Four theses on university presidents’ speech

Recently I got an interesting email from my university’s communications department with a link to a speech recently given by the university’s current president, Robert Zimmer. They said they had appreciated my prior comments on academic freedom and were curious to hear my comments on this speech.

Never having been asked to comment on anything on this blog, I felt a little puzzled, but eventually thought, why not? So here, if you like, are some theses on understanding this instance of a presidential speech.

(1) A presidential speech is a balancing act, a diplomatic performance; and as such, it is almost inevitably produced under severe institutional and diplomatic constraints. One might put it like this: university presidents enjoy no right to free speech. Or at least, no free speech without the threat of retribution from any of numerous quarters. If you read Dean Dad’s wonderful blog about his life as a community college dean, the first thing you find out is that university management (call them leadership or administrators if you prefer) operates in a state of constant compromise and constraint. In a great recent post, he explains something about the constraints on what one can say in his role: “When I spoke only for myself, it didn’t really matter what I said. But as a leader in the institution, comments that once would have been merely snarky were suddenly taken as indications of larger directions.” Just think of Larry Summers. As president, one is heavily vetted to begin with, continuously accountable to multiple constituencies, and under pressure not to rock the boat. And as Dean Dad points out, “front-room talk” isn’t the same as “back-room talk”: even if presidents may be frank in private, they are seldom unguarded when acting in their ceremonial role. First thesis: presidents are not free agents. Corollary: a presidential speech on academic freedom invokes a value that it cannot practice.

(2) The presidential speech is a kind of self-instituting, self-authorizing ceremonial language that functions to assure or reassure the continued dignity of the institution. And a presidential speech is hence less an empirical report on an institution than a moment in the reproduction of an institutional self-image. As in commercial advertising or a political campaign, one puts one’s best foot forward. It’s less that what is said is false as that campus life is glossed with the veneer of an institutional fantasy. This fantasy — one can see it in Zimmer’s speech — implicitly embodies its own criteria of evaluation, which are essentially aesthetic. In such a speech, institutional reality vanishes into the self-satisfied ether of institutional desires for beautiful self-representations.

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Against the concept of academic politics

A question that people sometimes ask me about my project is: why aren’t you more interested in the “internal politics” of the departments you work on?

My objection to this question, which has been strengthening for months like steeping tea, is the following: strictly internal politics aren’t actually politics. “Academic politics” as commonly discussed is an oxymoron and a terminological error. Loosely speaking, I would draw the following distinction: politics is about social change; but “academic politics” are merely a form of internal quarreling central to the reproduction of institutional order.

Now I agree, as someone is sure to object, that the internal affairs of a department can involve scheming and bickering and back-room deals; yes, they involve structures of power and domination, (occasional) resistance and (very seldom) subversion; certainly, they have institutionalized decision-making processes, like democratic voting or dictatorial edict. And some of these structures and processes are commonly thought to be political. But to call all of this stuff “academic politics” is, in my view, a confusion of certain means used in politics, with politics itself.

What is politics, then? — one might reasonably ask at this point. Or less grandiosely, what do I mean by politics here in this post? The term politics is obviously used to refer to a bunch of semi-overlapping things: for one thing, there’s the official “political sphere” (the thing one discovers in the politics section of the newspaper with its speeches and pundits); for another thing, there’s everything that people do to interfere with and alter social reproduction, which only seldom overlaps with the “political sphere”; for another thing, the term “politics” can be applied to anything — it becomes a traveling metaphor that can be used in whatever other contexts one likes. I guess my view, not terribly well formed but sufficient for this argument, is that politics (in those modern worlds that have it as such) is the key secular boundary zone between the sacred and the profane, a space filled with both utopian projections of nonactual, future (and presumably “better”) worlds and with bitter and inevitably compromising struggles to implement some fractions of these utopian projections.

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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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Knowledge, secrecy, and elite education

The academic press is particularly provocative these days. In a fascinating Chronicle column by Georgetown’s James O’Donnell, What a Provost Knows, we are informed that, as provost, he alone knows all the secrets of campus finances, the scale of comparative worth embedded in the salary hierarchy, and the general health of the institution. He ends by saying:

“That’s the burden of the job: knowing all the things that others don’t know or would rather not know. Much that I know I can’t talk about, and I have had to get used to being the object of (usually) undeserved suspicion. Because I know so much, my actions are not fully intelligible to those who observe them. The hardest part of being provost has been learning that it’s right and proper that I be suspected — that such vigilance is part of what keeps our institution healthy.

In the end, the burden of knowledge is worth it. The pleasures of the job are many, not least of which is understanding this marvelous institution so well — a Rube Goldberg creation that really does work, and very well indeed. And the opportunity to kibitz on the intellectual lives of more than 500 keenly intelligent and resourceful faculty members is an immense privilege. Even cleaning up their messes and fixing their leaky roofs gives me great satisfaction.”

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