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Root out the wicked, or the institutional trap part 2

Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
This post is an extension of the institutional trap post from several weeks ago. A warning, it is long at a little over 2,000 words. It might also be more drafty than usual, and that is saying something. But I hope it is an informal drafty idea to what second part of what will be a longer (more scholarly) essay. Feedback welcome.

A purge?
Larry Sabato is a well-known, mainstream academic. He’s the Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a popular election tracking website. Sabato is nobody’s radical. But like many people, he’s taken to Twitter to express his personal opinions. And like many people, he thinks (former) President Trump is an idiot, a bad person, and an all-around no-good guy. For that reason, the Virginia Republican Party thinks the university needs to investigate him.
A letter sent by the chairman of the state party to UVA’s president ends with this request:
The University of Virginia has long set a commitment to “the highest standards of ethics, integrity, and lawful conduct by promoting adherence to all applicable laws, regulations, and policies.”
In that spirit, we ask that the University of Virginia initiate an investigation without delay into Dr. Sabato’s actions as enumerated above and elsewhere, and that University authorities make a determination as to whether Dr. Sabato’s public display of bitter partisanship violates applicable laws, regulations, and policies.
By the way, “actions as enumerated” = Tweeting mean things about Donald Trump and criticizing GOP gubernatorial candidates all while making a high salary as director of a non-partisan organization.
The call for an investigation is “read meat” anti-intellectual anti-elite stuff. Pinhead academic who makes big money at a public institution belittles you, real American. Be angry, be very angry!
The call for an investigation into Sabato and what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones in North Carolina shows that the widespread legislative action against Critical Race Theory seems to be part of a pattern. Also, a high school teacher in Tennessee was fired for teaching a Ta-Nehisi Coates article. I don’t want to get over my skis, but it kind of seems like part of a cultural purge.
Authoritarian assault or ordinary political backlash?
Back to the Sabato situation: Of course, the GOP’s letter will not initiate an actual investigation. Sabato does not forfeit his first amendment rights because he works for a public university. It’s tough to believe that UVA will initiate an investigation. Jim Jordan will have to lead the investigation into Sabato’s un-American Tweets with the GOP re-takes the House next November (I jest, but do I?).
If there is no prospect of an investigation, what’s the point? One point is to harass academics and hope they think twice before they speak.
The idea here is that this is part of a partisan censor critique and delegitimize established authority. This could be part of a (quasi-) authoritarian or campaign.
Siva Vaidhynathan, also a UVA professor, explained this theory and says that university presidents are not prepared to deal with the coming political harassment, or worse.
The fact that the @VA_GOP is going after the most established, least vulnerable among us is a signal.

The rest of @UVA faculty better watch out, they say. It could get much worse.

This is mob stuff.
No public university president is prepared to acknowledge the fact that the Republican Party sees faculty as enemies to be destroyed — by violence if necessary.

We see it happen every day in Turkey, Brazil, India.

Think the US is exceptional? Think again.
Is such an anti-intellectual campaign that will limit the scope of debate, limiting the ideas circulating in society, or further limit political inclusion underway? That’s a question that is beyond the scope of my expertise. Also, it’s probably unknowable at this point.
Another possibility is that this is primarily political messaging to the base. There is the direct message - here are some things to be mad about, some things that threaten your sense of identity, so you need to vote for us. And there is the indirect message - “look how mad I made the libs,” or “we own the libs for you!” The point here is electoral. Win votes. Get elected.
Backlash politics might not make substantive changes to higher education if only because there are no objectives other than to yell and complain. The faculty harassment may be relatively short-lived (at least for individuals), and in the long run, higher education will be more or less unchanged by it because the point is to get elected not to change policy or influence what happens inside colleges and universities. While not costless (harassment has a cost even if it doesn’t achieve the espoused goals of those doing the harassing), the institution of higher education will endure. For example, a Republican legislature can kick up all kinds of grief about free speech, liberal professors, and out-of-touch administrators and still elect to fund state colleges and universities at the same or similar, maybe even higher, levels. Conservative people can say they believe that higher education is bad for the county when asked by pollsters and still want their children and family members to go to college.
A focus on higher education.
I’m not in a good position to analyze which of the possibilities - quasi-authoritarian assault vs. ordinary backlash politics - is the best account of what’s going on. To society at large, it matters a lot. It seems like the difference between serious democratic backsliding and just rancorous partisan politics. I’m less certain it makes a substantive difference for higher education, at least not right away. Either way, the consequences for higher education in the US are likely to be both variable and unpredictable. Backlash harassment can have real consequences, especially locally. Democratic backsliding tends not to happen all at once, and the relationship between authoritarians and higher education is complicated (see Alex Usher’s provocative post on Hungary’s new higher educator reform).
So I want to focus on the middle-term consequences for higher education (in the US, in this case) and maybe offer a thought or two about what the sector can do about it.
Some armchair theorizing.
Let’s assume something of an attempted cultural purge in higher education leads from reactionary elements in society and state government. What could happen? Ok, predictions are hard and mostly wrong, and therefore often dumb to do. But I have no self-restraint. Seriously, I fail the marshmallow test all the time.
Individual stress and harm: I don’t think about individuals enough, but this pattern of targeted harassment can harm individuals, especially those who are subject to harassment and microaggressions on an ongoing basis based on the identities they hold. While some initiatives hit large groups, such as CRT bans or Florida’s mandated survey on political views, most of what we see follows a targeted pattern. The from Campus Reform and the right-wing media ecosystem to boards of governance and state republican parties. The pressure that puts on individuals can be tremendous and have adverse personal and professional consequences. The fear of being harassed can limit what people do and say, and it can also cause stress and anxiety. The attempted culture purge will have likely have consequences for people’s mental and physical health. These consequences will likely compound because we are coming out of a highly stressful pandemic and political environment that disproportionately affects marginalized communities.
Chilling academic inquiry:  Let’s assume that open inquiry is not just a key plank in US higher education values and contributes to the wellness of our society and democracy. If that’s true, it’s clear that harassment can have a chilling effect on things that matter. And the chill can occur without formal censorship (banning books, etc.), which isn’t, by the way, off the table in some places. Free speech advocates have made a lot about undergraduates shouting speakers off the stage. If they care about that, they should be VERY upset about the state and political party harassment. Political parties and state legislators have much more power to shout entire groups of people off the stage than do impassioned undergrads.
Academic freedom could depend on your state: The tenure system and academic mobility are a hallmark of the US higher education system (ok, there isn’t really a higher education system in the US, so to speak, but allow me the imprecision for ease of communication). You could move from Kansas as a graduate student, take a tenure-track job in Tennessee, and later move to New York and always enjoy the same fundamental rights to academic freedom. Course loads, reassures available, and other things are institution (and discipline) specific, but the rights and responsibilities of the job are not, and so you can move about (also, the TIAA system allowed pensions to be mobile in many cases). You can also move about from the public and the (non-profit) private sector without the job changing many interns of basic rights and responsibilities. You might want to live in California because you like the beach and wine tasting. Still, you have substantial (formal) protections for academic freedom even if you live in Alabama (sorry to pick on you, Alabama). Yes, it has ALWAYS been more complicated than that for certain goops of people, at certain times, and in certain places (especially private religiously affiliated campuses). But that is essentially it. And, some might say it’s worked to the advantage of higher education and the country. You don’t have to be a jingoist or apologist for the US or higher education problems to say that the US system of higher education is pretty successful. The US system is emulated internationally.
The conditions of academic freedom, or at the very least, the level of political party or government, and university governance, harassment could depend on what state you are located. States that have certain types of governance boards, especially consolidated ones that have been politically captured as in North Carolina, and states mired in the cultural politics of the contemporary GOP could become particularly hostile to some types of academic work. And hostile to some types of academics. Even the legal provisions of academic freedom remain unchanged, the normative practices could shift with higher education trapped by the onslaught of cultural politics. Even if things at the university level work ok, just the stress of being attached or the increased probability of being attached could mean that academic freedom is limited in substantive terms if not in the abstract.
Variable academic freedom could distort the market for faculty: I am late producing this issue, and I am getting fatigue writing, so I’m going to go the easy route and use a set of my tweets to explain what I mean. Here we go.
Brendan Cantwell
3/ This makes absolute sense for faculty who can move. They deserve to be somewhere with respectable leadership. But it’s also a victory for the racist reactionaries. And it’s a loss for public universities and their students.
Brendan Cantwell
4/ Yes the US system of higher education is steeply stratified. I’m all over that. But it’s also remarkable in how decentralized and diffuse it is. A couple hundred universities have real collective scholarly capacity. They are found in most states.
Brendan Cantwell
5/ If some states become (more) inhospitable to higher education, we’ll see the most mobile faculty, who are not the only faculty of value but ARE defiantly valuable, leave those states and congregate in fewer and fewer places. That will only make things worse for those remaining
Brendan Cantwell
6/ Look, it’s easy to be justifiably critical of US higher education. But there’s also a lot that right about it. The tenure track system, for example, is pretty damn good even in the face of growing contingency. Let’s recognize what’s worth saving (and improving).
Brendan Cantwell
End/ To be effective analysts and critics in our applied filed, we need to recognize what’s comparatively good to be able to extend the benefits of that good more widely and equitable.
Oh my, if you haven’t slammed the unsubscribe button after that, I’ll add a quick note. The tenure system hasn’t worked equally well for everyone of course. I am neither trying to romanticize US higher education nor imply that it works the same for everyone. But I do think we have something to lose.
Regional and sectoral variation in academic freedom could make higher education more unequal: This is related to the distorted market for faculty. Basically, the conditions for academic work could be much better in some states than others and in the private sector than the public sector. Over time that will further sort out talent and resources (research grants, donations, student tuition payments), that increase inequality between colleges and universities in the country.
Two idea for what to do.
I should probably say something about what we can do about this. I’m always less eloquent (yes, less, things are relieved, in absolute terms, I know I am not eloquent) about the solution than I am the problem. So here are a couple of ideas.
Acknowledge what’s going on: The first idea - yes, I am just repeating myself - is for higher education leaders to understand the gravity of the situation and act accordingly. I’ve argued for this in a previous post and a Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed. So here is what I say:
Leaders who shrink from the moment won’t spare their campuses cultural strife — but may erode the credibility of their institutions.
To respond, campus leaders must:
  1. Acknowledge they are in a cultural way, like it or not.
  2. Tell the truth, rather than taking the cautious route to try to avoid sounding political.
  3. Believe individuals who are harassed and subject to discrimination.
Expand tenure protections: In a previous post, I talked about why tenure is really important, even if we might think about ways to reform it. But I think this is a time to expand and strengthen protections (even we add some age or time limit, as I have suggested before).
First, extend tenure or tenure-like protections to more academic staff. Such an expansion of tenure should include adjunct and contingent faculty members first and foremost. But tenure-like protections should be considered by campuses for a wide range of intellectual workers in higher education, not just faculty.
Second, review university bylaws, faculty contracts, processes, and procedures to ensure that they are up to date and reflect the current reality. Make sure that tenure protections are real and robust. Make them stronger if you can. When doing this, enlist the real participation of faculty, labor unions if applicable, and outside experts of academic governance ad academic freedom like the AAUP. Be serious. The administration cannot see the faculty as an impediment to institutional success. (Let’s face it, sometimes they do.) The faculty are full partners in it. If the faculty are being attacked, that hurts the institution. Attacking faculty can harm students and will not support the long-term stability of the organization.
Ok, enough.
A favor, please.
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education ( Speak only for my self.

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