Are Universities Political?

Higher education institutions aren't easily disentangled from politics, and to claim otherwise is not only false but dangerous, argue Inger Bergom and Spencer Piston.

February 7, 2019
 
 
Grinnell College

Grinnell College administrators made headlines last year by attempting to invalidate efforts to expand the country’s only independent union of undergraduate student workers. These actions have risked undoing an Obama-era policy that allows students across the country to unionize.

Has the administration’s behavior been surprising, in light of Grinnell’s “proudly progressive” history? According to President Raynard Kington, the answer is no, because “we are not now and never have been a political institution.” But as alumni of Grinnell, we write to say that institutions of higher education are not so easily disentangled from politics, and to claim otherwise is not only false but also dangerous.

Paradoxically, the claim of being above politics is itself an old form of political rhetoric. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Kington writes, “We exist for the preservation, transmission and creation of knowledge, and with this mission comes an obligation to provide room to freely explore ideas -- even and perhaps especially unpopular ones … When we begin to take positions on matters unrelated to our mission and make decisions based on a political litmus test, we hurt the very core of our mission.”

From that perspective, Grinnell administrators are portrayed as heroic figures nobly rejecting the petty squabbling of politics, risking unpopularity in service of the free exploration of ideas. In fact, however, what actually happened was that college administrators appealed to the National Labor Relations Board to invalidate a student decision to organize; they used the machinery of government to assist them in a labor dispute. How political can you get?

Indeed, it is impossible to separate politics from higher education administrative decision making. College and university leaders make policies and decisions every day that campus community members, the public or the courts correctly recognize as having political implications. This happens when administrators decide whom to admit, which academic programs to cut, which speakers to invite to campus, which student groups to recognize, which topics can be taught in classrooms and which professors to hire and promote.

In turn, the decisions that a higher education institution makes reveal the values it upholds. Founded by an abolitionist in 1846, Grinnell has a rich tradition of political and social activism and names social responsibility as a core element of its mission. This is not just rhetoric; Grinnell backs its mission with money and time. The college recognizes and rewards social justice leaders through its Grinnell Prize, sponsors a student-led Social Justice Action Group, collaborates in a prison education program and supports the Grinnell Caucus Project, which encourages voting and political participation.

Unfortunately, Grinnell administrators continue to claim that political considerations are in no way driving their decisions. In an email sent to Grinnell alumni, the chair of the board and the president wrote, “Our opposition to an expanded student union is driven entirely by our desire to preserve Grinnell’s educational mission and its distinct culture. Our focus has been solely on how the change could affect the college specifically -- not other institutions.” In light of the implications of this dispute for labor rights, what this statement means is that only Grinnell College students matter, and the rest of the world is on its own. The college, then, has taken a political position of isolationism, announcing proudly that is indifferent to the rights of workers across the country.

As leaders of an institution with a strong focus on social justice and social commitment, Grinnell’s administration is failing to live out the college’s mission in its response to student unionization efforts, as well as spreading the false and dangerous claim that it can separate politics from power. Grinnell has often been a leader in higher education, but our hope in this case is that other institutions will not follow its example.

Bio

Inger Bergom graduated from Grinnell College in 2002 and has a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Michigan. Spencer Piston graduated from Grinnell College in 2001 and is an assistant professor of political science at Boston University.

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