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.

Hence one of the most striking moments in Zimmer’s speech is when he says — his speech by the way is about academic freedom and hence he talks about the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, a document which I have already examined on this blog — anyway, Zimmer, I was saying, rightly says that to understand the Kalven Report we must situate it in its institutional context. But to my eyes as an anthropologist, what Zimmer calls “contextualiz[ing] the Kalven report within institutional culture” would be better called contextualizing the Kalven report in his obligatory presidential fantasy of institutional culture. See for yourself:

…I believe it is necessary to contextualize the Kalven report within institutional culture. The commitment to maintain open, rigorous, intense inquiry in an environment of maximal intellectual freedom is not a simple one. It is difficult and to succeed demands a culture and community that will support it. The University of Chicago holds these as its highest values and we seek to reinforce them at every turn. The Kalven report is a component of this culture. Many other institutions push other values forward as legitimate competing interests, and their culture may not support such a strong position on this particular set of values. Every institution needs to come to its own conclusion as to what it is and what it wants to be. It needs to decide how much weight to give to various competing interests. Kalven only works at the University of Chicago because of these common values at the University, and can only be fully understood as a part of the realization of these values.

The University of Chicago’s “culture” here is one that is presented as having monolithically shared and uncontested values. Its community is portrayed as a heroic agent that has managed to maintain a difficult but successful “commitment to maintain open, rigorous, intense inquiry in an environment of maximal intellectual freedom.” This obviously is not an empirical description but an artfully patterned and arranged permutation of highly valorized ceremonial language. There are no real people in this description, no disciplinary or economic or political differences, none of the gritty detail of routine institutional dysfunction. Uttered by a janitor, this description would be surreal (given the class and educational connotations that lie hidden within this governing language); uttered by a student, it would be sycophantic. Uttered by a president, it is a moment that shows the empty self-referentiality of ceremonial rhetoric. (I don’t mean to completely trash these fantasies of institutional valor, and I’m certainly not saying there’s nothing good about the university, but I do want to emphasize the aesthetic fixations of this discourse.) And while presidential descriptions do vary over the years, this public affirmation of institutional virtue is clearly part of the obligations of the president’s job, and not mainly the expression of a personal or scholarly opinion. Second thesis: a presidential speech is institutional fantasy hour, an obligatory ritual pause whose ideological emptiness guarantees that its form will be more significant than its content.

(3) This description of institutional culture should be taken as official self-image rather than a genuine description, but let’s say we read it naively as a description, since Zimmer does gesture towards describing a culture, even if somewhat rhetorically. Now, frankly, this description of a “culture” strains my ethnographic faculties. If Zimmer ever happens to read this blog — a moment I do not foresee — I must protest that my experience suggests that, as an empirical description, what he says is quite false. Chicago is in reality not as special as it imagines itself: it is an institution much more like institutions elsewhere: it is a university where one hears plenty of false and unrigorous claims, plenty of lazy inquiries that are neither open nor intense, plenty of situations where “intellectual freedom” is limited by prevailing disciplinary prejudice and intellectual narrow-mindedness. Zimmer states that the university has a “commitment to maintain open, rigorous, intense inquiry in an environment of maximal intellectual freedom,” but interpreted empirically, this statement is not only false but also performatively self-refuting. In other words, the very sloppiness and clearly deeply constrained nature of this presidential statement is already evidence in itself that institutional culture is neither perfectly rigorous nor perfectly free. Third thesis: read inside-out, contextually and symptomatically, presidential speech can serve as a barometer of the disingenousness of campus self-images.

(4) The rhetoric of “culture” and “community” serves to conceal all the ways in which the university is neither a settled culture nor a community of equals. Particularly disingenuously, the university administration disappears as an actor, as if the voice of the president was, unproblematically, the voice of the university. It seems, in fact, that Zimmer has a deeply autocratic view of himself as the sole authorized voice of the university:

Were [former president] Hutchins’s political activities an expression of academic freedom or were they chilling, given that he embodied the University as its president? Many today, including myself, would question this level of political engagement for a University president. While separating the University from its president in a legal sense is easy enough, it is problematic practically, and thus the potential chilling effect of a politically active president is something I and other of Hutchins’s successors have tried to avoid.

Now, indeed as I said above, it is difficult for a president not to be viewed as a spokesperson for a university, but what strikes me here is that Zimmer sees his only option as being one of retreat into his role as the practical “embodiment” of the university. He shows no interest in developing a campus process for developing a more democratic university consensus. Indeed, insofar as he ardently defends the Kalven Report — which asserts that the university (administration) must take no political positions, even ones overwhelmingly demanded by faculty and students — he asserts that the university president’s role is to resist the will of the campus majority. For Zimmer, the administration’s role appears to be to resist outside as well as inside pressures. (There is something deeply disturbing to me, frankly, about his equation of 1930s Nazi dominance of the University of Berlin with 1980s calls on the university to divest from South Africa. The idea that he would very nearly equate these as unwanted political influences is frightening.) What he doesn’t mention, of course, is that the administration is permanently obliged to bring in funds for the university and that this might be relevant to an assessment of political neutrality. “Investing” for him does not count as a political act, only “divesting,” which is suspect, apparently, because it involves imposing an outside political will on what should be a strictly internal business decision.

Thus again we are back at the nexus of institutional power and money, two major features of university life that, one might think, would be highly relevant for a theory of academic freedom. And yet are so thoroughly unexplored in Zimmer’s speech. But in the end, I almost pity this president. Even if he happened personally to agree with everything I had said here, he would, on my assessment, be incapable of saying anything so scathing in a public forum. His role, and the dignity of the institution he claims to embody, would prohibit it.

One day when I have time to write a longer article, a comparative analysis of university presidents’ discourse from both sides of the Atlantic would seem to be in order.

3 thoughts on “Four theses on university presidents’ speech

  1. I agree that university presidents’ speech is far more constrained than individual professors. This may be why I’ve bothered to read so little of it. I find Zimmer’s speech fairly boring, but basically unobjectionable.

    While I think its rather silly to pretend that a university can truly be apolitical, I wouldn’t want the faculty voting to endorse lots of political statements either.

    1. Well, in my view we don’t have a choice between a university that makes political statements and one that doesn’t. Instead, we have a choice between a university whose political acts are managed by administrators and one whose politics are open to democratic campus input. You see, in my view things like “investing in Darfur” or “hiring a huge campus police force” or “building something on the former site of a community garden” are already political acts. The problem, from this perspective, is that the administration generally gets to implement whatever politics it wants, ignoring faculty and student input at will.

  2. Faculty and students do have some influence. Mostly because the administration wants to attract new students and faculty.

    People who control sources of funding also have major influence, and I’m sure they don’t use that influence in an ideal way, but it isn’t all bad for faculty/students. Reduce the funders influence and they may decide to stop funding.

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