A campus controversy

Over in France, there’s a controversy brewing over a conference on Israel that was going to be held at Paris-8 next week. It’s been covered in a range of newspapers. The gist is that the conference, subtitled “Israel, an apartheid state?”, had been authorized to be held on campus, but when a major French Jewish organization expressed opposition, the campus administration withdrew its authorization. Here’s a quick translation of the campus president’s communique explaining his decision:

To the university community,

The University of Paris-8 was recently asked to give its authorization for a conference on its campus entitled, “From new sociological, historical and legal approaches to the call for an international boycott: Israel, an apartheid state?”, planned for this February 27-28.

Initially, the President of the University did give an authorization to the conference organizers, on the condition that a certain number of obligations be scrupulously observed. These involved, on one hand, an absolute respect for the principles of academic neutrality and secularism [laïcité], and on the other hand, the removal of the university’s logos and visuals, since the university is not the organizer of this conference.

In giving this authorization, the President was mindful—as in every case when he is asked to approve public events—at once of the rights of freedom of speech and of assembly for campus users, of the maintenance of public order on the premises, of the institution’s intellectual and scientific independence, and of the principle of neutrality in public service vis-à-vis the diversity of public opinion.

However, today it appears that respecting these conditions will not be enough to guarantee the maintenance either of public order on the premises, or of the institution’s scientific or intellectual independence, given that the pluralism of scientific approaches, the pluralism of critical and divergent analyses, must be regarded as intangible academic obligations.

Indeed, the presentation of this “conference” as “academic,” along with the repeated presence of “Paris 8” on the conference publicity, could be, in themselves, of such a nature as to create confusions that may infringe on the requirement to keep the university free of any political or ideological grasp. The reactions elicited by the conference, which have begun to compromise the university itself, reveal that confusion has set in, and that there is a real risk to the principle of neutrality of public services in research and higher education.

The theme of the conference, the nature of the planned presentations, as well as of the contributors’ titles, strongly polemical in nature, have caused strong reactions that foreshadow a serious risk of disturbances in public order, and of counter-protests that the university is obliged to prevent.

In such circumstances, the President of the University has decided to withdraw the previously given authorization.

The President’s Office has contacted the organizers to propose that on-campus space should be allocated for a day of public debates, in the framework of a diversity of views.

Concerning the organization of the conference on February 27 and 28th, it is decided that the President’s Office will offer the university’s services in locating other premises off-campus where the conference can be held.

-The university administration

This decision has prompted a fair amount of outrage from faculty (including American intellectuals like Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky), who, naturally, invoked the same principles of academic freedom (“intellectual and scientific independence”) that the campus president (Pascal Binczak) had invoked in defending his change of views. I think it’s quite interesting that the principle of academic freedom can equally be invoked to license or to deny campus space for controversial events — the proponents of an event can argue that political interference shouldn’t be allowed to censor campus events; the opponents can argue that politically charged topics are insufficiently academic to deserve campus space. At the level of principle, I think this is more of a real dilemma than most parties want to acknowledge. Not many people today want to live in a static university where ancient, let’s say Aristotelian, intellectual doctrines are the only ones allowed to be presented on campus. But most campuses these days also want to set limits on acceptable speech. And it’s not clear to me that there is a principled way to set such limits on a purely intellectual basis.

Ultimately the relevant “principle” seems most often to be “what’s currently acceptable given the social mores of the moment” or “what some plurality of current scholars think is acceptable,” but given that both of these are historically contingent and variable reference points, I’m not sure they are extremely defensible. It seems to me it would be much more honest if administrators admitted that the main principle, in moments like this one, was just to save face or to avert conflict, was in short a principle of sheer expediency. My sense is that large bureaucracies make decisions for such reasons of expediency much more than they can possibly admit in public.

Jeffrey Williams on academics’ class status

I decided today that it would be wise to quit Facebook and put more energy into this blog. If there’s anything I’ve learned in graduate school, it’s that it works wonders to channel one’s excess energy into something that’s not work but that nonetheless involves making something. Music. Writing. Cleaning the house.

Anyway, I’ve been working on an essay about precarious work in French universities, and I came across a passage that I think is a great starting point for any analysis of academics’ class status. It’s in an essay, “Smart,” by Jeffrey Williams, a literary critic; it’s one of the best essays about academic culture that I know. In this passage, Williams is trying to teach us that academics’ class status is ambiguous: definitely not working class in the traditional sense, but distanced, often, from the conventional markers of professional success.

Class is not just a question of what money you have or don’t have, nor solely a question of status conferred by cultural capital, but that it marks your body. If you look at most fellow academics’ hands, you’ll rarely see calluses.

I start with this… to broach both the visibility and invisibility of our class position. As academics, especially in the humanities, we have a vexed relation to class. On the one hand, by normal markers such as educational level (only about 10% of Americans have grad degrees, not to mention doctorates), the kind of work we do (white collar, with some autonomy, setting our own hours, etc.), salaries (which, while we might complain of how low they are, are much above the national mean, and certainly higher than, say, school teachers), as well as by tastes (what kind of magazines we have on our coffee tables—if you’ve ever tabulated the survey at the end of Paul Fussell’s Class), we are of the cultivated classes. Attaining our position through educational credentials, we are quintessential denizens of the professional-managerial class.

On the other hand, we often eschew or deny our class position, projecting a distance from the normal parameters of class in America. There are several ways that we do this: sometimes by projecting a kind of bohemian position on the peripheries of, if not antagonistic to, normative culture (we’re not like sharkskin suited lawyers, but wear jeans and open collars, and proclaim our queerity); sometimes by asserting a clerical position set against mainstream capitalism (we are not profit-seeking businesspeople, instead working in the non-quantifiable realm of culture, whether conservatively sanctifying its lineage or progressively opening it); sometimes by celebrating our uselessness (we fumble at basic tasks like filling out forms, because we reside in the higher realm of the mind); and sometimes by proclaiming our political resistance (as intellectuals, we stand outside capitalist society to criticize and resist it). Thus we are the class that somehow stands outside class.

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