The institutional trap

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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
Reactionary cultural politics put non-partisan colleges and universities in a bind. Recent events show that higher education needs to figure out how to respond, and soon. It took journalism a long time to learn how to cover Trump. Higher education is a similar type of institution and is not adapting well.

Like it or not, higher education is in a culture war
Colleges and Universities are not well suited for the culture war, but they don’t have much choice about it because they’re in the middle of it.
In fact, higher education has been part of the American culture war for some time. As the sociologist James Davidson Hunter explained in a recent Politico interview, higher education is a structural antagonist to culture warriors (the passage is long, but it is useful):
An important demographic and institutional structural shift took place [in recent decades]. Modern higher education has always been a carrier of the Enlightenment, and, in that sense, a carrier of secularization. What happened in the post-World War II period was a massive expansion of higher education and the knowledge-based economy. And with that came a larger cultural shift: What used to be the province of intellectuals now became the province of anyone who had access to higher education, and higher education became one of the gates through which the move to middle class or upper middle class life was made. 
With that came profound cultural change. The ’60s revolution and the political, cultural and sexual protests at the time essentially became institutionalized, and it challenged fundamental notions of what was right, decent, good, fair and so on. And in a way, what you had in the late 1970s into the ’80s and ’90s was a reaction against the challenge represented by that structural change. 
For the American right, higher education is a hotbed of leftist activity whose existence in high participation form (lots of people go to college) is perceived as existential to their (white conservative) existence. This shows up in opinion polling. Most people who identify as Republican or conservative think that higher education pushes a liberal agenda and that colleges and universities are bad for the country.
This partisan animus has recently translated into a litany of policy proposals and governance power plays. There are too many to review but some examples include free-speech laws that supposedly safeguard conservatives on campus, like this one in Iowa, legislation that attempts to limit how Critical Race Theory is taught on campus, like this bill in Idaho, or the installation of partisan university presidents, such as Robert Caslen at the University of South Carolina (who recently had to resign because of a plagiarism scandal).
But the event that brought the culture war in higher education to everyone’s attention happened in North Carolina. You know the story, but let’s do a brief recap.
Denying Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure.
On May 19, NC Policy Watch reported that the University of North Carolina (UNC) refused to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed journalist and McArthur Foundation (Genius) grant recipient and a Pulitzer Prize.
When the story broke, the arcane procedures of higher education that engross professors and put everyone else to sleep became one of the most important stories in the country. Hannah-Jones is best known for the pathbreaking historical journalism that centered slavery and racism in story of the United State’s founding, The 1619 Project. She was to be appointed as Knight Chair in the school of Journalism and Media at UNC with tenure. Past Knight Chairs were awarded tenure.
Hannah-Jones enjoyed the support of the school’s faculty and dean, and the university chancellor. In U.S. higher education tenure appointments are codified by governance boards. Almost always, this is a rubber stamp. For the most part, trustees do not have the expertiese or experience to evaluate tenure cases. Their job is to certify the tenure processes, like Congress is supposed to certify state electoral college votes in U.S. presidential elections. But the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees broke with prescedent and didn’t take up Hannah-Jones case, effectively denying her tenure.
The campus board was reportedly under pressure from the UNC Board of Governors, a Republican dominated politically appointed body that oversees the North Carolina system. Walter Hussman Jr., a wealthy donor who made a fortune in the newspaper and media business also reportedly opposed the Hannah-Jones hire and applied pressure to UNC’s board and administration. A notable aspect of Hussman’s involvement is that he is an outspoken advocate of a sort of anti-activist journalism. Hussman imprinted his values on the facade of the UNC journalism school (literally) when he made a $25 million donation in 2019.
Hannah-Jones was denied tenure. A power play: pure and simple. Hannah-Jones has initiated legal action and tenure bid has been returned to the board. This story is not over and the right outcome - when UNC’s journalism school gets to decide who it hires and under what conditions - may yet be realized after this unprecedented interference.
But for now, the most remarkable and dangerous aspect of what happened in North Carolina was the norm breaking. What happens when governance boards and wealthy donors use their authority and infuence to interfere with normal university procedure simply to exercise political grievance?
The answer is that higher education is trapped.
Navigating the world as an involunatary combatant in the culture war will put tremendous stress on colleges and universities in the U.S. If it does not resist interference, then the powers that be can capture higher higher education as a platform for a partisan agenda. If it does resist, the university itself could appear partisan and erode it’s own legitimacy.
I call this dynamic the institutional trap. Let me explain what I mean.
The institutional trap
Specific colleges and universities are organizations, even though we refer to them as institutions. The institution of higher education is the set of norms, values, cultural practices, roles, and ritualized procedures that tie all the colleges and universities together. That’s it: An institution is a way of ordering social activity by creating a set of expectations for how things work.
Higher education is a liberal institution. Liberal, in this context doesn’t mean politically liberal like Bernie and AOC are liberals, which I know is confusing because political conservatives think Bernie and AOC set the higher education agenda (they don’t). Liberal is about liberal values like … zooming over 250 years of history … the French Revolution.
At least on the surface, liberal institutions are defined by tolerance for difference, individual freedom, and acceptance of established procedures as the legitimate way of getting things done. Liberal institutions like higher education are supposed to be non-partisan and disinterested; they are supposed to be equitable and diverse. The institution - and the particular organizations that belong to it - does not have a dog in the fight. (Let’s see how mixed the metaphors can get.) It’s an open arena; a market place of ideas. Because higher education is an open arena, colleges and universities are assumed to be meritocratic. Those who do well in higher education do well because they hard work or have inate gifts. Anyway that’s how the story goes.
Liberal institutions like higher education are cautious and measured. They operate through deliberative procedure. This can make them a big sluggish but is mostly good because they are not supposed to tilt at windmills. They definitely are not supposed to violate norms and established procedures to exact political revenge.
Now, I want to get to the trap part of the institutional trap. But we need to take a detour first.
The not so ‘liberal’ liberal institution
So about higher education as a liberal institution, while it is true, it’s also not. I know that seems contradictory so let me try to explain. In lot’s of ways, U.S. higher education is a liberal institution as I described above. It’s stable and governed by procedures. It’s open and values individual (academic) freedom. But it’s not just these idealized abstract values. U.S. higher education has a history and some of it us ugly. Like the way Land Grant universities were build on the proceeds from selling land that was stolen from Native people, or how U.S. higher education is entangled in the history of American slavery, or how some universities had strict quotas on the number of Jewish students they would admit in the first part of the 20th century. This history isn’t just something in the in the past, its built into the institution that is reproduced by the norms and processes that anchor higher education. This history is living today.
When we theorize higher education as a liberal institution without thinking about what that history means, we get an incomplete picture. The sociologist Victor Ray shows how this history, reproduced through institutional norms, keep organizations like colleges and universities white. Remaining white spaces is how organizations maintain white supremacy. About the history that lead to this, Ray says:
In reality (and even though we typically do not say this out loud), many mainstream American organizations have profited from and reinforced white dominance. Many still do. Understanding this context is vital to seeing organizations for what they really are: not meritocracies, but long-standing social structures built and managed to prioritize whiteness.
So, higher education is a liberal institution but it is also an institution that is steeped in and helps to maintain white supremacy. But the white supremacy maintaining part of the organization has been a little but “undercover” ever since the civil rights era and post-Brown integration. It hasn’t been that far undercover, and students and scholars of Color have always experienced and understood what’s going on. Some Johnny-come-lately white people (me included), are learning now. The point most important for our current purpose is that the liberal institution of higher education is status-quo preserving, including the status-quo of white supremacy.
Now, back to the trap
Granting tenure to activist-scholars like Hannah-Jones, who’s work shows the racist foundation to liberal ideals, brings critical scholarship into the architecture of higher education. Anti-racist ideas may slowly become part of the norms and expectations of the institution. This is the institutionalization process James Davidson Hunter described as challenging “fundamental notions of what was right, decent, good, fair and so on.” Recall, UNC donor Hussman objected to Hannah-Jones on the grounds of professional values, and reactionary objections to the 1619 project trot out “fundamental American values” to as their objections.
For reactionary culture warriors, the possibility of challenging white supremacy is unacceptable. The Hannah-Jones UNC story is not the only example, just a recent and spectacular one. The AAUP shows that Campus Reform a right-wing website targets faculty members, especially faculty of Color, who work at research universities, and who study race. The frequent result is that faculty featured by the website are subject to online harassment, they feel treated, and may change how and what they teach and research. Under the guise of resisting “woke” ideology that quells speech, the cultural right is working hard to expel critical ideas, especially about race and racism, from higher education.
The AAUP surveyed faculty who were featured in Campus Reform stories (disclosure, I have been featured in Campus reform and responded to the survey) and they found that institutions most often didn’t offer any kind of support.
Only 45.3 percent of respondents reported having received support from the administration, while 12.4 percent of respondents reported having experienced some form of punitive action by the administration related to the coverage by Campus Reform. Three faculty members reported having been dismissed from their positions as a result of stories written by Campus Reform.
Limited support for harassed faculty is a prime example of the institutional trap. Colleges and universities fear (justifiably or not) that taking a position against right wing attacks or even simply supporting affected faculty members is the same as taking a partisan position. The right has effectively established any direct support for anti-racist ideas or even for the study race and racism as partisan position. Higher education has at least partially institutionalized this idea and is worried about having a dog in the fight. Campus leaders don’t want to seem “political.”
Let’s think about this in two ways: (1) Higher education as an institution is congenitally averse to seeming political, to acting like it has a dog in the fight. The institution is non-partisan, after all. (2) Particular campus leaders (presidents and provosts, for example) are worried about their own careers – as an aside, I think we underestimate how much colleges and universities are steered by administrators’ careerism – and are cautious.
It basically works like this. Reactionaries say “hey, Critical Race Theory discriminates against me, a white person.” Administrators don’t want to condemn CRT but they also don’t want to support it because they think that will invite more reactionary attnetion directed to the university and themselves. They try to duck the whole thing.
The ever-popular Associate Dean was more pithy.
Associate Deans
We need you to be more indulgent of the C+ frat boys and 3rd string athletes. They will be in the legislature in about ten years, and they vote on our budget. Think long term, people!
I’ve been thinking about the institutional trap and how it plays in the culture war for a while. Sharing some old Tweets is self-indulgent (any more than this whole newsletter? maybe not) but may be a succinct way of getting at this idea with a bit more clarity.
Brendan Cantwell
The institutional trap. Now good faith reporters are gonna have to look into Biden’s affairs with China just to properly debunk Donald’s lunatic ravings thereby adding credibly to his bad faith accusations. https://t.co/mdOoQtqkJj
Brendan Cantwell
The institutional trap: Appointing anyone with extensive ties to the Trump administration may legitimize Trumpism, but their systematic exclusion will provoke questions (some in bad faith) about the legitimacy of higher education as non-partisan and open. https://t.co/NcBl4ZjzkJ
Brendan Cantwell
Effects of GOP efforts to limit voting are uncertain, but the party’s anti-democratic shift is not. The situation is an “institutional trap” for universities. It’s easy to frame teaching social reality as anti-conservative. What should higher ed do? https://t.co/JebLlbapfv
What should higher education do?
Now let’s think a little bit about how higher education should respond to this trap. I think a few points are worth emphasizing. Everything is political. Campus leaders really wish this would all go away. Aside from a the partisans appointed to lead universities, most college presidents are not from the world of party politics (though many are masters of academic politics, which is also a nasty business). The culture war cannot be wished away because ignoring it won’t make it go away. As my good friend and colleague Dr. Leslie Gonzales reminds me, not taking a position is itself a political position!
The first thing higher education leaders can do is acknowledge the they are in fact in a culture war. They might not like it, as I have said, but they can’t avoid it. Face the music. If you are a campus leader, know that you cannot avoid being political. You are political. No way around it. That means that you cannot hide or empty language press release your way out of the culture way.
“But, Brendan, I’m a campus president and I have no interest in being a culture warrior, what should I do?” If you don’t want to be in this spot, go back to the faculty. Facing the culture war is part of the job now.
“But, Brendan, I don’t think being a partisan combatant is the right thing for a university.” I agree. Don’t be a partisan. It is hard because the right now presents anything that is not in lock-step with the Republican party as partisan but hold steady. You don’t need to endorse Democratic candidates or take partisan positions.
The second thing that higher education leaders can do is tell the truth. This one is pretty simple. I know it’s not hard to tell the truth and for legal and other reasons sometimes you won’t want to or can’t volunteer all the information you have on a particular subject. You (you are a campus leader, by the way) don’t need to become a tell-all open book. But higher education leaders do need to be more forthright to avoid the institutional trap. The more higher education tries not to say what’s what and avoid simply telling the truth - try this one, laws limiting classes that address racism are in fact racist - the more difficult it is going to be to get out of the trap.
Learn from what we saw happen to the press during Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency. The news media fell into the institutional trap. It didn’t know how to cover Trump and was twisted into knots. Remember all the tortured euphemisms used to avoid telling the truth and saying directly that Trump is a liar? Washington Post opinion writer Perry Bacon Jr. has simple advice for the news media now covering the Republican party’s further radicalization: tell the truth, say that it is becoming an anti-democratic party. Pretty simple. Campus leaders can do the same.
Jay Rosen
In this clip @perrybaconjr identifies an internal conflict in the mainstream press: whether to be' both sides,' or pro-democracy. https://t.co/aZ5Ej2iWcM Maybe 5-6 years ago this would have been a lopsided victory for the both sides doctrine. Not any more.
Ok enough (this is way too long).
Two favor, please.
First, be on the look out for a book by my friend and college Barrett Taylor on this subject. It should be out late this year or early 2022.
Second, if you read all the way to this point, then you probably liked or hated what I had to say (the internet has lots of hate reading). Either way, please consider subscribing to my newsletter blog thing-y and sharing this post on social media. Cheers!
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education (https://t.co/W9MAg5AvZU). Speak only for my self.

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