Kalven report and Chicago academic politics

How do we understand the politics of the university, again?

Consider the following case. A few years ago there were efforts to get the University of Chicago to divest from Darfur. They failed. At the time, the president Zimmer justified the decision by referring to the Kalven Report, a 1967 document explaining that, in short, the university should be the forum for individuals to formulate their own political positions, but should not itself take political positions. Importantly, there were multiple arguments for what the authors called a “heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.” The Kalven Report justifies its conclusions with three arguments:

  1. An argument that the university has no method for reaching political consensus, because it is obligated to respect dissenting opinions, and not overrule them by majority vote. Hence, any institutional politics would fail to respect minority rights. This is an argument about the ethics of representation and decision-making.
  2. An argument that any institutional involvement in politics could undercut the university’s “prestige and influence.” Supposedly, a university can “[endanger] the conditions for its existence and effectiveness” by becoming politically involved. This seems to be a pragmatic argument about the university’s conditions of institutional stability, which are thought to decline as it takes sides on salient social issues.
  3. An argument that the university’s “mission,” which is (predictably) described as the “discovery, improvement and dissemination of knowledge,” simply does not include short-term political involvement. “It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby,” says the report. This is a rather Platonic argument about the university’s apparently eternal social essence. (As Paul Horwitz pointed out last year in commenting on the report, there is of course no reason why every university must have the same mission. Moreover, as the French university historian Jacques Verger would have put it, universities change with the times, including in their missions and concepts. So this argument is, on the face of it, the most fallacious of the three.)

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student-teacher equality & the limits of radical pedagogy

I came across a very interesting interview with one Michael Denning, a marxist cultural studies person at Yale. I’m particularly interested in his comments on graduate education; evidently he has organized a research collective co-organized with students. He says there’s a big difference between a seminar, where the teacher doesn’t write but only grades the students’ work, and a collective where everyone is working together. He comments:

“Particularly after the first year, people in a graduate program are part of the profession, they’re part of the industry. They have exactly the same day-to-day concerns as I do: how do you manage teaching on the one hand, and getting your research done on the other, which is the central structure of the research university. That’s why I don’t really think of this as graduate training.”

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copy district as abject zone

I notice I seldom post on this blog. I think that rather than trying to make it a commentary on the current academic news, a vast and unrewarding project, I want to spend more time talking about the research literature I’ve encountered on the university. Today I just stumbled across Kate Eichhorn’s “Breach of Copy/rights: The university copy district as abject zone,” in Public Culture 18:3. She comments that universities are typically surrounded by districts of copy shops, which serve as symbolic boundaries for campus, “abject zones” that are necessary but officially repugnant, since they are full of illegal activity – by which she means the unauthorized xeroxing that is rampant in academic life.

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Saudi Arabia: largest women-only university

A Guardian article reports the construction of a 40,000-student university for women only in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The journalist couples the news with critiques of the discriminatory effects of gender-based segregation in the country, commenting that Human Rights Watch has recently released a report describing Saudi women as “perpetual minors.” This would seem to be another one of those moments where anthropological relativism clashes with basic feminist instincts. Shouldn’t women be allowed to work and drive everywhere? Yes, one would certainly think so. But on the other hand, isn’t it ok for some cultures to assign different rights and responsibilities to different people? One would think so too, since all culture have role differentiation — a division of labor, in other words. Is it justifiable to impose Euroamerican standards of freedom and gender equality on the rest of the world? Well, it certainly smacks of ethnocentrism to do so, but there is also a place for universalist politics. What do Saudi women think about it themselves? The article doesn’t give a terribly clear view of that, mostly quoting a researcher, Farida Deif, who finds that women’s mobility in medical school dormitories was highly restricted, and that the Saudi education system perpetuates traditional gender roles.

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