US protests: Why are faculty voices muted?


American university campuses erupted in protest last month over the conflict in Gaza. The pro-Palestine protests are still on and have since spread to Europe. These protests have raised fundamental questions about freedom of expression at universities. University administrators (often distinguished academics) have not been able to withstand pressure to silence the protesters. The voices of faculty, too, have been strangely muted.

In dealing with such protests, universities obviously need to strike a balance between allowing freedom of expression and maintaining order on campus. The American Civil Liberties Union has spelt out ground rules that nobody can quarrel with.

Click here to follow our WhatsApp channel

First, no viewpoint, however offensive, must be censored or disciplined. Secondly, no student or group should be targeted or intimidated in any way in the name of free speech. Thirdly, universities can place restrictions on the time and place of protests so that the functioning of the university is not disrupted. Fourthly, the police must be called in only as a last resort. Lastly, campus leaders must not yield to political pressures. 

It should not have been difficult for the university authorities to have allowed the protests subject to these rules. Sadly, the situation has got out of hand at many American universities, such as Columbia in New York. Police (including anti-terrorist squads in combat gear) have been called in to clear out encampments of students even where they were not disruptive of normal activities. The universities’ response to the protests may be disappointing, but nobody should be overly surprised.

The United States is almost unique in the scale of philanthropic contributions to universities. Donor contributions are typically the single biggest source of finance for universities. Student fees don’t even cover operational costs, let alone capital expenditure. The more funds a university or college can raise by way of donations, the more it can invest in infrastructure, research, and faculty, and hence the greater its stature. Annoying donors is a terrible idea for any university.

In addition, universities get large funds for research projects from the government. The US Defence Department, for instance, has historically been a major source of funds. Corporations, too, fund research projects. Universities, in turn, invest their endowment funds in corporations.

Leading donors, major corporations and politicians have not cared to conceal their displeasure over the pro-Palestinian protests on campuses. Many tend to reflexively label the pro-Palestinian protests as anti-Semitism. America’s donors and politicians have been keen to oblige Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has called on the universities to shut down the protests.

So deep are the links between universities on one side and the government and the private sector on the other that the universities can’t afford to antagonise either. The students’ demand that the universities divest from corporations with links to Israel is thus a non-starter for most universities. A crackdown on the protesters was inevitable.

It’s not just university administrators who have been timid in responding to outside pressures. Faculty members have not been sufficiently forthcoming in support of the students’ right to legitimate protest. At Columbia University, the 111-member university senate considered but did not pursue a vote to censure the university president for her decision to call in the police, among other things. 

At Harvard, about 300 faculty have signed a letter urging the president to negotiate with the student protesters. That is a relatively small number out of the 2,400 faculty the university boasts of. Most of the signatories are from the humanities departments. The faculty at Harvard’s famous schools of law, business, medicine, and the departments of physics, chemistry and economics appear largely absent from the list. At a few universities, faculty members have passed a vote of no-confidence in the leadership. Such faculty actions have been pretty rare.

Where, one wonders, are America’s many Nobel Laureates and other thought leaders? Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz, himself a Jew, has decried the “interference in academic freedom”. He has said in an interview, “They (the students) had empathy for what was going on in the world. How could anybody not react after seeing the pictures, after seeing the numbers of people dying, being injured?” Professor Stiglitz is a distinguished exception to the silence of the leaders of America’s academic community. How come?

Faculty in the US comprise two groups: Clinical, or adjunct, and tenured. Clinical faculty do mostly teaching and are on contract. They would be reluctant to put their jobs on the line by taking a position on such issues. Tenured faculty enjoy complete job security and are not subject to any retirement age. With that sort of protection, people would expect tenured faculty to speak up on issues of academic freedom.

Alas, that doesn’t happen. For one thing, governance in American academia has changed quite a bit over the decades. American universities are said to be “faculty governed”; that is, faculty members are supposed to play an active role in the running of colleges and universities. Over the last two or three decades, however, American colleges have tended to become dean-centric, which means more power has come to be concentrated in the office of the dean. Finance, faculty appointment and confirmation, and faculty compensation (including annual increments) are all matters on which deans have come to have the larger say. 

The “incentives” that have caused academic administrators to fall in line with donors and politicians also operate to keep faculty on a leash. Distinguished faculty members hold Chairs that are endowed by wealthy donors, whether individuals or companies. Funding for research projects and, broadly, power and influence within the college or university are contingent on faculty keeping administrators and donors happy.

So faculty may hold forth on human rights abuses and limits on freedom of speech in China, Russia, Myanmar and other places. They may sit on government and regulatory bodies and record stirring notes of dissent. They may write searing critiques of political parties succumbing to powerful lobbies. They may exhort graduating students to stand by the “values” of the university and to speak truth to power.

Within their own colleges or universities and in their dealings with deans and presidents, however, faculty know how to lie low on issues that matter— and not just in the US. Your columnist, who has had a long stint in academia, is happy to share a little secret: The internal culture of academia is not all that different from that of the typical corporation (whose authoritarian culture academics are apt to decry).

Academics, like sensible people everywhere, know which side their bread is buttered. They understand that the price of annoying administrative leaders and powerful external lobbies is steep. Freedom of expression, “governance” and “values”, then, are strictly for the birds.


Source link