I know that I am not the first person to ask this, but when did universities start having “views”? When some professors indulge their rights to free speech or put academic freedom into practice, they can sometimes express views that some members of the public find controversial, distasteful, or reprehensible. In such cases, one frequently reads their university administrations publishing memos to the effect that, “Professor X’s views on Subject Y do not represent the views of the university”.
What does that mean? Has “the university” studied the subject to the same degree as the professor, thus allowing it to conclude its views are the correct ones? Was the professor supposed to be instructed on the correct views to represent, since the job of professor apparently means not having an independent mind? Does it mean that Professor X does not represent the views of all professors and students at the university? How could anyone ever assume that one professor spoke for all others? Does it instead mean that the professor does not represent the views of those in the administration? The support staff? If so, who cares? And where exactly did the university administration publish its “party line”?
When I was twice hired for tenure-track positions, the one thing I recall no Dean ever telling me was: “Here is a list of the views of the university. Only if you uphold these views can you consider working here. Should you ever express any differing views, you may be subjected to disciplinary action”. Nonetheless, the attitude of some university administrations in North America is that they have a right to publicly castigate faculty for not toeing the line. It is as if “the university” has been reduced to working as a mere cell of a ruling political party.
One could ask similar questions as above, only in reverse. What entitles administrators to speak for the university as a whole? How do they know that Professor X’s statements really do not reflect the views of the university? Did they ever consult faculty and students? Where is all the survey data that reveal the views of faculty on any subject? How is “the university” defined? Is it just the board of governors? Whose views does the university represent? Since I work in a public university – Canada only has public universities, with maybe one or two little exceptions – can we then assume that the “views of the university” neatly align with the broad majority of the public that we presumably are meant to serve? Is it the job of professors to simply reflect the views of others? Since when did it fall to professors to “represent” their universities – and will they get paid extra for doing PR work?
Three transformations have happened more or less simultaneously, and relatively recently, which may explain these bizarre communiqués from university administrators. One has to do with the politicization of university directorates, especially as even public universities have turned to support from private donors, most of whom have big axes to grind. Private donors are keen to buy support, and silence. Few are the donors who give generously just because they are thrilled by learning – that would be too countercultural in the North American context in which we lionize our meat packers and vilify intellectuals. From this first point, where private donors act as lobbyists for special interests, almost all else follows. To assure donors that universities are being run in a “smart” fashion, administrators have multiplied administrative positions and stacked them with persons from the private sector, who draft “strategic plans” and design what are essentially corporate business models.
In other words, politicization stems from privatization and corporatization – this is the neoliberal transformation of the public university. To be clear, this transformation has its origins neither in university administrations nor the private sector, both of which lack the political power and authority necessary to effect such a transformation. Instead, governments are the ones that actively took the decision to cut back on funding for public universities, which is their responsibility, even as taxation levels either remained the same or continued to rise. They chose to redirect public funding away from universities, just as they did with education as a whole, as well as healthcare, social welfare, and so on. Governments pressed universities to raise funds from private sources, just as they pressed them to expand their governance by including more individuals from the private sector.
The second change has to do with universities seeking to raise their public profile, to gain visibility, and advance in the rankings through enhanced public recognition. To gain recognition, university websites have shed their traditional dull and dour functionality, and have become replicas of CNN. Even the university shields have been tossed, in favor of some terrible, and terribly expensive, brand logos produced by private consultants and graphic designers. Universities now also have “media relations” units, with expert staff that spend their days in Twitter and Facebook, and writing up newsy articles about what select faculty members and students are achieving (more on the political functions of “media relations” units, below). These same media units then do the rounds of the departments, advising faculty on how best to interact with journalists.
To the laughter of everyone in my Department, one team showed us a video that advised us to dumb down our research so that “even your grandmother could understand it”. I still have no idea why they focused on grandmothers, not grandfathers, and why they assume that all grandmothers are ignorant rubes – perhaps theirs are? In addition, the media units encourage us to list ourselves as experts, for any journalists perusing the university website, by listing the presumably edgy and sexy topics we have mastered with our unrivalled expertise. Not enough, they then invite professors to do professional photo shoots in which they pose playfully for the camera, with a single short sentence in huge print next to them which somehow encapsulates their decades of research: “Do humans really like food?”
The third major change has to do with how university administrations understand academic freedom, and separately, freedom of speech. One might say they understand these concepts very poorly, or not at all, but I think that misses the above points. The desire by administrators to chill speech, to counter the embarrassingly contrary statements made by publicly outspoken professors, has to do with assuaging private donors as the public university is realigned with the political interests of the so-called top 1%. The immense irony of this is that it is university administrations themselves that actively pushed faculty into the public limelight in the first place, under the strategic rubrics of “knowledge mobilization” and “community outreach”. My university has posted banners around campus that urge us to “mix it up,” “get your hands dirty,” and “embrace the city, embrace the world” – vapid commercialist fluff.
Even Hollywood took notice.
Bleak Ben Stiller bleakly walked past some of these same bleak posters in his recent bleak film, “Brad’s Status,” which apparently was partly shot on the campus of Concordia University (not that the university is listed in the credits of the film – in fact, the movie credits claim the film was shot either in Hawaii or Boston, Montreal itself is not even mentioned
Vapid commercialist fluff posted around campus: “Teach For Tomorrow” -“Double Our Research” – “Mix It Up” – “Get Your Hands Dirty”
Having urged us to “get out there,” university administrators then later express regret when they feel compelled to counter a given professor’s statements with press releases affirming that “this does not represent the views of the university”. This is an “own goal” on the part of university administrators. They have worked assiduously to make the university into a media organization, to turn professors into celebrity advocacy-journalists, and to make the institution responsive to market audiences to such an extent that the autonomy of the university becomes untenable.
Firings of tenured professors by university administrations, over a difference of opinion, are still relatively rare in Canada, when compared with the US or the UK. In fact, it is not an easy option: tenured professors have not only the protection of their tenure, but of their union, and a legally binding contract negotiated with the union on behalf of faculty which ensures academic freedom and due process. Faculty unions in turn belong to a national umbrella organization, CAUT, which boasts a multi-million dollar academic freedom fund and gets actively involved in supporting faculty. Canadian universities are also deeply fearful of lawsuits which could easily demolish their already frail budgets, most of which are running deficits already. Poor financial management and the backlash of legal damage often results in the top administrators being toppled.
Rather than go the messy route which, heaven forbid, could also give rise to “bad press”—good lord, not “bad press,” that’s the other court which administrations fear – administrators have had to develop quieter, more insidious and subtle forms of suppression. The way to send “the right message” to the outside world, to properly convey the unspoken “views of the university,” is to publicly promote and praise certain select professors, the ones whose views and whose work best align with those of private individual and corporate donors, or with the ruling party, or the military. To take a recent example: as Donald Trump neared electoral victory, articles were published on the university website, in its magazine and elsewhere, that featured the expert analysis of select faculty – strangely enough, all of whom were clearly pro-Hillary Clinton, anti-Trump, a number of them American expatriates, and who evinced a certain Liberal Party affinity. Unlike in a real university, there was no debate among this small cluster of people bewailing the dawn of the “post-truth” world.
The paradox is that neoliberal university administrators have adopted a policy of containment, at the same time as they seek to publicly advertise themselves. Not wanting “the wrong views” to get notice, they engage in restricting speech by selecting that speech which suits their purposes. Speech is thus not just restricted, it is regulated, by promoting only those persons whose views are safe and deemed worthy of recognition. Speech is thus effectively restricted to those academics that the administrators judge to be “qualified” to speak, thereby limiting not only what is said, but who can say it. Media relations departments have the primary responsibility of inventing online rituals around speech, practicing containment through promotion. In some cases such departments actively tutor budding young “public intellectuals” through seminars and by shadowing them online, always ready for the opportune time for that strategic “retweet”. As weak, vain, and ineffective as these policies are, they serve as a useful reminder of how liberal authoritarianism works. In this case, liberal authoritarianism produces fictional representations of “the views of the university,” by thinning out the work actually done by faculty, spreading out the words of a few to represent the words of all.
Another method of indirect silencing is for the university to “celebrate” the media “accomplishments” of select faculty only, by listing stories of faculty who have appeared in the media…only in select media, depending on the “prestige” of the outlet. This is a way to ensure that professors whose views are worthy of being courted by the corporate, neoliberal imperialist media are the only ones featured. In other words, a professor mentioned in a story on CNN is deemed to be worthy of note; a professor who appears on RT, is ignored, as if the event never happened. Selective pride is a way of signaling selective shame. It has the effect of rendering silent the actual media accomplishments of faculty, in order to produce a false picture of where faculty stand, thus assuring the egos of financial donors and politicians. The policy is implemented with the naïve hope that misaligned professors will quietly yearn for that elusive little place on the university website, a place that amounts to nothing more than a few ephemeral pixels seen by few and forgotten by all.
On a range of other issues, near and dear to regime changers, liberal imperialists, and the pro-Israel lobby, one sees the pattern being reproduced, as I can affirm after close scrutiny that has endured for over a decade. If the topics are Iran, Libya, Syria, refugees, wars, nationalism, and so on, one sees the selectivity being actively enforced, even if it means publishing, praising and promoting the same two or three professors time after time. Rather than a university of hundreds of professors, added to tens of thousands students, we become a university of three individuals. Rarely, probably never, do we see university articles dealing with the working class, with poverty and inequality, critical of neoliberalism, globalization and imperialism. Thus the university presents its “views,” of such a one-sided nature and so bereft of any healthy dissent and disagreement as one would find on no university campus that ever took itself seriously.
Viewed from afar, there might even be something comical about a university administration busying itself with inventing a secret university, one that covertly lurks beneath the chosen public representation of the university. That is the point of creating “signature areas” that determine “strategic hiring”: lifting hiring decisions from the hands of Departments, now it is university executives who impose the parameters on what constitutes a desirable candidate, and decide which areas need to be filled. Slowly they thus invent for themselves the university they desire, as opposed to the real one that actually exists. Finally, they will have something they can sell with confidence. One has to almost feel sympathy for the administrators, who feel the keen pressure of public politics and special interest lobbies, into whose arms they have been driven by governments that renege on their obligation to support public universities.
The “views” of the university are a mercantile fiction, a falsehood designed to mislead the public and to caress donors and politicians, the kinds of individuals who are apparently empty and infantile enough to believe that the winning arguments are those that are advanced in the absence of criticism. What if we taught our students that the best way to learn is to ignore whatever they do not like to hear? That is indeed what is being pushed, ironically under the signs of “tolerance” and “inclusion,” the usual neoliberal claptrap. Thus we witness the university turned into a mere echo chamber for the comfortable, a safe space for moneyed elites to flatter themselves, creating a virtual world of unrivalled ideological purity, contrived harmony, and eternal hegemony.
Finally, messages from university administrators along the lines of “this does not represent the views of the university,” might serve an additional function, but I am just speculating. This might be a polite way of telling rabid members of the public to lay off. We heard you, yes it’s all quite disconcerting, and here is our little statement, now move along. Had universities with their bloated administrations and overt political leanings not wished to enhance their public profiles and represent themselves as quasi-media outlets, they would spare themselves such unnecessary exercises. In the end, pronouncements about “the views of the university” end up multiplying the damage to the university, both as a self-inflicted wounds within the university, and as a sign of intellectual cowardice in the face of bullies. A university administration that engages in such conduct has failed its first and most basic function: to administer university resources in order to facilitate teaching and learning.
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Maximilian Forte is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He writes at Zero Anthropology and has authored multiple books, including Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa.