Academic Freedom, or Privilege with Blinders?

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson wrote a thoughtful response to the University of Chicago’s declaration to the class of 2020 that they won’t find trigger warnings or intellectual safe spaces in Hyde Park, and promises another that specifically addresses safe spaces. I’ll leave him in charge of the cool, level-headed, intellectual arguments, and I’ll post as an angry alum. There was a lot I valued about getting an education at Chicago, but this (attention-grabbing stunt?) move really reminds me of the things that I liked least about being a Chicago Maroon.

The letter in question boasts of the University of Chicago’s long, and often controversial, commitment to academic freedom, referencing a free expression report and coordinated website. All these materials tell a story of an institution that has, for more than a hundred years, permitted and defended hosting controversial speakers, refused to censor controversial ideas, and valued deliberation. The report calls free expression “our inheritance, and our promise to the future.”

A cynic might think that this is a quick turnaround from the threat to expel a student body president who facilitated a protest for campus workers to make a living wage just a couple of months ago. But someone with a long view on the University’s history might think that the University has made a distinction between a narrowly-defined academic freedom, and freedom to/ability to speak more generally – where the former often comes at the expense of or during the suppression of the latter. In fact, one can find this distinction codified, where the University’s “protest” policy, located far away in web-clicks from its “freedom of expression policy” has a very low bar for disruptive behavior (which, ironically, some academic “free speech” might meet, using the letter of the law). The University of Chicago has been noted as one of the institutions that cracked down the strongest (most unreasonably?) on Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s and 1970s. While academic speech in a confined sort of environment (a traditional speaker giving a traditional talk with questions and answers) is highly valued at the University of Chicago, I never got the sense that free expression generally was nearly as valued, especially when it was protest speech.

This is one of the things that makes me angry about the University’s hard line on trigger warnings and safe spaces – the University of Chicago is a place for free expression, among students, in a classroom, about things “outside” the university rather than about how the university is or what the university is or how it works. In fact, on at least two occasions, the University has suppressed protest speech directly related to University practices. This means that UChicago students have a particular sort of freedom – all ideas in the classroom and at talks – but lack other freedoms, particularly participating in the shaping of their institution when the institution refuses to engage their concerns.

That is a problem, but it isn’t my biggest problem. My biggest problem is the University of Chicago touting free expression without there being scrutiny on what the University chooses to be silent about. I think that the University chooses problematic, discriminatory, white-washing silences, and that those matter both in its claims to freedom of expression generally, and the trigger warning/safe space debate specifically.

As an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Chicago, I was mailed driving directions to get to campus from the south, before in-car or on-phone GPS was a thing. I trusted the University to give directions to itself more efficiently than I could figure out on the atlas. The driving directions from the south were to drive up the Dan Ryan to Lake Shore Drive, then south on Lake Shore Drive to campus. For those of you who know Chicago, or can look at a map,  I drove almost 14 miles on four-lane-highway at rush hour from the Dan Ryan exit on 55th Street to getting off of Lake Shore Drive on 57th street – which I think is about two miles on 55th street. The University sent me a ridiculous distance out of my way – why? I can only guess to stop my new-freshman eyes from seeing Washington Park as my first exposure to Chicago? The public transit directions to go Downtown were similarly narrow – they said to take the Jeffrey Bus (at the time it was the #6) or the University bus. You could even the 55 bus to the Red Line over the Dan Ryan, though I remember warnings about that at night. The problem? Between campus and the Red Line on the 55 bus was the Green Line – another way to get downtown.

I am sure the University saw it was public relations, or as keeping students safe, rather than as censorship, or painting a partial picture of the University’s world. The University has a long and storied history of relationships with the surrounding community that try to drive out diversity, which even John Boyer explains have played out on race and class lines. I remember attending a number of events at the University of Chicago which were nominally open to our non-affiliated neighbors but were neither welcoming or accessible. ‘The neighborhood’ was a place that we as students were encouraged to help, but not necessarily encouraged to learn from – the University was a resource for the neighborhood (limitedly, in its own view), but the neighborhood wasn’t treated as a resource for the University. Academic speech was valued in its quality, quantity, and freedom, but what constituted academic speech is narrow, confined by degrees and tuition dollars and an unrepresentative part of the population. This “fits” with a place that suppresses students’ protest speech, especially when that suppressed protest speech is about treating its workers, the neighborhood, its minority students, or its war-objector students with more justice.

At the end of the day, both of these problems – the hypocrisy of the juxtaposition of this statement with the threats to punish a protesting student earlier this year, and the speech the University chooses to promote compared to the speech the University chooses to silent/be silent on – make me angry about what appears to be a self-righteous statement about trigger warnings and safe spaces. I don’t have a well-formed opinion on trigger warnings and safe spaces – I see both sides of the argument – but I worry that the self-appreciating blanket announcement that they will not exist is yet another implicit bias and exclusion in a University that claims inclusiveness but whitewashes its exclusions. The people who need/want trigger warnings are another disadvantaged population that the University of Chicago is not taking serving seriously.

Why do I say that the University of Chicago is not taking serving those people seriously? The letter linked above does not talk about why people ask for trigger warnings and safe spaces; it doesn’t talk about the horrors of war or rape culture of child abuse or child molestation or any number of things that cause serious trauma and psychological damage. It doesn’t talk about resources that the University offers (like the counseling center, or student support groups) to deal with trauma and stress and triggers; it doesn’t talk about the barriers to learning that Patrick deals with; it doesn’t talk about making sure that the University of Chicago is an accessible learning environment. I think that its letter to its 2020 freshman showcases, both implicitly and explicitly, its axes of exclusion rather than its axes of inclusion.

Safe spaces and hospitable classrooms

In my last post here I argued that the infamous University of Chicago missive about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” rested on a rather profound mischaracterization of the issues as being about preventing student discomfort in the classroom. The position adopted in the letter from the Dean of Students seems to be that efforts to make the classroom a more comfortable place are implacably opposed to “freedom of inquiry and expression” and “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas,” and that since safe spaces and trigger warnings are about making students comfortable, the University does not support or condone them. I actually agree that the purpose of a classroom is not to provide comfort; instead, I would claim that the purpose of a classroom is to provide opportunities for students to augment and enhance their capacities to do things. But I disagree with the notion that trigger warnings are about making students comfortable, and prefer to think about them as involving the removal of barriers to participation in class. So “trigger warnings” are an access issue.

But I don’t think that analysis suffices for “safe spaces,” the other target of the Chicago note. (I am setting aside the part of the letter about invited speakers, because in my view co-curricular activities on campus invoke a different set of concerns than those strictly limited to the classroom — and campuses without “safe spaces” strike me as a real problem, because we still have a lot of work to do in making room for a whole plethora of identities and issues on campus.) In many conceptions, a “safe space” does depends on “comfort” as a core characteristic. Continue reading

Cyber Security and the Coming Failure of the UN’s Group of Governmental Experts

Cross posting with the Niskanen Center

Brandon Valeriano and Allison Pytlak

This week the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), as part of the United Nations, is meeting once again in what has become a regular reflection of current thought in the field of cyber security internationally.  ‘Reflection’ is the perfect word to describe what the GGE does because it’s not clear to what purpose the group is moving. It might be a useful exercise to review what we know about cyber security at this point and why the GGE will fail to engage with the most pressing problems generated in and from cyberspace.   4bff43b07e8fed5ebcaad53875b35b28

Continue reading

Trigger Warnings, Barriers, and the Purpose of the Classroom

If the University of Chicago intended to provoke wide-ranging discussion and debate by sending a letter to all of its new students denouncing “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” it has certainly succeeded. Of course, this being the Internet, most of the ensuing chatter has been of the slash-and-burn variety, with slogans flying fast and furious: academic freedom! Inclusion! Diversity! Coddled millennials and their helicopter boomer parents! I’m not going to dignify any of the click-bait-y things posted this week in that vein by linking to them. Instead I want to claim that this is a more complex issue than either of the quick partisan responses would suggest, and offer a reframing of the issue in terms of the very point of a classroom in the first place—something that seems, as usual, to get lost amidst the elegant yelling of the dispute.

In order to actually say something intelligent about this issue, we have to get past both the caricatured “freedom of speech” position in which any limit whatsoever on anyone saying anything is taken to be a violation of some natural law, and the equally caricatured “emotional sensitivity” position in which any feeling of discomfort is automatically converted into a violation of basic human dignity. These are caricatures, held—as far as I can tell—by pundits rather than by actual thoughtful educators, because actual educators (teachers and those who support them administratively, which I phrase very carefully so as to exclude those parts of the contemporary university that aren’t concerned with supporting teaching…you know who you are) recognize that producing spaces of learning is hard work involving the ongoing exercise of practical judgment instead of any kind of cheap, ideological sloganeering. One size certainly doesn’t fit all here, and your mileage will definitely vary.

That said: If we want our students to learn things, we have to be attentive to where they start out, where we want them to go, and what we want them to encounter on the way. No actual educator would deny any of that. So where does that leave us?

Continue reading

The burden of insecurity: Using theories of International Relations to make-sense of the state of post-9/11 politics

This is a guest post by Runa Das, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Duluth.

The globalizing world of post-9/11 international politics unfortunately continues to be rocked by terrorist attacks impacting states and their civilians at a global level. Beginning with September 2001 (9/11) attacks on the United States, these unfortunate chains of events have (amongst many others) occurred in Europe (Madrid, 2004; London, 2005; Paris, 2015); Asia (Mumbai, 2008; Bali, 2002; Jakarta, 2005); Africa (Kenya, 2013; Tunisia, 2015); once again in the United States (Boston, 2013; San Bernardino, 2015); and, recently in Brussels (March 2016) followed by those in Pakistan (Lahore).

How do we as academics and researchers working at the theoretical intersections of the fields of International Relations and Security – who in various ways seek to engage with students, state leaders, policy practitioners, and, the broader intellectual community to bring about a world of peace and security –  make sense of (and deal with) these unfortunate incidents of terrorist occurrences that incur direct devastating consequences on states and citizens who remain victims of these occurrences? Also, at a more complex level, how does one make sense of the inter-connected issues of religion, culture, and identity of certain individuals, groups, and communities who may unfortunately become subject to implicit or explicit forms of profiling or stereo-typing as a result of these repeated terrorist occurrences? In sum, how do we as members of the academia deal with this “burden” of terrorism-prone insecurity pervading post-9/11 international affairs?

Indeed, it is common-sense that for every globally concerned citizen these terror crises are real threat issues with concrete and long-lasting physical-psychological impact on their direct victims; on these victims’ friends and families; and to any responsible and concerned member of the global community – irrespective of their gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, and geographical location – constitute a highly disconcerting state of human insecurity.

As such, the post-9/11 aftermath has justifiably witnessed an array of responses from state leaders all over the world to fight this terror through political, military, and counter-terrorism strategies; alliance-building amongst democratic/responsible states; as well as inter-state diplomacy and dialogue to secure a post-9/11 world of peace and security. These collective efforts are evidenced in the passing of the US Patriot Act by the US after 9/11; the creation of the United States Department of Homeland Security 2002; the passing of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001 in UK; the European Union Framework Decision on Terrorism, 2002; Prevention of Terrorism Act in India, 2002; and so forth. In addition, there followed speeches by political leaders “assuring” security to their citizens residing at home/abroad; shoring up subway, airport, and other transportation and special law-enforcement security systems; and, last but not the least, an escalation of states’ military-nuclear defensive measures (also resulting in their rising military-defense budgetary expenses).

Continue reading

Professors of, not professors in…

So the LSE has appointed — appointed, not hired, which is important — Angelina Jolie Pitt (AJP) as a “Visiting Professor in Practice.” The importance of the hire/appoint distinction: there is a part of me that is somewhat perturbed that an institution that has not once but twice passed on the opportunity to have me join its ranks has made a space for someone whose scholarly CV is, shall we say, somewhat spotty, but the kind of position AJP has been awarded is a very different animal from anything I might have applied for — and presumably she did not have to give a job talk, secure letters of recommendation from senior colleagues, and have her latest book dissected by a faculty search committee, so I think it’s safe to say that there is a different game being played here.


Continue reading

Embracing our Failures

Guest post by Sara Mitchell, University of Iowa

My daughter recently played in the regional high school team tennis competition, she played singles in addition to the number one player on her team (#1 at regionals). On the drive home, my daughter noted that the coach had spent one-on-one time with the #1 player all week. She asked, “why does our coach spend the most time on the player who needs the least amount of help?”  In answering those questions, a lot of things about my experiences as an academic were useful. I told her that while my career has been very successful, I have been defined most by experiences where I failed. Interviewing for multiple senior jobs in the past few years and netting zero job offers was personally painful, but it also pushed me to think more about what I want for my career and how I can be successful on the job market in the future.   tennis_fail

Continue reading

Turning Over the Table: Failing or Succeeding in the Tenure Process

Navel gazing at the tenure process continues and anxiety can be crippling. The same unfortunate lessons keep coming up, the University will outlive us all.  We can be discarded at any time or for just about any reason, regardless of tenure. The problem is that many tenure post-mortem cases do not seem to accept this reality, we need to go further and speak some honest truths about the process and the institutions we work for.  2015-10-06-1444167615-5163152-20140824fallingshort

Continue reading

Women Shouldn’t Need Different Guidelines for Achieving Tenure (And Other Observations on Gendered Academe)

*while Foreign Policy editors expressed initial interest in this post, a long-delayed response time to its actual draft suggests to me that such interest has faded, though I cannot imagine why. I’ve decided to self-publish it here on RI. 

Recently, Foreign Policy contributor Stephen Walt published an article on how to get tenure in political science, and Erica Chenoweth, Page Fortna, Sara Mitchell, Burcu Savun, Jessica Weeks, and Kathleen Cunningham responded with an article on the different experiences women have when they go through the process of seeking tenure. Both pieces are, in some ways, spot-on. As Chenoweth et al note, Walt’s points are reasonable, but “the likely effect of his recommended strategies would be drastically different” for men and for women.

Chenoweth et al correctly identify the source of that difference – that “processes may be biased against women, often due to implicit bias rather than conscious discrimination.” They then make a very strong case that implicit bias affects almost every facet of the tenure process, from letters of recommendations to research expectations, from hiring committees to the probability of citation, from publication opportunities to syllabus assignments, from teaching evaluations to service expectations. They also correctly point out that there are different behavioral expectations of women in the field than there are for men.

The authors then go on to give women junior faculty a number of survival tips for the tenure process: get what you need at work, get what you need at home, create time, set boundaries with others, filter commentary and criticism, network, and get your work out there. All of these (if they are realistic) are excellent pieces of advice for navigating the gendered nature of the tenure process. And Chenoweth et al do not leave it entirely to women to navigate the process: the last two paragraphs of the piece talk about advice for allies to make sure that they are aware of, and not complicit in, the gendered dynamics of the discipline.

One the one hand, this advice is solid – after all, to an extent  we all navigate the existing system individually. On the other hand, from a feminist perspective, I have two serious concerns about the advice provided. First, I am concerned that providing advice for navigating the gendered system of achieving tenure without strategizing to change the system as a whole puts the primary responsibility for overcoming bias on the victims of the bias. Second, I am concerned that a significant number of the strategies provided are only available to a small percentage of those who might seek professional success as political science faculty, narrowing the spectrum of those to whom tenure might be available.

Continue reading

“Liberal Intolerance” and other misnomers

Today, Nicholas Kristof had a piece in the New York Times ‘admitting’ to ‘liberal intolerance’ in academia. In relevant part, he says:

I’ve been thinking about this because on Facebook recently I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point. … To me, the conversation illuminated primarily liberal arrogance — the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion. My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination.

He goes on to identify that less than ten percent of social scientists are Republicans, and that there are many disciplines in which it is more likely that you will find a Marxist than a Republican. The piece ends with a hopeful plea for inclusion of conservatives:

So maybe we progressives could take a brief break from attacking the other side and more broadly incorporate values that we supposedly cherish — like diversity — in our own dominions.

Ok, so I’m one of those Marxists, I guess. That’s not the right word, but it will do as political shorthand. And I don’t have a lot of empathy for Republicans who face ‘discrimination’ in political science. But it doesn’t make me into Kristof’s anti-diversity bad guy, and I think his post just misses the actual dynamics of what’s going on.

Being conservative is not like being a woman, or being queer, or being a person of color. Being a woman, or being queer, or being a person of color do not carry with them essential characteristics. While there is no one mold for ‘conservative,’ it is my hunch that what academics really ‘mock’ or ‘exclude’ (both terms, I think, are extreme, and will discuss that below) are not people as conservatives but conservative viewpoints. And that’s not intolerance, bigotry, or anti-diversity.

There are some who would say that its just the facts. That conservatives are just wrong. That if 90% of chemists or biologists or physicists thought something, lay people would just think it was right. That the reason conservatives have no place in social science academia is because the science proves them wrong. That some people go to grad school as conservatives, then they learn things, and then they’re not conservative anymore. And that’s tempting to me – in part because many of the assumptions that conservatives make about the constitution of the United States, its position in the world, and what it is okay to do to other countries seem so viscerally problematic to me. If I’m sure of anything in the world, its finding US hegemonic positioning morally reprehensible. And while that’s not unique to ‘conservatives,’ it is often a mainstay of conservativism.

But saying that conservatives are ‘out’ because they are wrong would require me to make a number of political commitments that I find problematic – a commitment to the existence of a universal right and wrong, a commitment to strong ontologies, a commitment to objective knowledge, a commitment to scientific positivism, etc. And I’m a post-positivist, post-structuralist leftist, certainly, but that’s a weak ontology – I am sure enough to act on it, but not sure enough to exclude other possibilities.

So my argument is different. Continue reading