Six Ways to Unsettle Colleagues and Irritate Administrators

We need to be uncivil to preserve academic freedom and take on the corporate university.

Astrid Westvang / Flickr

No discussion of academic matters can begin without terminological clarification, so I hope readers will grant me a moment to complete the ritual. I’m being a smartass, yes, but I’m a smartass who chooses words carefully.

To unsettle colleagues isn’t to be a bad departmental citizen or an irredeemable asshole, but to engage the possibilities of dissent. And to irritate administrators isn’t to be hostile or dastardly, but to maintain a productive tension with management that either prevents or impedes the formation of a neoliberal consensus.

By unsettling one another, we inject creative and intellectual life into our relationships. We maintain a spirit of inquiry that values debate and analysis over discipline. We compel one another to identify the structures of power that govern our perceptions of bromides such as “pragmatism” and the “common good.”

By irritating administrators, we perform a necessary function of faculty governance: to disturb the ease of decision-making in executive offices. It is a way to interject friction into the smooth ennui of managerial logic. It offers a necessary if unwelcome veneer of discomfort. It prickles at custom. It undermines ceremony. It’s a bit of sandpaper on a mahogany table. Or an itch at that unreachable spot on the back.

These practices of unsettlement and irritation allow us to remain human by honoring the messiness of our humanity, a crucial task amid bureaucratic customs that so adeptly produce dehumanization. If we fail to resist the logic of campus corporatization, then we become negligible commodities, automatons of a self-regulated accreditation industry in which critical thinking becomes superfluous, or a threat to the industry altogether.

I make no claim that all upper administrators are bad.  That’s not the point of condemnation — or it shouldn’t be, anyway. In fact, determining the goodness and badness of individuals within a system as a means to perform systemic analysis is a stupid exercise.

We’re talking about the economic and philosophical functionality of the campus managerial class, not the individual morality of campus managers. In board rooms and country club parlors, altruism becomes either an obstacle or a branding mechanism.

I raise this point because I’ve had numerous upper administrators tell me that I unfairly generalize and that plenty of kindhearted people can be found among their ranks. Sure. Why not?

Here’s the thing, though: Upper administrators have public records, which seem to me better sites of rendering judgment than whether or not Presidents X, Y, and Z drop coins into the Salvation Army tin. And on issues related to Palestine, those public records look awfully uniform.

Unprotected Palestine

When the American Studies Association (ASA) resolved in late 2013 to honor the academic boycott of Israeli universities, hundreds of provosts, chancellors, and presidents, showing unusual levels of efficiency, released statements condemning the ASA. Some of the responses were threatening. Others were high-minded. All of them misread the resolution and the academic boycott movement more broadly. In contrast, no provosts, chancellors, or presidents went on record to praise the ASA or even to affirm its right to pass the resolution.

Campus managers routinely validate the safety and comfort of pro-Israel students, but how many decry Israeli closures of Palestinian universities? The arrest and torture of Palestinian academics? The bombing of Palestinian campuses? The difficulty Palestinian researchers have traveling or hosting peers? The checkpoints and apartheid roads and concrete walls that make an uninterrupted education virtually impossible? The endless vilification of Palestinian intellectuals as terrorists, agitators, enemies, and fifth columns?

How many are complicit in the repression of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine? How many stay silent about the odious Canary Mission, an anonymous collective that posts defamatory online dossiers of college students with the express purpose of damaging their career prospects?

So devoted are these campus managers to appeasing power that they’re content to allow groups on and off campus to harm their own students.

Here a few words must be spared for the faculty: The professors who stay quiet when administrators sell out students for a pat on the back from AIPAC fail in their role as educators. No educator worth a damn wants to see students punished for discovering wrong in the world and working to end it. Professors unwilling to protest administrators who suppress students needn’t act surprised when the same administrators come for them.

Few in management break rank with the pro-Israel consensus. If somebody wants to find a site of rigid class discipline, then there’s no better place to look than presidential suites on campus. When a single upper administrator condemns the criminalization of student activists or the Canary Mission or the constant misery under which Palestinian scholars labor, then maybe we can take a moment to celebrate managerial diversity. Until then, we’re forced to respond to the evidence at our disposal.

The campus managerial class is international. We’re seeing a globalized austerity at colleges and universities in which decision-making and resources are increasingly monopolized by a bloated leadership eager to appease donors, politicians, corporations, defense contractors, and sensationalistic media. We can’t properly understand the form and function of academic freedom without also understanding political power and how it determines which critiques are objectionable and which are acceptable. These valuations are never neutral, though neutrality is their primary brand.

Think about the trouble that attends critics of Zionism, colonization, or police brutality. Divya Nair was suspended from the Community College of Philadelphia for supporting Black Lives Matter. Saida Grundy nearly faced a similar fate at Boston University. Zandria Robinson. Deepa Kumar. Simona Sharoni. Nadia Shoufani. Terri Ginsburg. Jasbir Puar. All fired or publicly dragged. (Note the preponderance of women of color.)

And what for? What awful thing did they do? They attacked racism and state violence with unflinching language.

Were they impolite? Sometimes. Were they impassioned? Certainly. Only in a world desensitized to the normative violence of colonization are we supposed to tiptoe around injustice with wonkish detachment.

Contrast their disdain for demonstrably terrible things with the mannered analysis that earns scholars accolades and endowed chairs. Not long ago, Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University published an article that suggested “flattening” Beirut. The article’s profound belligerence hides behind its clinical tone, but the content of its argument is gruesome. It’s much easier to detect its gruesomeness if we grant that Beirut’s denizens are human beings. Harvard’s Niall Ferguson wrote a two-volume love letter to bona-fide war criminal Henry Kissinger. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney was fond of citing Bernard Lewis.

We also have countless examples of unethical scholarly pursuits: helping craft policies of physical and psychological torture, providing justification for imperialism and regime change, abetting security services, offering cultural rationales for colonization. Eminent scholars propose all kinds of violent things; we’re conditioned not to see those things as violent if they correspond with the national interest.

Servicing warfare and neoliberalism is a terrific path to scholarly eminence. Those who condemn warfare and neoliberalism become uncivil goblins, impenitent radicals, sloppy polemicists, immature agitators, scourges on the good name of the profession. Ruling-class sycophants, meanwhile, don’t encounter trouble for their service to power.

It’s the same around the world: dissenters are the ones to get fired, arrested, even murdered. It’s almost comically obvious, and yet plenty of academics persist in recycling the mythological virtues of tone and civility as criteria for fitness as an academic, as if those descriptors are detached from norms of power — as if using a civil tone means you can’t articulate ugly ideas.

Academic Freedom’s Promise

No universal definition of academic freedom exists, which reflects well on the phenomenon. I don’t know that it can be defined, at least not as a legal or philosophical denotation. It might be better to view it as a dynamic ideal that accommodates certain values and practices.

Those values and practices contain multitudes, some potentially in conflict with others. But among them should be the ability to pursue dissent, take intellectual risks, speak on social media, and deliver rousing orations at labor meetings, replete with the sharp language appropriate to exploited workers. Academic freedom ought to accommodate student activism, especially the sort that doesn’t get listed on resumes for NGO applications.

Academic freedom is, in essence, an invitation to reverie and disdain and sarcasm and foul language and the sort of close reading that identifies unwelcome problems. No notion of academic freedom is viable if we don’t explore how power functions through discourses of etiquette, propriety, and respectability.

In the end, academic freedom’s purpose is to keep us from being punished for unpopular work, or for expressing opinions as private citizens, which means we have to consider the ugly business of punishment. Is some work worthy of punishment? How do we proffer that sort of judgment when definitions of racism, sexism, un-collegiality, harassment, or any other damning identifier are unstable? (Discussing accurate definitions is less important here than recognizing that the more powerful party imposes its definition on everybody else.)

Starting with punishment is perhaps the least productive way of looking at academic freedom because we’re allowing retribution to organize logic. We can shift from the forbidden to the allowable.

What types of punishment should be verboten as arbitrary forms of top-down decision-making? Unceremonious firings, for sure, along with demotions, tenure denials, arrest, donor interventions, and secret disciplinary measures. Students and instructors also have a right not to be defamed by perturbed administrators attempting to appease the mob in moments of public controversy.

In our visions of academic freedom, what becomes punishable? Who decides? Who names the conditions of the punishment? Who carries it out? Who must necessarily be complicit in the act of punishing somebody who has run afoul of certain rules and regulations?

Herein lies the impossible complexity of the enterprise, and the recognition that academic freedom and castigation, albeit often in opposition, are intimately related. If we focus too much on the mechanics of recrimination — that is, if we allow notions of academic freedom to arbitrate when punishment is or isn’t justified — we can lose sight of the values and practices encouraged by the idea of a free academy.

I submit that we think through academic freedom as an affirmation of our research and pedagogy rather than a mere barricade against our flaws and failures.

Here, then, are six ways to unsettle colleagues and irritate administrators:

1. Decentralize Power

As a matter of principle, we should never allow management to make decisions that end up granting itself greater authority. It’s a terrible idea to voluntarily cede power to those above you in the hierarchy.

Sure, when an arbitrary, top-down dictum screws over those you dislike, you might enjoy it, but you won’t find it as funny when emboldened administrators do the same to you. And emboldened administrators are never idle.

2. Resist the Bosses

Trying to get people fired is a pathetic strategy.

Ruining careers as a sort of trophy sport seems to have become the go-to strategy for disgruntled consumers everywhere, including in academe. But in academe we’re supposed to deal with discomfort and controversy. Not doing so abdicates the spirit of inquiry, for punitive disagreement makes ideas that are hostile to power alien and threatening.

Going after somebody’s job? Find something else to do with your time. Pursuing somebody’s firing means ratting that person out to the boss. No amount of jargon occludes what it really is: class warfare.

3. Disobey

Recalcitrance is okay. I won’t go so far as to call it a noble quality, but it often produces dissent, anti-authoritarianism, variance, and heterodoxy. These characteristics don’t facilitate storybook collegiality, and that’s their value.

4. Collectively Bargain

Unionizing has become a critical feature of academic freedom in this moment of increased precariousness and stratified resource allocation.

There’s a wonderful scene in a Sopranos episode when Tony gathers his captains and upbraids them. “In this business,” he growls, “shit runs downhill, money goes up. It’s that simple.” Tony would have made an excellent college administrator, perhaps vice president for best practices.

Campus cultures differ, and some places are more functional than others, but as a general rule Tony’s principle organizes them all. The managerial class grows, the ranks of tenured faculty shrink. Adjunct or contingent labor increases in proportion to decreases in salary, benefits, and security.

Instructors, who interact with students on a daily basis and are responsible for their well-being, perform their duties in conditions management would never accept for itself. Academic freedom and job security are coterminous. We therefore cannot speak of maintaining academic freedom without simultaneously addressing oppressive labor conditions and the unequal distribution of resources.

5. Fight Back

It’s critical to cultivate antagonistic relationships with guardians of institutional values. I use the term to describe a tension borne of questioning, guardedness, and skepticism — not accepting at face value what we’re told.

This seems obvious, but I’ve been in academe long enough — and out of it long enough — to know that academics march to branding pitches more often than we’d like. Many academics want to believe in their superiors and in turn offer them unnecessarily generous leeway. When faculty align with administrative power, they assume relations of opposition to adjuncts, graduate students, and administrative staff — which is, incidentally, the rationale many private universities use to quash faculty unionization.

6. Decolonize the University

Unsettling colleagues isn’t merely a proposition, but a project, something that, if done seriously, might be likened to a state of mind or an analytic sensibility. Unsettling speaks to decolonization, which isn’t something we merely take up in convenient moments. It’s a commitment to reorganization and upheaval —altering the common practices of hierarchical governance that are the hallmark of a system produced by settler colonization and that in turn consistently reproduce its logic.

I’m talking about an ethics that values the integrity of the less powerful, the stewardship of Native nations seeking liberation on their ancestral lands, and the diverse communities working to make campus as lovely as an untruthful promotional brochure.

I’m asking for a form of democracy unattached to the hidebound ledgers that try to dictate our imagination. When we understand the university not as a regal wonderland beyond normal society, but as a contested space within the context of US colonization, then the managerial tolerance for racism, its fealty to Zionism, its cover-ups of sexual assault, its corporatized educational philosophies, and its affinity for militarism allow us to think about institutions beyond the antiseptic frame of individual failure.

Restoring Dissent as an Academic Value

It sometimes feels like our professional duty, no matter the occupation, is to reproduce the negative energy of competition. Conformity allows us to harness social capital. Replicating orthodoxy is an unsanctioned but crucial dimension of workplace survival. Relationships with centers of power inside the office allow for upward mobility, as do relationships with centers of power around the world.

Lots of people think college campuses escape these problems. Images of sartorial eccentricity and Socratic contemplation predominate, though the myths of academe have lost much of their romance.

Greater access to professors is pivotal. Social media proves that credentials don’t exempt people from stupidity. Education ideally is undisrupted by market demands, but in reality it competes with the same forces it claims to transcend. College is more like the hospitality industry than its guardians care to admit.

Campus may still be an enchanted site of erudition, according to the culture warrior’s nostalgia, but it’s a workplace just the same, with exploited labor and heavy-handed management, given to the rapacious logic of capitalism like any other billion-dollar corporation.

This world generates abundant displacement and migration. The casualties of academic capitalism are not refugees in the legal or historical sense of the term, but they must constantly seek refuge from contingency and recrimination. The market forces of bloated administration and private funding dictate our movement and regulate the time necessary to conduct scholarship, the most valuable product on a job candidate’s dossier.

Exile is an inevitable feature of this economy. Professors don’t get fired from single jobs; they are terminated from academe. New and seasoned scholars move to fancy satellite campuses on the Persian Gulf or scramble to freelance as informal journalists. We nestle into any space that might provide income or the illusion of prestige, which can strengthen personal ledgers even if it doesn’t cover the balance for student loans.

Management increasingly treats academic freedom as a reflection of the values consecrated in the vocabulary of private enterprise: return on investment, efficiency, annual revenue, diversity, best practices, flipped classroom, digital literacy, buy-in, leverage, synergy, streamlining, sustainability, shareholders, survival strategies, scalability, stratcom, and paradigm shifts.

I urge us — student, faculty, administrator, community member — to dislodge pedagogy and scholarship from these venal exercises in bean-counting. I don’t only reference our practices of teaching and writing, but our conceptions of what it means to educate, to be educated, and to be free academically.

The vast majority of us love our vocation; in fact we view it as an avocation. Herein exists the most meaningful principle of university life. Without it, we have little love to impart and little left to love. We must treat academic freedom as a dialectical feature of scholarship and pedagogy rather than as an abstract safeguard that supplements their performance. In this way, we can render academic freedom dynamic and indispensable — not merely tolerating of dissent, but encouraging of it, as well.

The basic goal of a critical education is to interrogate the sacrosanct and consecrated. We do this by fighting. No theory is worth anything if it doesn’t put us in a better position to eradicate injustice. No pedagogy is worth employing if it doesn’t help students understand the transformative potential of theory. Insofar as the corporate university treats justice as a threat to brand equity, we must then seek the eradication of the corporate university.