Drexel University has followed Trinity College in Connecticut and others down the dead end of suspending a tenured faculty member -- this time, George Ciccariello-Maher -- for extramural speech. The term they used was “administrative leave” and the rationale was that his presence on the campus “poses a significant public safety risk to the Drexel University community.” The American Association of University Professors notified Drexel’s provost that it regards this as a suspension that did not comply with due process standards. Ciccariello-Maher remains in limbo, being paid but prevented from teaching his courses.
In addition to its negative impact on this professor and his students, the suspension makes things worse for campus debates and for campuses themselves. Here’s a quick scorecard, followed by an analysis of the larger context.
Academic freedom? Drexel managers didn’t defend it. They acted as though it is subject to unilateral administrative limits, which will further encourage internet trolls to call for its restriction.
Safety? Faculty suspension doesn’t increase anyone’s safety, including Ciccariello-Maher’s. Drexel has now made him look like a more legitimate target by putting him in the wrong.
Satisfying the volatile right? This will seem to them like a slap on the wrist, which will egg them on.
Getting closure on the controversy? The suspension of a tenured faculty member made Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets into national news.
Drexel’s leaders were most likely engaging in risk management and brand management. They failed on both counts. If there is an actual danger to some person or group’s physical safety, then officials should call in the police or other investigators. The blanket banning of a professor from the classroom doesn’t increase campus safety.
Similarly, Drexel officials didn’t protect but exposed their brand to Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets by suspending him. It would have been smarter to separate his tweets from their brand by identifying them as “extramural speech.” They could have invoked the AAUP’s guidelines covering such cases, in which a professor expresses an “opinion as a citizen.” The guideline states that such expression “cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve.” That in turn can only be found through a due-process inquiry by academe’s version of a jury of one’s peers, a faculty committee. Drexel would then have said, “Twitter is a medium of ‘extramural speech,’ in which everyone sounds off on all sorts of things. Faculty may use social media to make expert comments or to comment as nonexpert citizens. We ignore our personnel’s tweets even when we think they are wrong, offensive or stupid. The only exceptions are when an utterance violates a law or poses a clear threat. (And here is our list of clearly defined threats.)”
This would have protected the university and the threatened professor by making sure the public knew their professor was very much in the university fold. The university’s failure to do this -- to stick up for one of its own -- brings me to the larger context.
As someone who studies public narratives about universities, I’m concerned that the increasing focus on risk and brand has blinded senior managers to the country’s still-dominant narrative about colleges. When they suspend faculty members at Drexel and Trinity, or when they disavow a faculty member even when he is being threatened with racist violence, as Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young did with Tommy Curry, they confirm a 50-year-old right-wing script that says the campus left is fundamentally opposed to freedom, and yet weak liberal administrators let them run wild. By suspending Ciccariello-Maher, Drexel confirmed this narrative’s assertion that, like all campuses, theirs offers safe haven to a dangerous leftist who merely pretends to be a high-quality scholar.
In its modern form, the narrative owes much to Ronald Reagan while he was running for governor of California in 1966. Reagan realized he couldn’t run against the great builder of public infrastructure, the Democratic incumbent Pat Brown. He also couldn’t take on the black civil rights movement directly. Instead, he attacked both the Great Society and social movements through a soft target of convenience -- the students that University of California, Berkeley, officials failed to control. Reagan developed the story line in which students -- described as drug-taking ingrates -- were wreaking havoc because their liberal minders, Clark Kerr and his administration, were too weak to take command. Reagan turned liberal administrators into the human embodiments of a “leadership gap.”
His terms remain in play today. Reagan claimed that students were just behaving badly, not exercising legitimate freedoms grounded in political reason. Radicals were victimizing normal students who wanted to get an education, just as intolerant leftists supposedly victimize conservative students today. Reagan’s label was “so-called free speech advocates who in truth have no appreciation for freedom.” His cure was that “the ringleaders should be taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all.”
The right pushes hardest on this story line when it feels more than normally threatened by civil rights movements. This usually happens when white moderates start rallying around a racial cause they had formerly ignored. That was the case with black civil rights in the 1960s. It was the case in the late 1980s, when the right, seeing the country tire of Reagan’s presidential crusades, which looked less noble during the Iran-Contra hearings, seized on “political correctness” as a blanket repudiation of social justice discourse, especially that which called for funding for HIV research in the context of gay rights and for intersectional racial justice, instanced by black law professor Anita Hill’s attempt to raise the issue of sexual harassment against black Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The narrative of liberals not curbing their leftists was kept alive during the 1990s by media stars like Rush Limbaugh, who popularized terms like “feminazi” to define leftists and liberals as anti-liberty.
The right clearly feels threatened again today. Black Lives Matter put police killings of black people on the national agenda, DACA activism did the same for young undocumented residents, and college campuses in red states like Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee expressed solidarity with both. In reaction to Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, universities emerged, for a few weeks, as independent keepers of the country’s moral conscience. Many college presidents announced programs to support the civil liberties of DACA students, Muslims and others deliberately targeted by Trump’s campaign. Had universities been able to seize the moral high ground and cast themselves as heroic resistors of a coming tyranny, it would have deprived the right of a major element of their successful post-’60s electoral strategy of relabeling social progress as liberal college snobbery.
Luckily for them, they soon found the radical scapegoats that their traditional narrative needs. There were the black bloc protesters at the Feb. 1 appearance of professional agitator Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley. A month later came the protest by Middlebury College students of a Charles Murray lecture. The protest induced officials to move Murray to another location, where he was interviewed and live-streamed back to the original auditorium. Afterward, an attack by protesters, including eight masked people, injured the interviewer, a Middlebury faculty member. The butterfly effect of these tiny groups shifted the jet stream back to its normal track: Reagan’s campus narrative again controlled the coverage.
But what allowed small, isolated events to revive this tale of rampant college radicals and its powerful framing effects? Obviously the news media’s magnification effect played a major role. But so did the failure of liberal commentators to reject, completely and categorically, the Reagan narrative.
In fact, many simply channeled Reagan himself. Yale law professor and novelist Stephen L. Carter, writing in Bloomberg, said that Middlebury-style “down shouters will go on behaving deplorably and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.” Fareed Zakaria asserted on his CNN program in May, “American universities these days seem committed to every kind of diversity, except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely … There is also an anti-intellectualism on the left, an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we’re so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea with which we disagree.” Historian Jill Lepore used her space in The New Yorker to argue, via a cherry-picked series of scattered examples, that today’s controversies are driven by a “tragedy of betrayals” in which, from the 1970s on, “the left’s commitment to free speech began to unravel.”
These false claims echoed and thus confirmed the right-wing narrative that the nation’s campuses were not the solution but the problem. By spring, media common sense was once again that administrators were failing to prevent their coddled, unruly students from making war on American freedoms.
This buried the real story behind today’s student protests (and most strong social media statements by faculty members). They were virtually all conducted in the name of the civil rights of groups who were still subjected to unequal treatment, including black, undocumented, Muslim and transgender people. The protests were fueled by reactions to a U.S. president who promised even more unequal treatment against an ever-larger number of social minorities. The rare incidents of down shouting were conducted by people who felt that their previous effects at local communication had been brushed aside (e.g., the University of Oregon).
Were they thinking less defensively, liberal pundits and administrators might create a positive narrative based on these deep campus aspirations. Universities are zones where full inclusion requires complicated, often divisive negotiations. Universities are places where the creation of knowledge requires that everyone comes to the place of inquiry with equal social standing.
They might be inspired to do this by the real lesson of ’60s campus protest: university officials who do not defend their own people undermine universities politically -- for years at a time. Officials are being cowed into doing this again. This retreat is happening at exactly the moment when Trump’s election made an opening for a new public narrative about the university to replace Reagan’s. Officials should bluntly reject the tales about bad students and professors and accept, even if they cannot affirm, the radical thinking, disruption and occasional down shouting essential to higher learning.
Universities create knowledge through conflict over the biggest issues facing society. And no institution can help society appreciate what it really does by constantly whitewashing itself.