A Scary, Sneaky Assault

While we’ve been distracted by the Right’s bogus hysteria about Critical Race Theory somehow being taught in the nation’s kindergartens, the more determined assault on education is evidently occurring on university campuses.

I have previously posted about the decision of Marian College’s President to eliminate that school’s department of Political Science–a decision made over the strenuous objection of the faculty. The scuttlebutt from people ostensibly “in the know” was that the move was motivated by the personal animus of the school’s right-wing (and widely disliked) President for the sole remaining tenured member of that department–a (gasp!) political liberal.

Evidently, however, what I thought was a petty move by an unpopular administrator at a small school wasn’t the “one-off” I’d imagined. According to the website The Baffler,

This is not the story of one department at one college. An hour’s drive to the northwest of Marian, at Purdue University, it is the English department that faced threats. Citing budgetary concerns, the board of trustees halted the acceptance of any new students and proposed cuts to non-tenured faculty. This includes the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, which until recently included the trailblazing Haitian American author Roxane Gay. Other departments at other universities and colleges around the country are facing similar cuts.

“The ostensible reason provided for these cuts and terminations is “prioritization,” a term used by university administrators to rank which programs deserve funding and attention. One such “prioritization” committee at St. Joseph’s College in New York described it as a ranking of “centrality and essentiality,” “demand and opportunity,” and “productivity, revenue, and resources.” If the terms sound like university administrator gobbledygook, that’s because they are, cleverly disguising administrative judgments as some sort of due process. Around the country it is terms just like these that have been thrown at social science and liberal arts departments. Suddenly, faculty in these departments are expected to justify why they exist and why anyone would need a degree in English.

According to the article, pseudo-business terms like “prioritization” are being used to disguise what are really politically motivated assaults on liberal education.

Prioritization routinely argues that engineering departments need to be the ones getting more money and resources from the administration. Unlike English or political science, which are seen as useless and pointless majors, engineering and computer science carry an implicit promise of a job. Who needs to have read Shakespeare or know about how our political system works when you can rush off to be one among the armies of coders who make our digiverse possible?

In reality, “prioritization” debates, particularly in deep red states, are excellent covers for changing the political demographics of American colleges and universities.

This is just the latest iteration of the Right’s longstanding effort to substitute job training and/or religious indoctrination for education. As Will Bunch recently wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer,

you can draw a straight line between the country’s collective decision to stop seeing education as a public good aimed at creating engaged and informed citizens but instead a pipeline for the worker drones of capitalism, and the 21st century’s civic meltdown that reached its low point nearly one year ago, in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Back in 1999, dismay over  that effort prompted me to post about the importance of the liberal arts.  

Studying the liberal arts gives students the worldview–the intellectual paradigm– citizens need in order to function in an era of rapid change.

We inhabit a world that is increasingly global and multicultural. Familiarity with human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology prepares us to encounter, appreciate and thrive in that world. Education in the liberal arts is based upon a profound respect for the importance of human liberty. The life of the mind requires freedom to access and consider any and all ideas, information, and points of view. Critical thinking cannot flower in a totalitarian environment.

Technocrats can live with Big Brother, but artists, poets and philosophers cannot.

Learning how to communicate, learning how to learn–and learning how much there is to learn!– are essential survival skills. If all one learns is a trade–no matter how highly compensated the particular trade might be–he or she is lost when that trade is no longer in demand. Even if that never happens, lack of familiarity with the liberal arts makes it far less likely that an individual’s non-work life will be full and rich.

Despite the Right’s distaste for expertise, evidence, and smarty-pants “intellectuals,” America desperately needs educated people. The survival of democracy requires an educated population– and there’s a significant difference between learning a trade, important as that may be, and becoming educated.

That difference is the liberal arts–and that’s why they are being targeted. 


Revealing Metaphors

Mitch Daniels–formerly the Governor of Indiana–is the current President of Purdue University. He was appointed by Trustees of the University who–not so coincidentally–he had appointed to those positions, a somewhat incestuous situation that raised a lot of eyebrows.

Daniels’ performance as President, while entirely satisfactory to those same Trustees, has been controversial among educators. There was, for example, Purdue’s acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University, in order to create Purdue Global, a marriage which is evidently not going so well. Forbes reports that Purdue Global had a net operating loss of $38.4 million last year. There was also an initiative encouraging students to finance their educations by pledging a percentage of their future earnings to investors, which some have dubbed “indentured servitude.” But most grumbling has been quiet.

Remarks Daniels made a few weeks ago, however, sparked a national discussion. As G. Gabrielle Starr, the President of Pomona College, wrote in the New York Times,

In late November, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, told students that he will soon “be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America — a leading, I mean a really leading, African-American scholar.”

“Creatures?” a student asked. “Come on.”

“It’s a figure of speech. You must have taken some literature,” Mr. Daniels said. “One of the rarest, let me say, rarest birds, rarest, rarest, rarest phenomena.”

In just a few sentences, Mr. Daniels seemed to question the possibility of sustained black excellence. In response to the uproar that swiftly followed, he complained that he had “never felt so misunderstood” and that he had simply used a “figure of speech.” On Wednesday, he apologized and retracted the statement.

When I learned about Mr. Daniels’s words from another African-American scholar on my own campus, I felt indignant but also constrained. The standard etiquette for college presidents, like me, is to let the remarks of another leader pass on by.

Even though he apologized, I can’t do that. The idea that scholars of color are rare is a damaging fiction. Yet it’s pervasive in academia, causing untold damage. It allows some faculty deans to simply throw up their hands and give up on their recruitment efforts. It leads to small recruitment budgets for minority candidates.

Dr. Starr noted that the Purdue faculty had pushed back on the notion that black scholars are “rare birds” and he went on to identify a few of the many outstanding African-American scholars:

After Mr. Daniels’s remarks, Purdue faculty members said in a statement that “the idea that there is a scarcity of leading African-American scholars is simply not true.” Indeed, one might look to scholarly societies for leading figures: Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council; Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation; Cecilia Conrad, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation; and Claude Steele, chair of the board of the Russell Sage Foundation. Or leaders at American colleges and universities like Jonathan Holloway, provost of Northwestern; Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College; and Michael Drake, president of Ohio State University.

Starr’s column is eloquent, and worth reading in its entirety, but I remain bemused by the nature of the outcry that followed Daniels’ remarks. Most of the criticism I saw focused not on the inaccurate and damaging notion that black academic success is rare, but on Daniels’ use of the term “creature.”

I do understand black sensitivity to language that seems to equate African-Americans with animals, given America’s unfortunate racist history. But we are all creatures, and this reference seemed– to me at least– far less reprehensible than Daniels’ obvious assumption that black intellectuals are few and far between.

I’ve taught at the university level for twenty years, and during that time, the number of African-American scholars on our campus has grown significantly. My black colleagues have contributed enormously– to the educations of our students, to the scholarly literature, and–perhaps more importantly–to the creation of an inclusive, multicultural campus culture. I have to assume the same is true at Purdue.

Do we have a way to go? Sure. But ignoring the substantial presence of black scholars in academia isn’t just inaccurate. It’s evidence of implicit bias–and it deserves to be called out.


Mitch and Purdue: More Evidence of a Bad Fit

One of the most troubling aspects of the current wave of anti-intellectualism we are experiencing is Congress’ declining support for basic research. No matter that we have ample evidence that such research pays massive dividends down the road– the focus on austerity has provided a convenient excuse for cutting the grant opportunities that have led to breakthroughs in science and medicine and have provided the foundation on which technological advances have been based.

In the face of this disinvestment, university presidents and chancellors representing 165 institutions signed a letter in July calling on President Barack Obama and Congress to close what they called the nation’s widening “innovation deficit.”

As JC Online reported,

The letter — signed by presidents of Yale, MIT, most Big Ten universities and all of Purdue’s self-designated peer universities — says declining federal investments in research and cuts as a result of sequestration could lead to fewer U.S.-based innovation and scientific breakthroughs in the future.

Purdue’s President, Mitch Daniels, refused to add Purdue to that list of signatories, citing the deficit. ” I abstained from signing it, in my case, because of its complete omission of any recognition of the severe fiscal condition in which the nation finds itself.”

Where to start?

First, despite Republicans’ adamant refusal to notice,  the U.S. deficit has declined steadily   during the Obama administration.  It will decline 155 billion just in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In fact, we are experiencing the most rapid deficit reduction since WWII.  The reasons for that decline can be debated–as ill-considered as the sequester was, it may well have contributed–but the fact that the deficit has been significantly reduced cannot be denied. Citing the nation’s “severe fiscal condition”  as a reason for Purdue’s non-signatory status simply reinforces a growing public conviction that Mitch Daniels is a partisan politician who does not understand the mission of the university he leads.

The problem is not a prior career in political life. Others have made the transition from politician to academic, and done so successfully. The problem is that Daniels seems utterly unaware of the difference between partisanship and scholarship, between ideology and philosophy, and–as the Zinn controversy so clearly illustrated–between indoctrination and education.

As we know, Daniels orchestrated his move to Purdue, appointing the Trustees who would–surprise!–choose him to lead the University. He evidently viewed the job as simply another platform for partisan persuasion– with the added benefit of seeming disinterestedness. But he clearly didn’t understand what universities are about. Failure to recognize the importance of funded academic research–failure to appreciate the centrality of that research to classroom performance, among other things–is refusal to understand the interests of the institution he leads.

With his refusal to sign the letter, and his purported reason for that refusal, Daniels has chosen Republican talking points over the needs of his University.

It’s really a shame. Had he chosen to use his formidable political skills and partisan connections on behalf of Purdue’s scholarly mission, Daniels could have been a great asset as President, despite the clouded process that delivered him to the office.

That he did not make that choice is becoming clearer by the day.


Mitch’s VERY Bad Day

Let’s talk about censorship and academic freedom and Mitch Daniels‘ desire to use the power of government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas being foisted on them by books with which he disagreed.

There is no principle more basic to the academy and to the American constitutional system than the principle that forbids such behavior.

The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

As Justice Jackson so eloquently opined in Barnette v. West Virginia Board of Education, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion…”

In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your boss can censor you–but not your Governor.

Academic freedom is the application of that foundational principle to institutions of higher education.Free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of genuine education (albeit not so central to job training, with which Mitch often seems to confuse it). Education  requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views from reprisals (that protection is the purpose of tenure).

Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Despite hysterical rhetoric from the Right, the percentage of college professors who use their classrooms to propagandize is vanishingly small, but just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, and putting up with the likes of me is the price conservatives pay, putting up with the occasional academic ideologue is a small price to pay for intellectual freedom.

The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas, but it does not require the sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach creationism in a science class, or that the holocaust never happened in a history class.  As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,

Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show.  Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself. Including diversity is a step in the larger quest for new understanding and insight. But an overemphasis on diversity of perspectives as an end in itself threatens to distort the larger responsibilitiesof intellectual work in the academy.

So what are we to make of the disclosure that, while Governor, Mitch Daniels tried to use the power of that position to ensure that teachers and professors did not use a book of which he disapproved, and that he tried to cut funding for a professor who had criticized  his policies?

The emails display a breathtaking arrogance, ruthless partisanship, and an autocratic mindset. But most of all–and most troubling, given his current position–they display an absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, the essential purpose  and nature of the academy.

Howard Zinn was a reputable if controversial historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified twaddle. But opinions about the value of his–or any–book are beside the point.  The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not “the governor”. Government functionaries do not get to decide what scholarship is acceptable for classroom use or debate, and elected officials absolutely and emphatically do not get to retaliate against critics by cutting their funding or getting them fired.

I think I was most struck by the unintended irony of Daniels’ emails. He rants about indoctrination while trying to control what students read and see. (I guess it’s only propaganda when its done by someone with whom you disagree.) A Governor who talked endlessly about “limited government” and “freedom” when he was pushing his economic agenda evidently had a very different approach to the marketplace of ideas. (It’s sort of like those “family values” guys who frequent prostitutes and play footsie in airport restrooms.)

Bottom line: the politician as hypocrite and wanna-be autocrat are one thing.

Allowing someone who is so clearly contemptuous of the very purpose of education to lead a great university is an absolute travesty.