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My colleague Margarita Rayzberg and I asked each other this question at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when these missives’ strangeness, and ubiquity, first became apparent to us. The University of Chicago, where I was then employed, had issued a statement from the dean of students and director of international affairs expressing “great concern” about “the invasion into Ukraine,” and its consequences for members of the university community from “Ukraine, Russia and Europe.” The two administrators then solicited readers affected by the conflict to reach out to the office of international affairs, set up a therapy session, or attend an online seminar about the political background of the conflict.
Anyone reading this message without already knowing the geopolitical context would be quite confused. Who had invaded Ukraine? The email never described “the invasion” as Russian. The war appeared as a terrible accident. There was no question of the university taking — or acknowledging that it was not taking — sides in a conflict, but only one of how to ease suffering and confusion through its channels of administrative support, academic discussion, and therapy. We were struck by the email’s pointlessness — as if what Ukrainians, Russians, and everyone else involved in the war needed were some Zoom counseling sessions and a webinar! We were struck too by its opacity. The university’s leadership apparently imagined itself compelled to say something (however substanceless) about the war, but chose not to reveal why, or why it had decided to express itself through these specific administrators offering this particular set of resources. Although these and other such messages speak on behalf of the university as a whole, members of the university community have little opportunity even to know how they are produced, let alone to shape them.
In recent years there has been concern among college presidents, who have historically been tasked with speaking on behalf of their institutions, with the limits of their ability to speak freely. But “university position statements,” as we conceive them, differ from the public speech of presidents. The latter tend to appear as something like embodiments of their schools. They speak both to the campus about itself and to the nation about issues affecting academic life. This is a complex role; presidents must balance their representative function, which stands for the university as a whole, with their distinct personal voice (usually avuncular and genially out-of-touch). University position statements on current events, on the other hand, are presented as collaborative documents, signed by multiple administrators, and are not consistently issued by any particular figure from the administration. They do not use the first person singular. Rather they appear as the university speaking to itself through no one human vessel, reminding itself what its feelings and opinions are, and framing whatever event has elicited this response as a problem to be managed with the resources of the administrative bureaucracy.
Our initial, impressionistic searches through the last several years of the university inboxes to which we have access suggest that, while university position statements are becoming more frequent, they have long had a common structure. One of the first position statements we received — at the beginning of our graduate careers at Northwestern University in 2010 — shows the basic shape common to such documents today. It was issued in response to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an undergraduate at Rutgers University, after his roommate secretly filmed him having gay sex.
This horrific incident generated much discussion in the media about homophobia, suicide, and privacy rights — all ways of connecting what had happened to issues of larger national import. Although there was no direct link to Northwestern, the university’s then-president, Morton O. Schapiro, along with the vice president for student affairs, issued a statement in response. In it they affirmed that Northwestern was “supporting the LGBT community” on campus, and they reminded readers of the university’s policies on harassment and discrimination, as well as of the existence of a variety of campus resources, including the LGBT Resource Center, the Sexual Harassment Prevention office, and mental-health counseling.
Why should impassioned declarations of supposedly unanimous feeling end with a list of university resources such as counseling programs?
All of this is an unobjectionable but also rather non-obvious response to events far away from Northwestern’s campus. The decision to make a statement presupposed that this suicide was emblematic of nationwide issues on and off college campuses, which Northwestern’s leaders were compelled to weigh in on, and which they had an obligation to combat. Presented as relevant to Northwestern’s campus community because of its purported status as a reminder of the problems of homophobia, sexual harassment, and mental health, Clementi’s death appeared as a justification for the university’s existing therapeutic-bureaucratic institutions targeted at precisely these problems. The university, speaking to itself through the position statement, could imagine its administrative apparatuses of care and surveillance (but not, significantly, the scholarly missions of teaching and research) as participating in a national struggle against violence and prejudice.
This framing is political in one sense; anti-political in others. Tying Clementi’s death and Northwestern’s policies together through a narrative of resistance to discrimination, harassment, and poor mental health, it positioned the university as an agent in a wide network working toward social change, and therefore as a political entity. Indeed, the very act of taking up any individual tragedy as a “case” of a broader problem is an inherently political act — perhaps the basic intellectual move of political mobilization. But insofar as political conflict is constituted by our debates about what exactly such tragedies are cases of, to which problems they testify, and how these problems, once identified, should be solved, Northwestern’s position statement was anti-political. It spoke as if the entire campus had already agreed that Clementi’s death was a case of homophobia, sexual harassment, and poor mental health, and that the solutions to these problems were to be found in the university bureaucracy’s therapeutic and surveillance mechanisms.
The emotional intensity of the University of Chicago’s email in response to Floyd’s death might seem to have distinguished it from the university’s cautious rhetoric around Ukraine. In response to the Floyd protests, Chicago’s president and provost called on the university to participate in an “ongoing struggle for equality” across the country, one that would require the students, staff, and faculty to confront racism both on campus and in the city of Chicago. There was a conflict taking place, and the university could not be neutral.
On a closer reading, however, Chicago’s Floyd and Ukraine documents reveal themselves to be quite similar. They offer two variations in tone — but in tone only — on the model of Northwestern’s response to the death of Tyler Clementi a decade earlier. The “struggle for equality,” in Chicago’s email, seems as strange a conflict as the one in Ukraine. The enemy is never named. Black Americans are said to have been subjected to “slavery … violence and exclusion” — by who knows whom? Just as one email elides who has invaded Ukraine, the other remains purposefully vague on how all of these things had happened and were happening to Black people.
In their statement on the George Floyd protests, Chicago’s administrators frame the university as a participant in the conflict for equality; in their statement on Ukraine, they carefully write the university out of the conflict. In both cases, however, they present these conflicts not as truly political processes in which rival sides, each with their own interests and interpretations, confront each other, but rather as situations universally understood to be in need of specific redress. They disguise the fact that the problems they address are problems about which students, faculty, and staff disagree — about which, indeed, some of them are experts with opposing points of view. Although they often encourage “conversation” and “dialogue,” as a means of either healing trauma caused by the current events they discuss, or of better understanding them, they foreclose authentic discussion.
They offer debatable assertions that come already interpreted — readers are given no room for questioning (“whose war in Ukraine?”; “the struggle for equality against what?”). They locate solutions in the university’s administrative bureaucracy: therapy, identity-based groups, surveillance apparatuses, and in the academic mechanisms of organized discussion. This reflects a dangerous, and increasingly common, understanding among administrators of the therapeutic role of the university, one that is coming to replace an older understanding of the university’s special mission as a site of open-ended enquiry. The latter, ideally, increases our knowledge and helps us develop new interpretations of phenomena, which can be then used by policy-making institutions whose goals — again, ideally — have been set by democratic decision-making.
From this perspective, for the university to directly participate in political life as an avowed agent of social change is perilous both for politics and the university. Just as politics loses its specificity as a bounded domain of acknowledged, and therefore constrained, conflict over what is to be done, so does the university lose its distinction as a site in which individuals are free, or rather incited, to question certainties and consensuses in order to awaken clearer thinking. This understanding of the university has been the foundation of support for academic freedom of speech, which otherwise appears as a politically risky, ethically perverse, or simply futile permission to say things that are offensive, erroneous, or useless.
It is difficult to evaluate, of course, the extent to which administrators, who by now appear habituated to issuing such statements, conceive of themselves as acting on any coherent vision of the university or of political life. It is equally difficult to assess the actual impact of position statements on the climate of universities regarding freedom of speech. Everyone on every campus has seen such documents, has been summoned by them as members of an imaginary unanimous body to feel and think in common. But the process by which a statement is produced is nearly always opaque, as is its meaning to readers.
The history of position statements has not been investigated. We don’t know how they have become so commonplace, how they have emerged as apparently obligatory responses to current events. Each time one of these documents is disseminated, it comes as it were out of a black box, with no explanation of why the university is responding to this issue (but not others) through these administrators (but not others), with these resources (but not others). There is no archiving or accountability for their production. They are everywhere and speak for all of us — and they are no one’s responsibility. Taking them seriously, perhaps, will open a new opportunity to consider what the university should be, and what we are allowing it to become.