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At issue in this debate are two very different conceptions of what “politics” means in an academic setting. Does the word refer primarily to consciously held and explicitly expressed claims about matters openly debated in government and the media — something that can be consciously refrained from? Or does it connote a much broader, more pervasive set of assumptions and practices? Is it possible for an institution to be politically “neutral,” or is that very idea a fiction? Many of the statements issued in recent years, reflecting influential cultural theories of the past several decades, imply that academic work is inherently and inescapably political. For this reason, many scholars will dismiss criticism like Robert George’s out of hand as naïve, or as a disingenuous screen for the advancement of an exclusionary conservative agenda. As a former president of Macalester College put it recently to The Chronicle: “You cannot escape politics. Your choice is to act as if you have no stake in those arguments or you can have a little more courage and actively engage in those debates.”
But even if one agrees, does it follow that academic units, as opposed to individual scholars, should be issuing public statements on current affairs? Many of the statements from the past few years suggest that because of the inherently political nature of academic work, academic units in fact have a moral obligation to declare their positions on certain issues. But that is an unjustified logical leap. Regardless of how one understands the relationship between politics and academe, there are very good reasons why schools, departments, programs, and centers should refrain from making such statements.
The claims about moral obligation are eloquent, passionate, and heartfelt, and often invoke shameful aspects of a discipline’s political past. For instance, the “Statement on Anti-Racism” issued by the Princeton English department after the killing of George Floyd decried “literary study’s long history as a prop to the worst forces of imperialism and nationalism, and its role in underwriting crimes of slavery and discrimination.” The department of religious studies at the University of Iowa promised: “We will work to acknowledge and expose the racist histories of our discipline and of the religions that most of us have studied and taught.” A statement from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health lambasted the role of public-health professionals in promoting “slavery, Jim Crow, scientific racism, eugenics, and other structural atrocities.” Taking a slightly different tack, the department of classical studies at Boston University spoke to the present day, condemning “the appropriation of classical antiquity as a tool of white supremacy, nationalism, and gender or class-based discrimination.”
By invoking their discipline’s political histories and uses in this manner, the statements imply that taking a stance on current affairs constitutes a self-evident and morally necessary corrective, a form of reparation for past political sins. The statement by the Princeton English department, for instance, asserts that the discipline’s history “compels us … to actively dissociate literary studies from their colonial and racist uses.” But in taking this stance, the statements leap over several crucial questions. Why should academic units of a university, as opposed to individual scholars or disciplinary organizations, be making these pronouncements? What if certain members of the unit do not agree with them, or consider them factually flawed? What if they feel that their unit should be issuing statements about a different issue than the one chosen, or disagree about the language of the statement and the specific actions called for? What if something in the statement violates their moral convictions?
Statements issued on behalf of a formal academic entity can have an intimidating effect that goes far beyond any conscious intentions.
I am sure that in many cases they have indeed expressed unanimous viewpoints. But how can anyone be sure? Imagine a case in which a department chair and the most senior, influential, tenured professors all insist passionately that their department needs to issue a statement on a burning issue of the moment. How likely is it that a pre-tenure or non-tenure-track professor would dare to oppose them? We do not need advanced cultural theory to understand how intimidating it can be for an untenured instructor to speak out against powerful senior colleagues.
Public statements become still more problematic when they go beyond expressing a view on a current issue, and pledge members of the unit to engage in particular sorts of academic work — for instance, scholarship that exposes the racist histories of major religions, or classroom teaching that is explicitly antiracist. The Princeton English department, for instance, pledged to “strive for active antiracism in our classrooms and our scholarship as a means of raising awareness and changing consciousness.” To be sure, vulnerable junior scholars are always going to feel pressure to write and teach in ways that their senior colleagues approve of. But formal statements issued in the name of an entire department, program, or school increase this pressure. And while academic work itself may indeed always have potential political stakes, the choice of political stance says nothing about the quality of that work. Public statements that commit a unit’s members to do certain sorts of work blur this distinction. They can create the impression that the subject scholars choose to work on, and the stance they take on it, will matter as much as how well they do the work when it comes to promotion and tenure.
The fact that academic units are themselves political power structures means that these pressures operate regardless of the conscious intentions of chairs and tenured faculty. My own experience suggests that these individuals generally do mean to respect the freedom of their junior colleagues. The authors of these statements generally look nothing like the angry “social-justice warriors” mocked in conservative media. But their intentions are one thing; their words are another. And those words, when enshrined in statements issued on behalf of a formal academic entity, can have an intimidating effect that goes far beyond any conscious intentions. When a junior scholar is choosing a subject for an article or considering whether to include a potentially controversial text on a syllabus, it is all too easy to see how this intimidation could come into play.
It may well be naïve to think that a university can ever be a wholly neutral space, and that it can maintain, as the Kalven Report put it, “an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” It is not naïve, however, to recognize that universities host scholars with different, often conflicting beliefs, and that these differences need to be respected and protected. Allowing academic units to issue public statements on current affairs erodes that respect and those protections.