Posted by: bluesyemre | October 21, 2022

Free Speech and Unfree Universities

On the sinister two-step by which administrators persecute the faculty.

By now you will have heard that the long-reigning Queen of England died. And you may have heard that, at about that time, a professor tweeted: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” It was hardly the only spark of dissent in the long night of mourning, but it was the one that caught fire.

Uju Anya is an associate professor of second-language acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University. Born in Nigeria, she has intimate family knowledge of the state’s brutal suppression of the Biafran independence movement — a campaign of arguably genocidal violence, enabled and stoked by British funding and weaponry under Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Anya’s tweet aroused the ire of Jeff Bezos, among the planet’s wealthiest humans and likely the largest corporate donor to Carnegie Mellon. He provided Anya the honor of a quote-tweet: “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.” The fury that followed, all bulging neck veins and white violence, was a Twitter mobbing par excellence — its bigoted hatreds entirely ordinary, its breadth and ferocity extraordinary. Anya did not back down. Twitter deleted her tweet.

Bezos’ deference to the queen belongs to the brute solidarity of merchant capital. There is a line running from the East India Company to Amazon that binds together Elizabeth II and Jeffrey I (though at least the East India Company had the forthrightness to found its own college). But this does not itself explain the demoralizing mystery to hand, which is the scale and virulence of the hostility to the original tweet. The response cannot be explained by the sanctity of death; after all, the denunciation of newly deceased celebs for being problematic, actually, is a Twitter ritual. And it cannot be love of the queen: The great majority of people assailing Anya obviously did not give a shit about the departed except as a pretext for their vituperation toward a Black woman professor.

Yet in tweet after tweet tagging her employer they called for her head, or at least her job. It was not long before the university’s crisis team — which was surely one attorney, one flack, and two administrators sweating through a quickly convened call — was compelled to circulate an official response.

It did not say, in whole or in part, Prof. Anya is a valued member of our community, though this must surely be the case, as the university appointed her associate professor last year.

It did not say, Many people will have many different ideas about the personal thoughts of Prof. Anya and that is all to the good as we are in the business of engaging many different ideas; we are not, however, in the business of disciplining opinions uttered outside the classroom, which would have been both sensible and decent.

Instead, it said, “We do not condone the offensive and objectionable messages posted by Uju Anya today on her personal social media account. Free expression is core to the mission of higher education, however, the views she shared absolutely do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to foster.” For those of you scoring at home, that is 10 words tepidly invoking free speech and 43 words of censure.

Many people sympathetic to Anya, or to academic freedom, or to the proposition that the degenerated colonialism for which the queen willingly and actively provided leadership is indefensible, protested that the university’s response was inordinately hostile and vanishingly rare. MSNBC declared that universities “almost never” issue such statements, explaining that “the very premise of a university is to serve as a bastion of independent thinking and provide a forum for intellectual free-for-alls.”

Readers of The Chronicle, more attentive to academe’s trendlines, will know that this is not strictly true; that, indeed, such statements are becoming a regular feature of the academy. I also have been the subject of such a rebuke, for comments that were similarly extramural and similarly hyperbolic — a staple rhetoric of social media so familiar that the pretense that such statements constitute a sort of actionable testimony is the purest bad faith. In my case the university’s first response failed to mention free speech or academic freedom entirely, entailing multiple clarifications from the chancellor. The list of academics who have been subjected to similar scrutiny for similarly protected speech grows longer by the semester.

The gathering frequency of these statements commands our attention. In the simplest sense, they design to preserve the university’s palatability for donors. Their increase, one suspects, corresponds to the generalization of social-media activity, and thus the likelihood that basic human smack-talking, via newfound technologies of dissemination, might threaten the university’s brand value.

But social media scarcely explains the intensification of university free-speech battles. In the last decade, the ascendent alt-right spearheaded by Spencer, Yiannopoulos, Shapiro, et al., has aggressively pointed themselves at the university campus as a fundamental terrain of struggle; this was not a fact about technology but about the developing structure of political antagonism. They chose campuses in large part because of the expectation that universities would defend the principle of free speech that allows for their tedious, distributed, and protracted neofascist recruitment drive. And the university administrations have for the most part obliged, leaving university and community members to push back on their own.

The intensified politicization of the university provides the context for the sort of statement floated by Carnegie Mellon. But it is not rising ethno-nationalism that the administration seems particularly concerned about, so much as the response to it. That is where their leverage lies — the administration can neither fire nor expel the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, but students, staff, and faculty are a different matter. So statements like Carnegie Mellon’s censure perform a double labor, preserving an abstract fidelity to principles of academic freedom while serving up a barely implicit threat to university members engaged in public political speech and activity: You have been seen, your speech has been noticed, we’re watching you now.

In my own case, an investigation was launched — presumably in search of damning reports from the classroom but more plausibly by way of signaling to anyone in range that if you did not comport yourself according to the interests of the firm, you could expect a hostile inquiry. At Carnegie Mellon, it would have taken the ad hoc crisis team five seconds to conclude that Anya’s tweet was not in any way actionable. The question then became: How, nonetheless, to deter such speech in the future? The university’s statement will have rung plainly to its intended audience, especially those without tenure and those in precarious and adjunct positions: Don’t make this mistake yourself, it says. If you do not have exceptional protections, we will come for you. We might come for you anyway.

This particular two-step, invoking free speech in general while chilling it in specific, is part of university administration’s basic repertoire. Consider a recent draft report from a task force at the University of California at Berkeley, titled “The Role of the University and its Units in Political and Social Action” (every time you hear the words “task force” you should gather your beloveds and run). The Berkeley Faculty Association offered a thoroughgoing rebuttal. The report itself, however, is anything but thoroughgoing. It knows a single move. It performs the two-step with a sort of numbing mania over 20-plus pages of relentless hand-wringing. It exists “to formulate guidelines and recommendations on a complex set of issues related to political speech and academic freedom within the university.” Accordingly, “free speech” is mentioned in total 14 times, and “academic freedom” 22. That’s once per page. And yet the main demand of the report does not mention either term.

The task force was handed two recommendations from the Committee on Academic Freedom. The first might seem anodyne: that political statements issued from departments should explicitly mention that they do not reflect the views of the university as a whole. But parsing the political from the nonpolitical is a rube’s game. After all, for very different reasons, are not the course listings posted by the departments of ethnic studies and economics self-evidently political, even if one of them requires the pretext of objectivity? Thus, over the objections of some of its members — as well official demurrals from administrators keen to put the kibosh on as much departmental speech as possible — said recommendation was rejected.

This left the second recommendation: “Departmental statements on such issues should always indicate whose views are represented by the statement, and should ensure that dissenting views can be expressed on the same platform.”

This would mean, de facto, that the genre of the departmental statement is entirely disallowed. As is spelled out repeatedly in the report, there might be in its place a list of individual signatories who all happen to be affiliated, as if by chance, with the same department. Readers will hear in this proposal something of Margaret Thatcher: There’s no such thing as departments, only individual faculty members. Such a vision was always meant to atomize and isolate. In this case, it must be made clear who exactly has signed onto any collective decision, for the unspoken but obvious reason that it can then be entered into that person’s dossier.

A personal tale to underscore this point: My colleagues and I once received an emailed questionnaire from the executive vice chancellor regarding employee satisfaction. We were told it would take us no more than 20 minutes to complete. I replied to all that, as this was an addition to my contractual job duties, my employee satisfaction would suffer absent payment for an additional 20 minutes of labor. Having made a quick calculation, I suggested a stipend of several dollars. I promise this is not my best comedic email ever. But it was good enough to be found years later, carefully printed out and preserved as hard copy, in my employee dossier.

The pretense that such statements constitute actionable testimony is the purest bad faith.

The Berkeley task force proposal is a sleight of hand, playing at free speech and academic freedom while threatening to discipline those who exercise the same. There are, of course, very good reasons that departments make statements as a whole. Central among these is to protect vulnerable members who support the statement but whose employment is in any way precarious. Adjuncts, lecturers, junior faculty — to say nothing of graduate students requiring both university jobs in the present and future support when they are cast onto the ever more dire and exploitative academic job market. These people are unable to sign by name without great risk. Thus the proposed policy serves to make consensus positions impossible to present, even when departmental members are in consensus.

I do not mean here to suggest that departmental statements are themselves intrinsically noble, much less the royal road to liberation. Often they have little more function than to assure students that the department is committed qua department to certain ideals. That’s not nothing, though departments, even when not demobilized by fissures and disaffection, have precious little power to bring about the kind of university they might espouse. The issue is nonetheless serious. The proposal is no more about limiting a department’s political autonomy than it is about the concerted effort to break worker solidarity, or collectivity, or unity — with each other, with students, with other staff. These will not be tolerated, as a principle.

This antisolidaristic stance is, one might conclude, the report’s politics. But not its only politics. Consider the lone example it provides of an inappropriate departmental statement — an example that, being the only one, becomes paradigmatic. In a context of intensified campus politicization driven by ethno-nationalist ambitions and violence, the paradigm of intolerable departmental speech is … opposition to ethno-nationalist ambitions and violence. In 2021, the department of gender and women’s studies (as well as the Center for Race and Gender) at Berkeley signed onto an international statement beginning, “We stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine.”

One might therefore understand the task force’s report as itself in solidarity with Zionism; certainly the report and Zionism share an affinity for making claims on formal freedoms while bending available mechanisms to hector, harrow, and silence. This is the one-sidedness of both-sidesism. We must be equally deferential to colonizer and colonized; moreover, our deference precludes us from using those terms, meaning that as a practical matter, our deference must be to the powerful. Further, the report floats a peculiar fantasy. As the 2021 departmental statement didn’t include the names of any dissenters, the draft imagines that dissent has been repressed: “Because some of these statements offered support to one side of the conflict in the Middle East, they were also perceived by some to violate the campus’s Principles of Community, which commit us ‘to ensuring freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities.’” The idea that a department might share a view on a given topic, rather than in all cases replicating some “spectrum” existing elsewhere is unimaginable. In the task force’s vision, any consensus intimates the application of sinister force to achieve it; collective statements, by their very agreement, signify the absence of agreement.

This is, to use a technical term, nonsense. Sometimes a bunch of people agree. A statement of unity is not secretly a clue to its imposed conformity. Alongside the sympathy for colonial power, the report borrows its structuring fantasy from garden-variety anticommunism (a University of California staple for almost eight decades) wherein all collective projects must be understood not as collectivity but as proof that individuality has been annihilated by force. Of course the only thing actually being annihilated in this story is Palestine.

Here we might return to the beginning, to that tweet about the queen, or rather, to the response it drew. What links Carnegie Mellon University’s statement to that of the Berkeley task force, beyond being examples of the university two-step designed to chill the very free speech they invoke? Both defend colonial domination: Zionism in one case, the British Empire in the other. Many will find this unsurprising, a habit of mind become unspoken policy. Colonialism and administration share the same syntax, after all. But I am not sure that the sheer surfeit of animus directed at Anya, particularly beyond the campus walls, is adequately explained by shouting, “It’s the colonialism, stupid!” The depredations of the British empire scarcely feel like a hot topic in the present.

And that is the point. As no few ad hoc historians felt compelled to explain to the professor, the queen in the current era could scarcely be made to bear moral or political culpability for the unimaginable violence and death wrought by colonization, regularly justified according to racial logics. All these sins originated in an earlier epoch, it was explained; they should not be measured according to the woke mores of the present; and moreover, we don’t do things like that anymore. Whether or not this is strictly true, such was the basis of the outrage. The queen never personally seized a sovereign territory or what have you.

If this dynamic feels familiar to you, it is. The story I have just recited may be about the British empire, but it is much more immediately about U.S. racism. Anya lists her fields of inquiry as “critical applied linguistics, critical sociolinguistics, and critical discourse studies examining race, gender, sexual, and social-class identities in new language learning through the multilingual journeys of African American students.” Is this critical race theory? It is far closer than any of the curricular material obsessively identified as such by peddlers of the present moral panic, the great talking point of which has become the insistence that white people in the current era can scarcely be made to bear moral or political culpability for the unimaginable violence and death wrought by chattel slavery, regularly justified according to racial logics. All these sins originated in an earlier epoch; they should not be measured according to the woke mores of the present; and moreover, we don’t do things like that anymore. Whether or not this is strictly true, such is the basis of the outrage. No living white American personally owned slaves or what have you.

The exoneration of the queen, which is to say, the empire of invective and threat directed at a Black teacher in the United States, could not have been a plainer stalking horse for white supremacist prattle. The CMU administration effectively takes the queen’s side in its statement, with its hollow aside about formal rights (is not formal equality within dramatically imbalanced relations of real power the necessary condition for this particular form of supremacist ideology?). It also takes Thatcher’s view, assuming that political analysis must focus on individuals rather than the structures and histories of which they are a part. It is the complement to the Berkeley task force’s demand that all political statements originate from individuals, who might seek to act together but must be vulnerable alone.

Both universities’ statements share an avowal of formal freedom and a systematic, structural support for ethno-nationalism, domestic and international. This is particularly worrisome when we recall that the practical terrain for the current “culture wars” is the curriculum itself. While the attacks on what counts as knowledge and what counts as politicized disquisition arise in the main from reactionary school boards and legislatures, one suspects that university administrations will not offer the most vigorous defense given the sympathies noted herein.

The suspicion is only amplified by the recognition that U.S. universities do not care deeply about the ideological payload of their courses, as long as the customers keep on paying and the workers keep on working. The reflexive ethno-nationalist sympathies and equally reflexive anticommunism enter the social dynamic of the university far earlier. Preceding course content is the administrative commitment to undermining and disabling collectivities among faculty, students, and staff — to force everyone to be an individual, adrift and alone, vulnerable to the least-veiled threats. They are all too aware that the future of the university, in the desuetude of the U.S. empire, will come down to a struggle, and that any solidarity is a threat to their monopoly on power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: