K. (not his real name) had indeed been denounced. A retweet of his had, so the email said, “prompted” a student’s mother to write to Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who in turn handed the matter over to the dean of the School of Literature, Science, and the Arts, who was to communicate with the parent. The task of “touching base” with my colleague was delegated to the associate dean
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K. (not his real name) had indeed been denounced. A retweet of his had, so the email said, “prompted” a student’s mother to write to Mary Sue Coleman, the interim president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who in turn handed the matter over to the dean of the School of Literature, Science, and the Arts, who was to communicate with the parent. The task of “touching base” with my colleague was delegated to the associate dean of the humanities, who was on her way out at the time. Thus, three highly accomplished women (respective base salaries: $927,000, $483,000, $176,000) spent at least some amount of their time engaging a parent who had convinced herself that my colleague’s retweet had revealed that he was unfit to teach students of conservative persuasion such as her daughter. The letter was, he learned, quite intemperate, which I take to be Dean for unhinged.
It took several days for K. to learn what his precise offense had been: endorsing, by retweet, the suggestion that the Republican Party engage in an auto-erotic act. The meeting was friendly: He was assured that the principles of free speech protected him, that this had been conveyed to the parent as well, that the dean’s office did not doubt his professionalism, and that he should feel free to do as he pleased. The school had simply wanted to inform him of the complaint. Possibly to the parent’s disappointment, he was not to be strangled at dusk, a knife twisted in his heart, his shame to outlive him.
What to make of this odd and anti-climactic episode? First, we are staring at an almost comically ill-considered allocation of resources. Second, whatever the substance of the conversation, this was a clear if gentle act of intimidation — you do not spend three days on the bench of the principal’s office without experiencing some degree of inchoate worry. K. tells me he now finds himself reluctant to freely tweet his mind. If that was not the goal, a simple email surely would have sufficed: “Just fyi, a right-wing parent wrote a crazy email about something you said on Twitter; we don’t care, carry on.”
Last, and most important, the university’s response indulges as legitimate the sort of orchestrated, bad-faith fury conservatives are currently weaponizing against public schools and public libraries, which are, like colleges and universities, an intrinsic and ideally constitutive part of pluralist liberal democracy, the current GOP’s ultimate target. I do not know where and how the parent who objected to K. was radicalized, but as organized, vociferous groups of parents and those who purport to be increasingly succeed in removing books and teaching materials from school libraries — despite a Supreme Court ruling that declared similar content-based removals unconstitutional in the 1980s — colleges can expect to see an accelerating uptick in such attacks on the right to speak and read freely. While not all Republicans engage in these bêtises, few of their leaders have condemned them. Under the circumstances, it is not merely acceptable to denounce the GOP — clearly, loudly, profanely. It is our ethical and professional duty.
College football is surely part of the answer, but I suspect the real reason is this: Despite the common narrative to the contrary, colleges are not, in fact, left-wing institutions. I invite anybody who believes we are hotbeds of socialism to check the salaries and working conditions of non-unionized adjunct faculty members. Rather, they are hierarchical operations largely dedicated to reproducing a social order that benefits the upper-middle class, liberals and conservatives alike — call it the professional-managerial class, if you will, beholden to and sustained by a small-l liberal world order.
Now that the party is increasingly embracing anti-pluralist, protectionist, Christian nationalist, and at times neofascist goals, it is no longer aligned with the PMC’s broader agenda. It is therefore ready to wage open war with colleges, intent on confiscating the social capital they wield.
This is a moment of considerable peril. There is an entire complex of organizations, like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, dedicated to creating the impression that the most pressing threats to free speech and academic freedom originate on the campus left. They are joined, paradoxically, by inexplicably influential individuals like Christoper Rufo, who openly demands the end of what he calls so-called academic freedom.
To be sure, the left has its share of kooks and charlatans, and they occasionally create some misery on campus, but they are not governors, senators, or presidential candidates, and they do not wield the power of the state, which is ultimately, we must remember, the power of violence. My state’s Republican candidate for secretary of state believes that demons are sexually transmitted and calls public schools “government indoctrination camps.” The Republican candidate for attorney general spoke out in favor of banning abortion even for those who cannot survive pregnancy. The GOP’s gubernatorial candidate has suggested that Gretchen Whitmer, the current governor, is not “a real woman.” All three believe or claim to believe that Donald Trump carried Michigan in 2020. Engaging any of them in rational debate would be like getting a raccoon to fetch your newspaper: It’s not necessarily that they don’t know how they could; it’s that they don’t see why they should.
Similarly, as a liberal institution beholden to a pluralism of ideas, we must uphold Republicans’ right to hold the opinions they do. As my university puts it, “the belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, or in any other way detestable cannot be grounds for its suppression.” But to respect the right to hold pernicious, false, or detestable opinions is not the same as respecting the opinions themselves. The university’s very mission, after all, is to test the plausibility of opinions. As we know, it is very difficult to find the right answer to most questions that matter, but it is less of a challenge to identify wrong ones. As Bertolt Brecht wrote: “It is not [scholarship’s] goal to open a door to infinite wisdom but to erect a barrier to infinite error.”
Public colleges and universities in states controlled in part or in full by Republicans may feel they have little choice but to feign some degree of respect if they want to keep what feeble allocations are still thrown their way. We may want to ask ourselves, however, if the state’s hunger rations remain worth the required charades. At my institution, state funding amounts to 3.3 percent of the operating budget (12.9 percent of the General Fund, which in turn constitutes 25.4 percent of the entire budget).
To be sure, it would be good to hold onto this money. We do important things with it. But we must reject any further efforts to leverage public funding in the interest of policy or ideological goals that contradict the university’s intellectual and ethical commitments. Doing so might come with considerable pain, but I suspect that legitimizing further screeching mobs and their cheerleaders and enablers will prove more costly yet.
There is dignity in battle. There is nothing but shame in appeasing the cruel, the greedy, and the mendacious — no matter how powerful the latter may be. Public colleges do not merely have a duty to defend their core mission. They also have an obligation to support and protect their faculty, staff, and students. They must clearly insist on our people’s right not to be forced into pregnancy, not to be demeaned or disadvantaged due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and to have all of their histories studied and told.
As my colleague Elizabeth Anderson wrote in an essay titled “The Democratic University: The Role of Justice in the Production of Knowledge,” the democratic university understands “justice to require a comprehensive equality of membership: individuals belonging to different groups should have equal access to educational opportunities; their interests and cultures should be taken equally seriously as worthy subjects of study, their persons treated with equal respect and concern in communicative interaction.” “The demand for justice,” Anderson explains, “is a political demand generated internally by the aims of the academy itself.”
This vision leaves plenty of room for conservatives. It is not the place for those who say “freedom” and mean “dominance.”
When J.D. Vance says that “professors are the enemy,” he is correct. He is our enemy, and we must be his. I welcome his hatred. As a modest start, I suggest that we no longer respond to Republicans who complain about professorial tweets with anything other than a short form letter. I would be happy to draft it.