaders, especially new ones, should take every opportunity they can to bank goodwill.
It would have been inadvisable simply to reinstate the status quo and keep the library open all day Saturday. But it made great sense to find an inexpensive way to make the facility available for part of the day. There'll be other times when I have to refuse student requests.
Look for common ground not just in practice but in principle. Wrangling over details is no picnic, but it's easier if you can affirm shared goals. In my response to the students, I stressed my strong agreement with the conviction that inspired their letter: that the preservation of the academic program had to be our first priority. Even if students didn't get everything they wanted, they at least knew I sympathized with their point of view.
Remember that it’s not about you. A former colleague used to say that the best advice he got about leadership was “Don’t be the show.” He’s right. Sometimes you're at your best when you're seen and heard the least. A few days after I replied to the students who had written me, they announced they were discontinuing the sit-in. They also made their letter available to the faculty -- without including my response. At first, I was disappointed. No one would know I had said yes when I could; no one would realize I had sought common ground in principle as well as in practice! I soon realized, however, that none of that was relevant. What mattered is that the life of the college went on uninterrupted, and students were talking, thinking, reading and researching. Even on Saturdays.
Oh yes, and I learned one other, very important lesson from this first-day tempest. At Simon’s Rock, you don’t mess with the library.
Peter Laipson is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon's Rock.
When students took to the streets in Rome last November to demonstrate against proposed budget cuts to the university system, they introduced something new to the vocabulary of protest. To defend themselves from police truncheons they carried improvised shields made of polystyrene, painted, on the front, with the names of classic works of literature and philosophy: Moby Dick, The Republic, Don Quixote, A Thousand Plateaus…. The practice caught on. A couple of weeks later, another “Book Bloc” appeared in London as students and public-sector workers demonstrated against rising tuition.
By the time an enormous anti-Berlusconi protest took place in Rome on December 14, a group of Italian faculty members had decided on a syllabus of 20 titles worth carrying into battle. It’s all over the place: The Odyssey and Fahrenheit 451, Spinoza’s Ethics and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Foucault and Fight Club. And so when the forces of law and order descended on the protesters, swinging, it was a visual allegory of culture in the age of austerity -- budget-cutting raining blows on the life of the mind, though also, perhaps, the canon as defensive weapon.
The full list of works suggested by the wonderfully named Network of Rebel Faculty appears in Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, a collection of articles and images edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri; it was published by Verso in England earlier this year, and is appearing in the U.S. just now. Solomon was president of the student union at the University of London during the protests last year; the introduction, dated from January, has the feel of something written with the adrenaline and endorphins still flowing. Some of the pieces at the end of the book narrate and analyze the then-breaking developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria. In addition to sections on France and Greece, there are documents and analyses from the student protests in California during the 2009-1010 academic year.
The effect is less that of an anthology than of a scrapbook -- with articles, photographs, and street posters taped in alongside printouts of Twitter exchanges and (every so often) excerpts from accounts of student protests from the late 1960s that tend to be jarringly inapposite. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as somebody once pointed out. “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The relevance of the slogans of 1968 (with their assumptions about alienation amid growing affluence and free time) is now just about nil. Maybe we should forget them for a while. The student protests of the past two years have resembled wildcat strikes or factory occupations more than reenactments of the Free Speech Movement or Vietnam-era teach-ins.
That’s no accident. The role of the economic crisis in precipitating university unrest -- whether through rising postsecondary fees, shrinking job markets, or the inability of sudden fragility of neoliberalized states (unable to preserve social order through coercion alone but unwilling to shore up social services by raising taxes) -- seems clear enough.
In an e-mail exchange with Solomon, I asked if the world situation since the financial heart attack of 2008 were creating a shared ideology or a set of demands among student protesters.
“The general demands of the youth and student movements, are not necessarily codified,” she responded, “but they are quite clear. Firstly, there’s a cry of anger. Society has prospered, but now asks them to pay for the crisis and so often ignores their voices. The increasing marketization and cost of education, lack of post-education jobs and opportunities, ever-increasing living and housing costs, are forcing young people onto the unemployment lines, keeping them living with their parents longer and with little disposable income to enjoy life. Parts of society and government continue to demonize and vilify young people as dangerous and 'other,' as almost outside of accepted society.”
Part of the dissatisfaction -- at least as reflected in the sections of the book on European protests -- comes from the rise of “the enterprise university” as credentialing agency for a labor market that is constantly in flux. One chapter of Springtime, “The Factory of Precarious Workers” by Giulio Calella, says that recent reforms in Italy “would transform the university into a location for so-called permanent training” while “promoting competition among universities in order to put pressure on lecturers to increase productivity” and assessing every element of academic life as a “relationship between input and output” geared to maximum “customer satisfaction.”
Here an American idiom occurs to the American reader: “Yeah, tell me about it.” But Calella is anything but resigned to the situation he describes, and ardent in his protest at the narrowing of the pedagogical horizon:
“The slogan of the old university's professor, according to which anyone who entered the university was a ‘scholar, not a student,’ has been buried under the super-professional labels of the new laurea degree courses; the frantic pace imposed on full-time students; continuous assessments; bibliographies made of textbooks; and a de facto trimester system which impedes any attempt by the student to familiarize himself or herself with the subject, and therefore to develop any kind of critical approach to it. This is a deskilled and devalued pedagogy, the engine of a factory that produces precarious workers and fragments knowledge production by amplifying its specialized and partial character.”
Clare Solomon registered much the same complaint in our exchange. “We want a new type of education,” she wrote, “not just faceless, corporate entities pandering to the 'employability agenda' at the expense of real co-produced education. So this is more than just protest against rising fees.”
It’s tempting to quote a good deal more from Springtime, which will probably be a popular book among some layers of the student body over the next year. And the particular combination of issues it raises should earn it some attention from faculty as well. Despite the occasional nod to Boomer nostalgia (the lyrics to "Street Fighting Man" in Mick Jagger's handwriting, for example), the collection is really defined by a very contemporary overlap of problems: the economic pressures on all levels of education, on the one hand; and the difficulty of defining education's social value when the labor market can’t absorb many new graduates, on the other. (“A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors,” in the words of an acerbic pamphlet from the California protests.)
But as much as anything else, I hope that readers will focus on the pages devoted to the Book Bloc, which include photographs of its various incarnations at a number of protests. “Books are our tools,” reads a statement from Art Against Cuts, a British group; “we teach with them, we learn with them, we play with them, we create with them, we make love with them and, sometimes, we must fight with them.” There is a vitality to this formulation that is anything but bookish. It involves a sense of culture as an active process -- a verb you practice, rather than a noun you accumulate. And respect for one’s tools is, after all, the prerequisite for any education worthy of the name.
There will be a meeting tonight in Washington to celebrate the life of James Weinstein, the radical historian and publisher who died in Chicago last Thursday. The news was by no means unexpected. But the gathering is impromptu, and it will probably be small.
I suppose one thing we will all have in common is an inability to refer to the deceased as "James Weinstein." He was Jimmy. It's a fair guess that the turnout will include union organizers and progressive lobbyists and a few journalists. There will undoubtedly be an academic or two -- or several, if you count the defrocked, the ABD's, and the folks who otherwise decided (contra David Horowitz) that university life is not necessarily conducive to being a leftist.
Many people know that Weinstein's book The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (first published in 1967 and reprinted by Rutgers University Press in 1984) started out as his dissertation. After all this time, it remains a landmark work in the scholarship on U.S. radicalism. But only this weekend, in talking with a mutual friend, did I learn that he never actually bothered to get the Ph.D.
Diagnosed with brain cancer, Jimmy spent the final weeks of his life in bed at home. He gave a series of interviews to Miles Harvey, an author and former managing editor at In These Times, the progressive magazine that Jimmy founded. The body of reminiscences is now being transcribed, and will join the collection of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University.
"We both knew we were in a race against time," Miles said when we talked by phone over the weekend. "We mined a lot of interesting stuff. Jimmy was the Zelig of the American left."
The son of a prosperous businessman, he worked for years in electronics factories as a rank-and-file Communist union member. One of his anecdotes from that era is something of a legend -- has become, even, a part of history. One day a comrade asked Jimmy to give a ride to a taciturn fellow doing party business of an undisclosed nature. A few years later, he recognized the passenger as Julius Rosenberg. (Suffice it to say that Weinstein's future biographer will probably find a day-by-day account of his life during the early 1950s in the FBI surveillance files.)
Jimmy left the party in 1956, as part of a major exodus in the wake of Khrushchev's denunciation of the crimes of Stalin. He was never apologetic about his membership. But neither was he even slightly sentimental about it.
Well before massive documentation from the Russian archives settled the question, he dismissed the arguments of those who insisted that the American CP and the Soviet spy apparatus in the U.S. had to be considered as completely distinct entities. Any good party member would have been glad to help out, he said: "We would have considered it an honor." (Jimmy himself never received that distinction. According to Miles Harvey, the request that he chauffeur Julius Rosenberg has less to do with Jimmy's reliability as a revolutionary than it did with the fact that he was one of the Communists on hand who owned a car.)
The fact that he once said this at a public event, where non-leftists could hear him -- and that he did so during the Reagan administration, no less -- is still held against him in some circles.
The usual pattern, of course, is to abandon a rigid, dogmatic political ideology -- and then to adopt another one. People spend entire careers boldly denouncing other people for their own previous mistakes. It's easy work, and the market for it is steady.
Jimmy followed a different course. To begin with, he had never been all that keen on the ideological nuances of the Communist movement. He certainly knew his Marx and Lenin from studying at the party's famous Jefferson School of Social Science, in New York. But somehow the doctrinal points counted less than what he'd picked up from all those years as a union activist. At least that's the impression of his friend Jim McNeill, another former managing editor at In These Times. (McNeill, who is now an organizer for the Service Employees International Union.)
Nearing 30, Weinstein decided to go to graduate school to study history; and his instinct was to dig into an earlier period of American radicalism -- when it spoke an idiom that was much less purely Marxist, and a lot more influential. Up through World War I, the Socialists successfully fielded candidates in local elections and even get the occasional member into Congress. And Eugene Debs, a figure beloved even by those who didn't share his vision of the proletarian commonwealth, could win nearly a million votes for president while imprisoned for an antiwar speech.
Weinstein's research was, in short, a glimpse of an alternative that had been lost. It wasn't simply a matter of government repression, either. There were streaks of doctrinal puritanism, of apocalyptic revolutionism, that eventually proved corrosive. "In large part," as he later put it, "the failure of the American left has been internal." (Whether or not he made the connection isn't clear, but his own experience in the CP would tend to confirm this. As bad as McCarthyism had been for the party, members started quitting en masse once they had to face the truth about Stalin.)
Boiled down, his conclusions amounted to a demand for a major upheaval in the culture of the left. What it needed for the long term, in effect, was a healthy dose of pragmatism. It would also mean learning to think of reforms as part of the process of undermining the power of the profit system -- rather than implicitly seeing reforms as, at best, a kind of compromise with capitalism.
Had he done only that initial study of the Socialist Party (finished in 1962, though only published five years later), Jimmy Weinstein would merit a small but honorable spot in the history of the American left. But in fact he did a lot more.
Today's academic left is very much a star system. Jimmy never had a place in it. If that bothered him, he did a good job of keeping quiet about it. But just for the record, it's worth mentioning that he was present at the creation.
He was part of the group in Madison, Wisconsin that published Studies on the Left between 1959 and 1967. It was the first scholarly journal of Marxist analysis to appear in the United States since at least the end of World War II, and an important point of connection between the American New Left and international currents in radical thought. (The first translation of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," for example, appeared in Studies.)
Jimmy's brief memoir of this period can be found in a volume edited by the radical historian Paul Buhle called History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950-1970 (Temple University Press, 1990). There has long been a tendency to treat the intellectual history of the American left as unfolding primarily in New York City. This is understandable, in some ways, but it introduces gross distortions. It's worth remembering that one of the major publications serving to revitalize radical scholarship was the product of a group of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. It appears that Buhle's anthology is now out of print. But what's more surprising, I think, is that more research hasn't been done on "the Madison intellectuals" in the meantime.
In keeping with Miles Harvey's characterization of Weinstein as "the Zelig of the American left," we next find him at the Chicago convention of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. That was the one where -- just as the antiwar movement was starting to get a hearing on Main Street USA -- rival factions waved copies of the Little Red Book in the air and expelled one another. (Want evidence that the left's deepest wounds are self-inflicted? There you go.)
Repelled by the wild-eyed hysteria and terrorist romanticism of the Weather Underground (of which, one of his cousins was a member), Jimmy helped start another journal, Socialist Revolution, which was always more cerebral than its up-against-the-wall title might suggest. In 1978, it changed its name to Socialist Review. (This abandonment of "revolution" inspired a certain amount of hand-wringing in some quarters.) It was the venue where, in 1985, Donna Haraway first published her "Cyborg Manifesto." For years afterward, the rumor went around that SR was about to drop "Socialist" from its title, to be replaced by "Postmodern." But in fact it continues now as Radical Society -- a distant descendant of its ancestor, by now, though it still bears a family resemblance to the publications that Jimmy worked on long ago.
Jimmy's last major venture as a publisher -- the culmination of his dream of converting the lessons of radical history into something practical and effective, here and now -- was In These Times, which started as a newspaper in 1976 and turned into a magazine sometime around 1990. A collection of articles from the magazine's first quarter century appeared in 2002 as the book Appeal to Reason -- a title echoing the name of the most widely circulated newspaper of the old Socialist Party.
Pat Aufderheide, now a professor of communications at American University, was ITT's culture editor from 1978 through 1982. She writes about the experience in her book The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). A whole generation of people were entranced by the countercultural idea that "the personal is the political" -- or its academic doppelganger, the Foucauldian notion that power was everywhere and inescapable. These were recipes, she notes, for "self-marginalization and political fundamentalism" on the left.
"For In These Times," writes Aufderheide, "politics is the prosaic complex of institutions, structures and actions through which people organize consciously for social change.... Richard Rorty would put it in the reformist left category. It is read largely by leftists who do organizing or other practical political work, through labor unions, universities and schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and local and regional government. These are smart people, many of whom are not intellectuals, and who mostly come home late and tired."
The importance of reaching that public -- indeed, the very possibility of doing so -- tends to be overlooked by many people engaged in left-wing academic discourse. ("Our comrades in armchairs," as activists sometimes put it.)
In her book, Aufderheide recalls dealing with "a vocal contingent of academics" who were "always ready to pounce on lack of subtlety, creeping cheerleading, or sentimentality" in the magazine's cultural coverage. "Their critical acuteness, however, often seemed exercised for the satisfaction of intellectual one-upmanship," she writes. "When I begged them to write, to point me to other writers, to serve on the board, there was almost always a stunned silence."
The problem is self-perpetuating, Perhaps it comes down to a lack of good examples. And in that regard, Jimmy's death is more than a personal loss to his friends and family.
It's worth mentioning that, along the way, he wrote a number of other books, with The Long Detour: The History and Failure of the American Left (Westview, 2003) being his last. It was also his favorite, according to Miles Harvey, whose series of deathbed interviews will, in time, serve as the starting point for some historical researcher who has perhaps not yet heard of James Weinstein.
To be candid, I didn't care for his final book quite as much as the one he published in 1975 called Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics. The books are similar in a lot of ways. I'm not sure that my preference for one over the other is entirely defensible.
But it was Ambiguous Legacy that Jimmy inscribed when we met, about 10 years ago. My copy of his first book, the one on the Socialist Party, he dedicated "with hope for our future." Only later did I look at the other volume. Beneath the greeting -- and before his signature -- he wrote: "The legacy is more ambiguous than ever."
Scott McLemee was a contributing editor for In These Times between 1995 and 2001. His column Intellectual Affairs appears here on each Tuesday and Thursday.
My younger brother celebrated his first birthday at a campus protest. It was 1988, and my Mom, a Gallaudet University graduate, had been following the growing student movement to demand a deaf president at her alma mater. She couldn’t stand being 400 miles away, in Rochester, N.Y. So never mind that my youngest brother was still nursing. She took him with her, and joined the Deaf President Now movement.
I’m not sure when I first learned of the movement. But I can’t remember not knowing I. King Jordan -- the president whose appointment was the result of that movement -- as a symbol of what was possible for me. My mother told me stories, and I grew up with Gallaudet. There was no other university for me. I’m the fourth generation in my family to be born deaf, and the third to attend Gallaudet.
I’m a senior so I should have been spending this week celebrating (when not studying for my last round of finals). Instead I’ve been protesting, with hundreds of my fellow students, over the appointment of Jordan’s successor. It’s difficult to explain to the outside world just what we’re doing, and granted it’s difficult to understand. After all, the trustees picked a deaf woman, who has spent much of her career at Gallaudet. What’s all the fuss about?
To best understand what’s happening now, you need to know that the Gallaudet I grew up with is not the Gallaudet I am graduating from. Whereas going to Gallaudet and demanding a deaf president were once part of simply affirming our pride in ourselves and our right to basic human needs, students want more today. In fact, some deaf students don’t even want to attend Gallaudet or the deaf high schools most of us attended because a range of opportunities are now available elsewhere. Many of those opportunities exist because of civil rights laws for people with disabilities -- laws the Deaf President Now movement had a hand in getting enacted.
But that doesn’t mean Gallaudet’s historic role isn’t part of why people care so much. The university matters to the millions of deaf people around the world who have never visited it, who can only dream of enrolling in what is widely considered the “Deaf Mecca.” That’s no surprise when you consider that more than 80 percent of all deaf people in the world who have college degrees earned them at Gallaudet. Because of the hereditary link to some forms of deafness, many deaf people are like me, from deaf families, allowing us to share a passion that comes when so many of those you are closest to grew up with the same experience.
Jordan isn’t just a college president, but is a spokesman for deaf men and women around the world. The board that needed to be pressured into promoting him never assigned him that role, but it came about naturally because of the Deaf President Now movement. When he announced his retirement after 18 years, word shot around the globe in minutes. Everybody wanted a say in who is going to replace King, the man who lived up to his name.
There’s no doubt that with the departure of Jordan, Gallaudet will assume a new direction. In the 18 years since Deaf President Now, we’ve shown the world that deaf people are in fact capable of doing anything except hearing. That’s the Catch-22. DPN made it possible for deaf students to go to any college in the United States and be successful. Gallaudet has stayed symbolic, inspiring those who go to Princeton, but not always attracting those same students. We have always been the best deaf university in the world, because competition is so thin. But we’re not satisfied with that. We want the best and brightest students, the ones who now have educational opportunities that were never available before. And that’s why we need a president with all the right qualities, not just someone who shares our deafness.
When the board selected Jordan in 1988, students were thrilled that a deaf educator got the job. But the reality is that they didn’t know what kind of president he’d become. My mother took his psychology class in 1973, and could never fathom him becoming president some day. Fortunately, Jordan did just the kinds of things that presidents are expected to do (and that people previously assumed deaf people couldn’t do): He raised money, he oversaw huge endowment growth, he presided over the planning of new facilities, he dealt with campus controversies -- making both popular and unpopular decisions. In the end though, he was as good as advertised. Jordan’s tenure as president will always be marked by the history made with his appointment, but it also is marked by normalcy – by Jordan doing what presidents do.
And that’s what people are missing about the protests this week. They aren’t about us reliving Deaf President Now, trying to get our 15 minutes. The protests are about concerns we have that are just like those of other students at other campuses. On many campuses these days, students feel disconnected from trustees and from decision-making, and that -- in the end -- is what’s going on here. Jane Fernandes, whom the board selected as president, has served as provost for the last six years. There are no doubt better candidates for the position in our eyes. But what truly is upsetting is that students weren’t listened to at all. We were stunned by the decision -- and started the protests -- because an extensive system had been set up to seek our views, and we provided them. Then we were ignored. Sadly, the trustees’ willingness to only pay lip service to student opinions is not at all unique to our university.
Part of what is unique to Gallaudet is the role of its president well beyond its campus. When Lawrence Summers said some foolish things about women, he didn’t bring down the reputation of all colleges and universities. People said Harvard had a bad president, they didn’t stop paying attention to academe. One of the reasons we are concerned about Fernandes (who is not a bad person) is that she’s an administrator, not a leader. We don’t have the luxury of just going with someone who knows how to balance a budget -- we need more. We need someone who -- like Jordan -- knows everyone on campus and their families, and who can be eloquent with the media, politicians, and philanthropists. Someone who can navigate the tough issues we face – of how to attract students and define our institution’s mission in an ever changing world. In an era when people talk about “cures” for deafness, when deaf students can demand sign interpreters to go to any institution, when technology has created huge new opportunities for the deaf, Gallaudet is at a turning point.
And here too, what we want now is different from what Deaf President Now was pushing for. After 1988, we told ourselves that Gallaudet would never again see a hearing president, and only now are we able to affirm that sentiment. But with the advances of the last 18 years, deafness alone isn’t enough. We want the same kind of “good fit” that all colleges need in a president. And to say that we should be happy to have a deaf president is insulting. If Harvard makes a bad choice for president and students protest, you won’t see people saying, “Well they should just be happy that the president can hear.” Actually I’d like to see our provost considered for a presidency elsewhere, where her particular skill set would be a better fit. And I’d be proud of her for achieving such a high post in a hearing world.
Those still trying to make sense of our protests should understand that what is happening is part of a broader social movement. Gallaudet is a microcosm of colleges everywhere, where students are growing increasingly tired of being ignored. (Just witness students forcing change at the University of Miami over how their janitors are treated or at many institutions over investment in Sudan.) Keep in mind that this isn’t just Gallaudet. But the source of our passion?
It is Gallaudet.
Anthony Mowl graduates from Gallaudet University this month with a degree in English. He is the former editor in chief of The Buff and Blue, the student paper.
Two years ago -- before David Horowitz, the Academic Bill of Rights, and other pressure points on political and ideological bias made the topic such a hot one -- we were speaking at a national conference in Washington about a study that we are now just finishing. The study is called the Political Engagement Project and examines 21 undergraduate courses and programs that aim to strengthen the understanding, the skills, and the motivation needed to be politically engaged citizens.
As a way to make the work in these courses and programs come alive, we told what we thought was a compelling story about a Duke University student in one of the programs, called Service Opportunities in Leadership. The student interned in a New York City textile workers union, and subsequently helped organize Students Against Sweatshops at Duke, which led to a new code of conduct for Duke licensees, the first in the country.
We finished the talk at the national conference that included this tale, turned to questions, and were faced with this one at the outset. “What,” the questioner asked, “does the Duke program do to ensure that conservative students have opportunities if they want to work in businesses or with conservative political or Christian organizations for their summer internships? Why,” the questioner went on, “did you refer only to a liberal group and not a conservative one?”
The question was a good one, and it forced us to stop and think, not just on the podium, but for some time thereafter. Fortunately, the program leader was in the audience, and she was able to say that she did make special efforts to ensure a range of internship opportunities, including some with conservative organizations. The question caught us off guard, however, and caused us to reflect hard on issues of ideological and political bias. Without intending to do so, we had implied that working in a union and protesting sweatshops were ideological prototypes of the kinds of political engagement that we were promoting. We should have used some other examples as well, and we should have explicitly addressed the issues involved in encouraging student political engagement without promoting particular ideologies or political positions.
We have come to see those issues as critical, and we are addressing them at length in a book on educating for political engagement, to be published by Jossey-Bass. In that book, we encourage colleges to make education for political development an explicit goal for undergraduate learning and suggest ways to accomplish that goal. We underscore that, in order for this agenda to be legitimate, it is crucial to create a harmonious relationship between the political development goals we are advocating and the special character and core values of higher education. These values include academic freedom, norms of faculty professionalism, standards of intellectual discourse, open-mindedness, and civility.
Academic freedom implies that, within the boundaries of departmental and institutional needs, it is up to professors to determine the specific goals and content of the courses they teach and to decide what material and assignments will best accomplish those goals. This includes making judgments about whether and how to address controversial issues in whatever domains are relevant to the course, including political and public policy issues.
But academic freedom is not unlimited. It is bounded by another central cluster of academic values, which establish standards for both scholarship and teaching. These standards represent a shared understanding of academic discourse as requiring reasoned justification of claims, presentation of evidence, and consideration of plausible alternative explanations of the evidence and of objections to proposed interpretations. When education for political development is introduced into academic coursework, it must conform to these standards -- just like any other subject matter is.
In this way, academically based education for political development contrasts sharply with political advertising and with much informal political discourse in everyday life. Often those non-academic forms of political “education” use all available means to achieve their goals, whereas education for political understanding in the academy has to be shaped by reasoned argument, warrant or evidence for one’s views, consideration of alternative points of view, and a knowledge base that is as free of ideological bias as possible. In good teaching, faculty members back up their claims and assertions and take seriously alternative points of view for which a credible case can be made. In a course on U.S. immigration policy, for example, a professor may offer evidence that undocumented workers in this country do not take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal aliens, but he or she should also expose students to the views of economists who have a different view. The responsibility to teach in conformity with standards of academic discourse also means that students are free to put forward ideas that conflict with positions taken by the faculty member, and those ideas will be judged on their merits.
Open-mindedness and respect for multiple (credible) points of view are important in all teaching and are especially critical when teaching for political understanding and engagement. Faculty members ought to help their students develop a quality of openness to new ideas as well as the capacity to make and evaluate arguments and justifications for their own and others’ positions. These two goals are linked, since students need some basis on which to make judgments about the new ideas they are considering.
When courses involve serious engagement with provocative ideas and multiple perspectives on controversial topics, students’ views are likely to differ sharply from each other or from the teacher’s point of view. Maintaining a respectful and civil tone in this kind of discussion is another hallmark of the best academically based political communication, which unfortunately contrasts boldly with much political communication outside (and even sometimes inside) the academy.
Leaders at every university agree that educating students in the practice of open-minded inquiry is a key component of undergraduate education, and most recognize that political issues cannot and should not be excluded from the mix. But creating a classroom and wider campus climate that is truly open to multiple perspectives on contested political issues is not easy to accomplish. One strategy for achieving this that has received a great deal of media attention in the past year or two is a call for legislation that would require colleges and universities to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights." We believe this legislative strategy is seriously misguided. Perhaps most importantly, this kind of legislation threatens the time-honored freedom of academic institutions from outside political interference. Furthermore, we do not believe that a legislative solution will work. The problem with a legislative approach to ensuring open inquiry is that it casts the issue in negative terms, as a matter of policing the faculty -- and the campus more broadly -- to stamp out “indoctrination.” Given the complexity and ambiguity of both political and academic discourse, this kind of policing would be impossible to implement objectively. And cast in negative terms, the effort itself would be destructive to the goal of civil discourse across ideological boundaries. By contrast, a positive approach, in which administration, faculty, and students from different political perspectives join together to develop strategies for the positive pursuit of open inquiry, can itself contribute to a climate of open mindedness, respect, and cooperation.
On the campus level, faculty and administrative leaders should be self-conscious in raising the values of open-mindedness, civility, diversity of perspective, and judgment grounded in intellectual standards, fostering conversation about what these values mean, why they are important, and what they imply for higher education both inside and outside the classroom. Conversations should address the implications of these values for political discourse on campus, as well as for academic discourse more broadly.
Campus life offers many opportunities to foster political understanding and engagement in ways that embody these key values of the academic enterprise. Materials sent to newly admitted students, for example, should set an expectation that the campus will be a community of discourse and that students will be exposed to diverse opinions about many issues, including political issues.
Another place for establishing a campus-wide respect for diversity of opinion is in the choice of campus speakers and in guidelines for their treatment. Depending upon the issues being addressed, it can be particularly useful to sponsor sessions in which participants engage in deliberation about important issues, addressing not “both sides” of the issues but multiple sides. It is often valuable for these events to draw attention to the fact that many issues, such as immigration policy generate many different perspectives within as well as across political parties. Invited guests should also include those who represent positions and accomplishments that are hard to classify on a simple left-right dimension. If campuses want to foster respect for diversity of perspective, speakers should also include respected exemplars of open-mindedness and civility who (despite their own convictions at one or another point on the political scale) truly believe that effective, engaged citizens need to be skilled at communicating and forming alliances with people whose perspectives are different from their own. This might include, for example, a conversation among Democratic and Republican elected officials about the importance of bipartisanship. In a recent radio interview, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy talked eloquently about the productive collaborations he has pursued with Republicans such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain. He points out that “even though you differ one time, you try and find ways of working [together] at another. And I think unless you have that kind of temperament, if you’re just going to get upset with somebody that’s going to oppose you, you’re in the wrong business.” Surely Senators Hatch and McCain would agree.
As important as it is to strengthen norms of open mindedness, intellectual pluralism, and civility at the campus level, if faculty members who address political issues in their courses do not ground their teaching in those norms, the wider invocations will ring hollow. This is not easy to accomplish, and seldom happens without conscious effort. Even the best teachers can sometimes be unaware of ideological biases that limit the breadth and openness of discourse in their courses. Professors should plan ahead to ensure that students encounter a wide array of credible perspectives in assigned readings on the political and public policy issues addressed by their courses. Bringing invited speakers into the classroom is another engaging and vivid way to represent and stimulate discussion of diverse political perspectives that may not otherwise be represented.
In deciding the range of perspectives needed, much depends on the particular course and its context. We see nothing wrong with a course on the Marxist interpretation of history, but it should not be the only history course open to students. It is not surprising to find pro-business courses in business schools and pro-labor courses in labor-studies departments. But students should understand clearly what those courses are about and what perspectives are being offered, and faculty should root their analyses in reason and evidence not in unexamined political or ideological assumptions. Especially in general education courses, care should be taken to ensure multiple ideological lenses are used and that none are championed as having a monopoly on truth.
Of course, diversity of opinion can come from students as well, and professors need to be mindful to draw out and support students who express minority positions. Faculty members should also establish standards for civility, while acknowledging that some degree of conflict is unavoidable when talking about issues that evoke strong emotions. Establishing a sense of community in the group can be extremely valuable in allowing students to engage vigorously without causing or taking offense. In the process of engaging across differences of opinion, students can learn to overcome the polarization and demonization of the opposition that often seem to characterize contemporary electoral politics.
Faculty members who teach for political understanding and engagement often struggle with the question of whether concealing or revealing to students their own political beliefs would best uphold norms of professionalism, including the careful avoidance of even the appearance of proselytizing. Some feel that it is preferable for a number of reasons for them to tell students where they stand on the issues and why. This decision is based in a desire to model the process of taking and justifying a position and to be honest about their own beliefs and possible biases. Others prefer to keep their political opinions to themselves, believing that neutrality on their part will be more conducive to a climate that is open to multiple points of view. We believe that either choice is consistent with an open classroom climate as long as faculty members provide and encourage multiple perspectives, including those with which they personally disagree, and take care not to impose their views on students.
The key is to teach students to engage differences of opinion, to evaluate arguments, and to form their own opinions based on the best available evidence. To develop their own critical judgment -- and judgment is key -- students need the freedom to express their ideas publicly as well as repeated opportunities to explore a wide range of insights and perspectives. But students do not have a right to be free from troubling questions that may challenge the assumptions and beliefs they bring to the class. To the contrary, that tough questioning of unexamined assumptions is an essential part of a good undergraduate education in all domains.
These are difficult challenges. It is absolutely essential that we not take the easy road and eliminate or even dampen discussion of political issues on our campuses. To the contrary, we need to promote thoughtful inquiry about those issues. We need to prepare our students to grapple with complex public-policy concerns. They will be the stewards of our democracy.
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich are senior scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.Â
The Inside Higher Ed report on the suicide of University of California at Santa Cruz's chancellor, Denice Denton, describes an incident in which a number of Santa Cruz students trapped Denton in her car, releasing her only after they had performed and she had watched their skit about racism. This little bit of academic theater/terrorism preceded her death by just a few weeks.
Surely, these students' behavior is unusual in peacetime. How does one account for it? The answer may be that college presidents, like medieval kings, represent not only individual humanity but also the bodies/institutions that they head. Hamlet refers to this concept when he says, "The body is with the king but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing."
Likewise, the president of a university or college is a thing, a situation that allows students, faculty members, and parents to focus on college presidents their disappointments, suspicions, and fears in regard to the institutions in which they earn their livelihoods, degrees, or to which they pay tuition. Because they are symbols of power, mere things, college presidents are not recognized as having feelings or basic human rights. As did Denice Denton, they find themselves dehumanized. Who among us can survive this kind of treatment unscathed?
Most of the women and men who become college presidents have already been through the crucible of other executive positions in which they have become both more and less than a human being. Unfortunately, Denton's time in the trenches may have been a bit limited. No doubt disputes in engineering schools can get ugly, but the dean is not being shot at from all directions as is a provost, a secretary of education, or a White Houseaide.
Picture one of Denton's nemeses -- Lawrence Summers, who was hounded out of office by professors and students, and whose employer, the Harvard Corporation, let his hounding out happen. Working in the famously embattled Clinton administration must have helped prepare Summers for all kinds of assaults. Still, the kind of devaluing language that, for instance, then-Dean Denton directed at him after he spoke about women and science -- "Here was this economist lecturing pompously to this room full of the country's most accomplished scholars on women's issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day" -- must have been a bit galling to Summers, if not actually hurtful. Apparently, like most others, Denton was unable to see that the president has two bodies -- his own and his institution's, and that the former when pricked does bleed.
A small number of college presidents, when criticized remorselessly, do seem to fold --at least temporarily. Neil Rudenstine, another former Harvard president, is one of the most cited of these unfortunates. But for every college president who publicly suffers, there are a hundred or so who take their licks, and suffer in private.
My own former boss, president of the University of Virginia, John Casteen, recently took a few verbal beatings from students and faculty members who were advocating for a higher minimum wage at the university. During negotiations, witnesses report that language was used by students and directed at Casteen that one might normally hear in a bar fight. Casteen himself, in a letter in the alumni newsletter, reports some bad behavior indeed:
"Our protesters posted the [president's home] number on Web sites, and urged allies to call it day and night. After some 10 nights of obscene and threatening calls, and specifically after eight cell phone calls from the porch of Madison Hall between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m., hours when the callers knew I was in the building because they saw me through windows, but when [my wife] Betsy was at home, I gave up. The number is still in the book, but calls now go to the university police, who provide help as needed."
Being the head of an academic body may require a college president to put up with the guerilla tactics of those who see you as Darth Vader. It also requires that you hear the legitimate protests of your vast constituency. However, a college president might think that his or her bosses, trustees of the university, might speak up in his or her defense, when attacks become ad hominem and violate your personal integrity and rights.
Trustees apparently did not voice support when Summers was being vilified, when Denton was being entertained by street theater, or when Casteen was being subjected to harassment at the hands of his student and faculty opponents. Surely, having one's bosses stand by while you twist in the wind must be an insult as cutting as any delivered at the hands of student and faculty street warriors. I guess this is why college presidents get paid thebig bucks.
Margaret G. Klosko
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.