A couple of weeks ago, I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign with activist friends of mine. We went to protest in support of Dr. Steven Salaita and the several unions and student groups who were rallying for better labor conditions, for the principle of honoring contracts, for collective bargaining rights, for recognition by the administration, and for respect. It was a beautiful, brilliant rally; I estimated 400 people, many more than I had thought to hope for. And it posed the simplest question facing academics today: who and what is the university for?
The labor unions in attendance that day were fighting for better conditions and more honest, direct bargaining with the university administration, as labor unions in Illinois have fought for decades. Some fought for fair pay and transparent, equitable rules for advancement and compensation. The school’s young graduate union, the GEO, fights simply to be recognized by the university, in an academic world in which universities could not survive without graduate student labor. What was remarkable about the event was how easily and naturally these labor issues coincided with the fight for Dr. Salaita. Some might mistake these issues for disconnected and separate, but in fact they are part of the same fight. The fight for Dr. Salaita is about Palestine, and about academic freedom. But it is also about labor and the rights of workers. It’s about faculty governance in a university system that has seen ceaseless growth in higher administrators and an attendant growth in the cost of employing them. It’s about recognizing that a university is not its endless vice provosts and deputy deans, nor its sushi bars and climbing walls, nor its slick advertising campaigns, nor its football team, nor its statuary. A university is its students and its teachers. To defend Dr. Salaita is to defend the notion that, in an academy that crowds out actual teaching and actual learning in myriad ways, the actual teachers in the academy must preserve the right to hire other teachers, and to honor those commitments once they are made.
The people at the protest also rallied around a simple truth: that calls for civility are in fact calls for servility. The argument used against Dr. Salaita has been, primarily, the call for civility, a concept that has no consistent definition beyond “that which people in power want against those without power.” Civility is the discourse of power; it is a tool with which those with less power are disciplined by those asking for even more. The activists, union organizers, and rank-and-file members were not being civil. They were being passionate, honest, and righteous. And they were making demands, because as Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Those who insist on civility are calling for a world in the which such a demand can never be made.
In the Chronicle‘s profile of Corey Robin, Corey lays out the Salaita case in the plainest terms: “An outspoken critic of Israel, speaking in an inflammatory way about it, being punished and drummed out of the academy—that’s what’s happening.” We who stand with Salaita stand for the right to tell that plain truth, that Salaita is being punished for his controversial political views, and not because of nonexistent rules of decorum that are enforced without consistency or honesty. We have to draw the lessons that Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen have identified, and we have to hold onto the plain truth of the bullying nature of those with power, even as they obfuscate with appeals to civility.
Universities can be beautiful places. I’ve been privileged to see them at their best. But universities can also be cruel places. Cruel, because there are many within them who talk about the ideals of intellectual and academic freedom while using their institutional and disciplinary power to prevent the exercise of that freedom. That is particularly true when some are seen as jumping the line, as stepping outside of the rigid hierarchy of professional advancement by working outside of the top-down structures of academic publishing. I am not in any sense a big deal, and would never claim to be, but I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to reach a large audience and engage with many brilliant people. When I get opportunities like writing for The New York Times or guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan, or when one of my pieces gets wide attention and many thousands of hits, I should be able to merely feel gratitude. But I am always made keenly aware that calling attention to oneself brings risk, in a world of unequal power and a brutal labor market. I say this only as a witness, just as one of many who faces this dynamic. I tell you this not because I am uniquely burdened in this way but because I have seen it again and again with adjuncts and graduate students at all kinds of programs, people who have tried to engage publicly and politically out of a sense of democratic and moral obligation, only to find themselves labeled and threatened for having done so. While people like Nick Kristof call for academics to speak out publicly and share their work and ideas, they are rarely around to witness how nails that stick up get hammered down.
Many faculty I know are firmly, fully dedicated to the spirit of honest, passionate inquiry. But I’m sorry to say that many faculty are instead dedicated to the rigid hierarchies of employment and unequal economic power. The faculty in my own program have never been anything but supportive of me, demonstrating respect for my right to exist as an independent, political mind with ideas about pedagogy, and research, and politics. But in my wider dealings with professors and academics, at conferences and gatherings and especially online, I have been shocked and saddened by how many faculty are willing to threaten those beneath them in the academy’s hierarchy, whether directly or obliquely, over perceived slights to their authority. With the job market as bad as it has ever been, too many of the lucky few who enjoy the protection of tenure are willing to use that disparity in power to discipline graduate students and untenured faculty who disagree with them or fail to show the deference they believe they are owed. The results are predictable: thousands of adjuncts and graduate students who feel forced into silence and acquiescence out of fear of having no chance at a career at all.
Steven Salaita is the type of professor who has never asked for permission, who has refused to be docile in the face of those who would force him to be with their calls for civility. That is precisely what is needed in a world with an increasing chasm between those at the top and those at the bottom. What’s needed now is not docility but passion, not deference but demand. Each member of the academic community has to make a choice: you can stand either for the principles of passionate, sometimes intemperate exchange that are written into the very fabric of liberal education and deliberative democracy, or you can stand in support of a servile, silent university. You can use the systems of reward and advancement within the university to reward graduate students and untenured faculty who are passionate, risk-taking, and unafraid, and in doing so nurture a professoriate that is willing to fight for its future in the university of the 21st century. Or you can contribute to a climate of fear in which adjuncts, pre-tenure TT faculty, and graduate students are forced into servility, forever chasing fads in research and pedagogy, conceding to every new demand from administration, and refusing to fight for what they need and believe in, leading inevitably to the total and irrevocable deprofessionalization of the university. You can choose to be a profession of the passionate and the committed or you can choose to be a profession of the passionless and the docile. That’s the choice and those are the stakes and don’t believe anyone who tells you different.
Who and what will the university be for? In the most obvious, most likely telling, the university will be an army of redundant administrators, lording over hideously expensive luxury dorm rooms and dining halls, for students who have been rendered docile and silent through the service mentality, taught by precarious, contingent instructors who have no job security or autonomy, all in service to a neoliberal agenda that seeks to preempt dissent among the youth so that it will not have to crush dissent among adults. That is the most plausible future for the university. But there is another potential future, one articulated by those who rallied for Salaita and for labor at UIUC, whose passion and commitment humbled and inspired me. That future is one where the students and teachers who make up the actual university recognize their shared problems and their shared power, who band together to oppose the corporate takeover of our universities, and work to build something better, a university with fair and equitable labor practices for all instructors, faculty governance over instruction and hiring, and commitment to the principles of free exchange of ideas and academic freedom. That may not be a likely future; it may not, at this point, even be a possible future. But it is one worth fighting for.