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.