Academics, Public Work, And Labor

by Freddie deBoer

Last July, I attended the Council of Writing Program Administrator’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois. While there, I watched a keynote address given by Duane Roen, a vice provost and professor at Arizona State University. Roen’s speech addressed the great need for academics and scholars to be publicly engaged, to share their work with a general audience and to endeavor to make the work we produce in our universities more accessible to the public. Roen referenced Nicholas Kristof’s famous (or notorious) column complaining that academics are too cloistered, our work too obscure to be of use to the general public. At the time, I and others complained that Kristof’s perspective was willfully narrow, failed to recognize a whole host of academics who make their work public every day, and ignored structural economic reasons for why academics can’t or won’t engage publicly. But Roen’s speech made clear that, despite these real reservations, we must continue to press ourselves to be more engaged, accessible, and open in our teaching and our research. Whether the perception that we are inaccessible and secluded from public life is fair or not, that perception must be combated through rigorous public engagement. Roen discussed academics who had, he felt, done an exemplary job of making their work available to a wider audience, and laid out the many benefits of this type of scholarly work.

Roen was the perfect figure to deliver such an argument, given his long history as a leader and mentor within the WPA world. The night before his speech, my friend Marcy and I talked with Dr. Roen at length at a gathering for graduate students, and I was struck by his warmth and approachability. This, too, is a form of public work, engaging with early-career academics and making them feel like part of the scholarly conversation. I was happy to see that Roen’s speech displayed the same friendliness and openness.

But while I felt energized by Roen’s keynote, I also felt concerned. I had noticed that all of the academics Roen listed were late career, and enjoyed the benefits of both tenure and prominence. During the Q&A, I asked Roen about the dangers of engaging publicly as a grad student or untenured academic, given that public speech tends to be political speech. Roen admitted that the question for the untenured was complicated, and advocated a cautious approach. Afterwards, several other faculty members in the audience addressed the question, and argued that grad students should not fear political engagement. Why would someone want to join a department, one asked, if that department had such little regard for intellectual and political freedom that it wouldn’t hire someone with controversial views? I felt encouraged by that support. But it’s also the case that, after I spoke, I was approached over the course of the next day by perhaps a half dozen grad students, who confided in me that they, too, feel constrained in what they can say, and fear speaking out in public about issues of controversy. They appreciated the support of the faculty in attendance, as I did, but said that with the academic job market as demoralizingly competitive as it is, they could not help but feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves. They want to engage publicly, but the risks seem to outweigh the rewards.

These questions have taken on particular salience recently. Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American scholar who studies indigenous history and post-colonialism, had a tenured job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, thanks to a series of tweets he had sent regarding Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. To make matters even worse, Salaita had already resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, as his appointment at Illinois had already been confirmed. Adding insult to injury, Cary Nelson, a professor in the department Salaita was to join and the former president of the AAUP faculty union, vigorously defended the school’s decision, despite being a self-identified defender of academic freedom. (In fact, Nelson has displayed such intimate knowledge with Salaita’s tweets that it is fair to ask whether he had a hand in the decision.) I wrote a letter to UIUC’s chancellor to protest, as did many others, and as Corey Robin has documented at length, a great number of academics and public figures have condemned this action. (Robin’s blog, in general, has been an indispensable resource in covering this story.) But while I hope and pray that Salaita lands on his feet in a secure tenured job, the damage to academic freedom has been done no matter what the outcome: the millions of academics observing this situation, particularly those who are in the precarious position of being untenured—the vast majority—cannot help but be less likely to speak out on matters of controversy. Those at UIUC who are responsible for this decision are culpable for this chilling effect on free political and intellectual expression.

Nelson’s performance throughout this controversy has been an embarrassment to himself and to his university. He has made it clear that his objection is not procedural but rather based largely on his personal rejection of Salaita’s politics. He has stated, for example, that “he doesn’t consider Gaza under occupation,” which is absurd, and anyway should be totally irrelevant to whether or not Salaita should have been fired. Nelson has taken the typical tack of representing Salaita as anti-Semitic, despite the fact that Salaita has said (in the self-same medium) “My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism,” ” I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God,” “I refuse to conceptualize Israel/Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs,” among other things.

What little procedural defense of Salaita’s firing Nelson was able to muster involved the notion of “collegiality.” As many have pointed out, Nelson himself has not always been a champion in this regard himself, referring to another academic in print as a vampire bat, among other outbursts. Beyond the palpable hypocrisy of Nelson’s take, there is the simply unworkable division between expression and tone. Arguments about tone are perennially utilized to forbid ideas that are controversial or disliked; there is no meaningful distinction between the two. Too often, notions of collegiality and tone become a catch-all complaint that cannot be independently verified. Would Malcolm X be able to serve in Nelson’s university? Would Eugene Debs or Jane Addams or Larry Kramer?

Someone once wrote that “claims about collegiality are being used to stifle campus debate, to punish faculty, and to silence the free exchange of opinion by the imposition of corporate-style conformity.” That man was Cary Nelson. I would like very much for Dr. Nelson to grapple with this: when smart and committed young academics tell me that they are too afraid of the potential professional consequences to speak out publicly, as they have often, it is people like Nelson who are partially responsible. His conduct has directly and deeply damaged our sense of a right to intellectual freedom.

Earlier this year, I got myself in some trouble with my fellow leftists when I asked whether we might take pause at the firing of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich. I felt no personal sympathy for him, none at all, and I said so. Eich is a rich and powerful person, and I strongly disagree with his opposition to gay marriage rights in California. But I was disturbed at how casually my liberal friends disregarded his claims to free speech rights. “The first amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right to keep your job! It just means that the government can’t come arrest you for expressing unpopular views!” And yet consider what that attitude means. If workers have no expectation at all to the right to hold political views their employers don’t like, how do they enjoy basic democratic political rights at all? In a world in which you need a job to provide for your own material security, the notion that employers have the right to fire you for holding unpopular political views means that you have no right to hold unpopular political views. Indeed: in such a world, the only people who maintain the ability to hold unpopular political opinions are the independently wealthy. How that could be considered a liberal or progressive outcome, I have no idea, and yet those who self-identify as members of the broad left were the most aggressive in ridiculing my questions. Though they and I have little regard for Eich, the fact remains that rights must be universal if they are rights at all, and the procedural precedent set by Eich’s dismissal was, I thought, at least worth discussing.

Under labor conditions in the university system as brutal as we’ve faced, and with the cost of controversy as high as ever, how can academics and professors feel free to work through controversial and unpopular ideas, which is a necessary part of our work? Some defended the Eich firing by pointing out that, as a CEO, he had a special responsibility to be the public face of the company. Eich’s job, in this telling, was in part to be uncontroversial, and he failed in that task. Perhaps that’s true. But for us as academics, having and expressing controversial ideas is our job. A professoriate that feels that it cannot express impolite opinions is a professoriate that has no ability to cast new light on the human condition, no ability to truly grapple with the essential questions that confront the human race. Nor can they engage publicly if they are so busy teaching a huge course load as adjuncts that they have no time in which to research and teach, let along expand their work to the public sphere. My friend Anthony Galluzo, a brilliant Americanist, has written publicly about academics and research before, and I’d like to read more. But he’s been constrained, as so many other bright academics are, by his need to teach an unsustainable course load to survive. There is no way in which we can build the kind of public outreach we are asked to in a context where so many academics are so overworked and underpaid– and no way, incidentally, those academics can be the kinds of teachers they need to be.

All of this might seem like inside baseball, an obscure conversation had by members of a small, unusual industry. But the conditions that academics face are in fact not that different from those of everyone else. After all, it is not merely academics who have a responsibility to undertake public, political work, but all of us who are democratic citizens. By the most basic political philosophy of democracy, citizens are not required merely to vote and leave the debates to the politicians, but must actively engage in the messy work of self-governance. That means that they must feel free to express themselves politically without fear that their boss will fire them, leaving them unable to provide for themselves or their family. In a world where poor job quality, insufficient hours, insufficient pay, ever-expanding corporate rights and protections, sharp reductions in unionism, and the threat of automation all diminish the negotiating power of workers, controversial political engagement becomes a risk few can afford to take. Economic insecurity becomes political insecurity.

In the academic world, there is simply no alternative to reinvesting in the human resource that is the professoriate, expanding the ranks of those who enjoy the protections of tenure. It is possible, even in a context in which we are finally taking the necessary steps to rein in the increase in tuition. Because universities have been so profligate in the recent past, building dorms and gyms and dining halls beyond all sense and employing an army of administrators whose work is tangential to the academic enterprise, there is ample room to cut while still restoring the professoriate, particularly if states decide to reinvest in their public universities, which have been the envy of the world. We must make the choice as a society to privilege teaching and research over fancy buildings and expensive amenities. A commitment to hiring more tenure-track faculty from the ranks of our contingent labor and graduate students will improve undergraduate teaching, as overworked adjuncts teaching five or six classes a semester to make ends meet cannot possibly reach their peak potential as educators, through no fault of their own. It will also revitalize our research mission, and it will empower scholars to do the controversial, political work that is such an essential part of the life of the mind.

In the broader societal view, we must recognize that we have endured four decades of declining workplace conditions for millions of Americans. Flat-lined real wages, periods of high unemployment, and the general casualization and deprofessionalization of our labor force have left us not merely a less prosperous and humane society, but a less free, less democratic one as well. Our people cannot perform their role as citizens in a working world where they have no leverage and no negotiating power. To restore civic participation and public life, we must restore our unions and reinvigorate collective bargaining rights, strengthen our social safety net, and transition to a system of market socialism through a guaranteed basic income. Then, workers of all stripes, academic or otherwise, will enjoy the ability to engage politically without fear that they will go hungry if they say the wrong things. In the end, the projects to improve humanitarian outcomes, to increase personal liberty, and to revitalize deliberative democracy are one and the same.