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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014
By Jennifer Ruth (Portland State University)

The conversation prompted by Excellent Sheep has turned into a referendum on “meritocracy.” Deresiewicz mercilessly takes meritocracy to task – “The meritocracy purports, like every ruling class, to act for the good of all,” he writes; “Its ethos is in fact, by definition, one of self-advancement: not duty or responsibility, not character or even leadership, but individual aggrandizement, a single-minded focus on the self and its success” (226). For Deresiewicz, meritocracy is the culprit behind the Reagan-era culture of “winner take all” that continues on today among our elites who are “brilliant, gifted, energetic, yes, but also anxious, greedy, bland, and risk-averse, with no courage and no vision ” (228-9). These political and business elites can’t wrap their heads around why they keep falling on their faces when they are so manifestly intelligent. Here’s Deresiewicz on Obama: “With his racial identity and relatively humble background, his election has been called the triumph of the meritocracy. The sad thing is that that's exactly what it was” (230). Obama is a failure because “he plays it safe, like every other product of the [meritocratic] system” (229).

Meritocracy’s defenders also do it no favors. Steven Pinker’s rebuttal to Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” starts off with a reasonable-sounding defense of the ethos of meritocracy as the prioritizing of ability and effort over various forms of inheritable privilege. By its end, however, Pinker’s piece has become a party in honor of standardized tests. Pinker believes that merit—defined as intelligence—can be measured objectively. The problem for him then is not that colleges follow a meritocratic admissions process but that, with their legacies and athletes and trombone players, their process is not nearly meritocratic enough.

Pinker doesn’t worry about wealth buying merit because he thinks it can’t. All those advantages the well-off give their children—from piano lessons to the best private schools to test-prep courses? They only budge their kids’ scores by a negligibly few percentage points, Pinker tells us. Ensconced at Harvard and annoyed that students prefer competing in lacrosse games to attending class, Pinker doesn’t seem to grasp the main issue. Isn’t the issue that entrenched inequality has destroyed any illusion that rewards are distributed meritocratically in American society? And, further, that if meritocracy did once act as a vehicle of redistribution, it acts to exacerbate inequality now?

Chris Hayes hammers this point home in The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy (2012). Hayes discusses the structural tension between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. He argues that the generation that profited when we moved from an old boy patronage system to a meritocracy (or equality of opportunity) has pulled the ladder up behind them. Though the meritocratic culture once lead to greater equality of outcomes, in its second and third generations it has led to greater inequality of outcomes.

Each ruling class, it seems to me, is always in danger of devolving into a patronage system regardless of the nature of its original legitimation. The middle class Barbara Ehrenreich discussed in her 1989 classic Fear of Falling has been hollowed out but her analysis of a certain psychology applies to today’s elite. They do not want their children to have to experience a lower standard of living than they enjoy. The impulse to rationalize advantages and even game the system when people you care about are involved is irresistible for many. The fight against this—what Deresiewicz refers to as “self-overcoming”—is never-ending.

It’s not just parents with kids. I see it at the departmental level. People from relatively modest backgrounds who got into Stanford and Harvard and are now Professors of English or Cultural studies will push hard to hire friends or family. They not only don’t see a problem with this but they see themselves as doing something compassionate by championing the people they know over the people who are as yet words on a page. The ever-flawed striving for some modicum of objectivity—the holding at bay of connections and kinship—doesn’t come easily to any of us, no matter our personal trajectories. If we desire a fair society, though, we are doomed to repeatedly breaking up patronage systems—even patronage systems generated by meritocracies.

Hayes argues, however, that at this point simply breaking up patronage systems is not enough. We can only restore the equality of opportunity from which today’s elite benefitted by moving decisively in the direction of equality of outcome. This begins with redistributing wealth back to public education because, whatever it might be, a meritocratic society is certainly not one with such extreme and stubborn inequality that the vast majority of its 18 to 24 year olds are deprived opportunities for quality education, gratifying work, and socio-economic mobility.

Deresiewicz ultimately arrives at a similar conclusion:

If service workers can demand a $15 minimum wage, more than double the federal level, then those who care about higher education can insist on the elimination of tuition and fees at state institutions and their replacement by public funding furnished by taxes on the upper 10 percent. As with the minimum wage, the campaign can be conducted state by state, and it can and should involve a large coalition of interested groups: students, parents, and instructors, to start with. Total enrollment at American colleges and universities now stands at 20 million, on top of another million-plus on the faculty. That’s a formidable voting bloc, should it learn to exercise its power. Since the Occupy movement in 2011, it’s clear that the fight to reverse the tide of growing inequality has been joined. It’s time we joined it.

These words are from Deresiewicz’s essay “The Miseducation of America” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The last pages of Excellent Sheep strike the same power-to-the-people note and, while I’m grateful that he concludes on such a note, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he tacked on these pages after someone read the manuscript and asked: Okay, but what do you have to say about the nation’s students who really need help?

Deresiewicz justifies the attention he lavishes on the Ivy League cohort by pointing out that they become the elites who have outsized power over the fates of the rest of us. Fair enough. But until we restore funding to our public universities, it will be hard to resist the siren song of select schools. “The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown,” Pinker writes, “that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones, while their students pay for a much smaller fraction of it, thanks to gifts to the college.” Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian’s higher education reporter, recently published a piece entitled “Are Oregon Universities Efficient at Producing Graduates?” Relaying the information provided in the
the study "Trends in College Spending: 2001-2011" by the American Institutes of Research, Hammond reports that my institution, Portland State, “remains one of the most efficient public research universities in the nation, spending just $40,700 on education and related expenses for every graduate it produces.” Hammond’s use of the word “efficiency” has the bizarre effect of implying that the less a public university spends on its students, the more praise it deserves. The fact that state funding for Portland State University decreased by 80% over the last two decades surely is a tragedy, not a case study in virtuous efficiency.

Is the problem the concept of meritocracy—a concept, after all, that demands that every effort be made to even the playing field before the games begin? Isn’t the problem that we’re no longer bothering to level the field by even so much as an inch?

Deresiewicz tells us that Ivy League students don’t hang out on the beautifully manicured campus lawns or brood over Rilke, because they have been trained to avoid activities that don’t further their careers. As the numbers above demonstrate, Portland State students do not have the same fertile environment to squander. Even if they did, most of them wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it since the vast majority of them work outside school. Many of them hold 30 to 40 hour a week jobs. They take these jobs to pay for their classes and yet the punishing work schedules turn their classes into just more obstacles on their weekly obstacle course.

Deresiewicz’s weakness for grand flourishes simplifies what’s at stake: “We’ve had meritocracy; it’s time for democracy,” he says as if we all know and agree upon what both “meritocracy” and “democracy” mean. But Deresiewicz is right about what he calls “the essential thing.” “The new dispensation must ensure--this is the essential thing—that privilege cannot be handed down;” he tells us; “The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, as it did in the middle decades of the twentieth century, not reproduce it.” If we want a society that plays more people than it benches, we have to win that campaign Deresiewicz talks about—the one to eliminate tuition and fees at state institutions and replace them by public funding derived from taxes on the upper 10 percent. Where and when is the campaign kick-off party?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014
My thinking about the formation of "UC Ventures" is influenced by the fact that today I am flying from London to Berlin to film some thin-film solar photovoltaic researchers and executives who have been living for years in the "valley of death" between important research results and commercial revenues. The photo is of the May, 2011 inauguration of the flagship building for Soltecture, one of the world's best thin-film PV companies that promised to bring zero-energy capabilities to old and new buildings a few years from then. When I stood in front of the building one year after this photo, it had closed, and the company was gone. 

Thus my questions about UC Ventures start with whether it will actually help avoid the collapse--or non-start-- of socially valuable technologies for lack of patient, long-term, adequate financial support.   Will UC Ventures be a "patient investor" that sides unequivocally with the technology--and with the future public that will use it?  Will it offer something special to late-stage technology by entering when others have left?  Will it help original, early-stage research with long-term commitments? Is it fish or is it fowl, or some other, political species?

Here's a bit more background, since it is missing from the Regent's materials.  Venture capital funds  socially-valuable technologies when they are likely to make a lot of money.  They avoid them, no matter how green or clean, when they aren't.  Around 2007, Silicon Valley VC declared clean tech to be the next mega market that VC would chase as it had semiconductors, internet software, and the like: Tony Seba's Solar Trillions (2009) caught the tone.  But energy technology is slow to develop and very expensive to make, unlike router software and apps, and by the time Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011, the Valley had moved on from clean tech to greener financial pastures.  No hard feelings: their job is not to save the planet but to make trillions for their investors, and if solar won't do that, then goodbye solar.  Literally--most advanced solar PV R&D has moved to Asia, often with technology they bought for pennies on the euro or dollar in Western bankruptcies. You can read Vinod Khosla's clear warning here; another denizen of Sand Hill Road assured me face-to-face that the Valley would not invest in clean tech just to keep the manufacturing here.

Soltecture and other thin-film PV companies demonstrate an important fact about the relationship between business and technology, which is that they regularly diverge.  Today's "shareholder" capitalism is all about short-term maximization of returns on investment.   If commercializing a technology will do that then it shall be commercialized; if not, it won't, and the technology will be abandoned.  Businesses exist to make money. Tech development loses money--until the product is finished and sold.  We often ignore this divergence, in spite of frequent critiques from environmentalists, public health advocates, and many many others, not to mention the many business books that discuss the way that the normal pursuit of returns on investment (ROI) conflicts with the R&D that leads to the returns (e.g. Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Solution, Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm, William Lazonick's Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy).  In spite of my recent criticism of Prof. Christensen for his bias against sustainability, I have always appreciated his brutal honesty about what shareholders demand, which is continuous sales growth that increases share prices by exceeding growth expectations.  That does not describe the life of high-impact, high-risk, high-difficulty technologies of the very advanced kind that create the breakthroughs and environmental solutions that we all want.

For a long time, all Very Serious People as Krugman calls them thought venture capital (VC) was the universal solution to tech commercialization in all fields: where universities left off, and mature companies couldn't move quickly, VC would provide capital to get a company from development to delivery to a large commercial market, offering management, development, financing, and marketing expertise along the way.  But VC enters "downstream," for products that are close to commercialization.  They have short time horizons - 3-5 years at most. They expect large multiples of returns on their initial investments, in part to cover their loses on their many bets that fail, in part because their core business is to get very large returns.  

Even this quick sketch reveals the problem: the road from "bench to bedside," from basic academic research to reliable product, is long and winding.  Though you can cash out on a good app in 3 years max, the Internet underlying it took 30 years of growth in the dark, with no market prospects and thus only government funding as the patient investor.  Even if the development frame is short, the social value of a product may greatly exceeds its market value to any given firm.  So firms will underinvest, producing "market failure," which then requires the fix of government support or rich corporations with decades-long horizons, like Japan seems still to have, and like the US used to have when monopolies like AT&T supported some blue-sky research in places like Bell Labs. I am not saying anything original here: mainstream economists like Kenneth Arrow and Richard Nelson began to analyze market underinvestment in research in the 1950s.

But when we talk about technology transfer (TT) from universities to business, we seem to forget this core lesson that business and its private investors are not there to insure the development of technology.  Writers like Joseph "Creative Destruction" Schumpeter and later apostles of "disruptive innovation" have confused the issue by making it sound like they are:  the right entrepreneurial spirit yoked to a big capital stock would automatically benefit society even as it created new wealth. But the bankruptcy of good--and socially valuable--companies like Soltecture, Q-Cells, or even Solyndra are the counter evidence.  Their death flows directly from the withdrawal of capital by investors who decide they aren't going to get major returns in the near future.  They may still love the technology and the company and believe in its enormous future market and great benefit to humanity, but they need to reinvest their capital right now for a higher return--sorry, no hard feelings.  Analysts usually blame the victim--bad management, overrated technology, unlucky price movements.  (If you think this conventional wisdom explains the Solyndra bankruptcy, we have a forty-page refutation that I'll happily send you.) The reality is that VC, start-up companies, and big shareholder-oriented companies (see Lazonick) aren't set up to support the full research and development process, which is better measured in decades than years.  The reality is that financial metrics do not measure science progress or social promise, period.

Like other research universities, the University of California's special contribution to the knowledge ecosystem is basic research--"upstream," early-stage, blue sky, high-risk, wild and crazy, stupid or brilliant, waste or genius, nobody knows in advance.  Yes, I realize universities do lots of applied research, and I certainly agree that no simple line should be drawn between basic and applied, that "Pasteur's Quadrant" is where applied questions produce basic results, etc.  But American capitalism has a huge bias towards both applied and especially the nearly-commercial because that is where the money can be made.  The system has already flushed basic out of the corporate world, which still gets more than 2/3rd of federal R&D funding to do D, making the university's role in basic R more important than ever.  Bear in mind too that STEM research funding is less than it needs to be, and that universities are struggling mightily to support it by digging deeper into their internal funds

Enter UC Ventures. How does it define the problem that its existence could solve?   The problem is said to be not enough VC for faculty start-up companies, which are a common--but risky and fragile--step in the commercialization process.   A Regental Working Group on Technology Transfer concluded, "UC should establish a mechanism to invest in UC start-up companies, either through the establishment of or participation in a venture capital fund or funds."  The regents went with the first option, starting their own fund, staked with $250 million from the endowment they directly control, and managed by a "Team" that will be appointed by the Chief Investment Officer while staying independent of that office and of UC in general. No UC employee will serve on the start-up investment Team.  UC Ventures is thus to "support the University ecosystem by providing capital to UC Startups."

Among various details, two others are of special note. The fund will invest in start-ups meant to commercialize UC inventions, but since UC is defined as an "ecosystem," it  includes former UC employees, UC alumni, UC donors, and I imagine anyone who can be designated a "Friend of UC." In other words, current UC researchers will not necessarily have first crack at the fund, so this is not an investment firm devoted exclusively to advancing UC science and engineering.  

The second detail is ambiguity about fund's main role. If it is more a VC fund under the CIO, then the fund's main job is to increase returns for the UC endowment, which is the CIO's actual job.  Accordingly, UC Ventures ultimately reports to the CIO and not, say, to the University Provost, the Office of Technology Transfer, or the Office of Research.  A venture fund, in that context, must have an overwhelming bias for research with near-term commercial promise in the largest market possible, preferably one with low costs. This means that it will necessarily pass over more or less everything that we could call basic research, but also over most late-stage, applied research as well.  If UC Professor Pharma has a start up for a molecule whose patent may yield a high monopoly price in high-income countries, and UC Professor Publichealth has a novel treatment regime for inexpensive drug-delivery in low-income countries, the VC fund, following normal investor practice, must pick Professor Pharma.  Whenever science and markets are at odds, or society and markets are at odds, the VC firm must favor markets.  

Much high-tech business talk dodges the problem by saying that markets, technology, and society all line up sooner rather than later.   But saying it doesn't make it true. The Regents' document takes the same kind of shot (page 3):
Specifically, UC Ventures will aim to maximize financial returns while leveraging the University's unique research and knowledge base, as well as the wider University community, to gain access to attractive opportunities emerging from the University's ecosystem.  The OCIO will design UC Ventures to maximize alignment of interests, minimize costs, and provide a long-term investment horizon.  The OCIO believes there is a compelling opportunity to generate attractive rates of return by selectively investing in early-, mid-, and late-stage companies arising from the UC ecosystem.
There's a tone here of UC Ventures as an especially patient investor, but UC research is one big input in what must be the CIO's strategy to "maximize financial returns."   For late stage R&D, I don't see what advantage UC Ventures will have in the crowded VC world other than having first look at UC product.  For early-stage research of the kind that is harder and harder to fund,  UC Ventures is irrelevant.  (It is, however, already a major PR coup, having gotten quite a bit of media attention of the kind that accepts the popular myth that investing for maximum returns is the same as helping science's public mission.) 

US science needs countercyclical investment, which puts money where other people won't because the work has value Mr. Market can't see. VC firms are cyclical: they do try to get in first, but not too soon, as they don't make money on inventions whose coolness is visible only to them. They need other investors piling in to pump equity values, consumer interest for future sales, and in general a certain obviousness to the value that is never the case in the early or sometimes even in a late phase.  To take Solyndra as an example, when their private investors pulled out in late summer 2011, the Department of Energy, acting cyclically, pulled its loan guarantees.  

What socially valuable research needs--e.g. research like Solyndra's cylindrical solar cells for the flat-roof vastness of the industrialized worlds--is an investor that says, "OK. you've missed every one of your cost milestones, your manufacturing process doesn't work like you said, and five years in, your tech is still crap.  But it's important crap.  And your job now is to make it uncrap, and finally make this whole thing work.  So you said five years? You lied, to us and to yourselves.  So what--R&D is always like that. If it only takes 10 years total you'll be lucky.  So here's five more years of loans, so you can fix your strategy, get more and different engineers, start talking to your customers, create a social buzz around turning Wal-Mart green, do something about your oversensitive equipment, and get back to work."

DOE should have said that. They didn't.  Would UC Ventures ever say that? Not if it's a VC fund.  So what exactly is the research point?

It would be cleaner, and probably more effective, to use some small part of the endowment to have a regular VC fund and not make a big deal out of it, and then use another part of the endowment, say $250 million, to fund fundamental research at UC across the disciplines--in STEM and non-STEM--particularly where the research is so interesting and strange that no one else will fund it.  The seed funding we most need is not for start-ups, where there's no shortage of VC capital sniffing over late-stage ideas, but for embryonic ideas that no outside sponsor will fund.  That wouldn't do as much for UC's corporate image, but it would do more than UC Ventures for knowledge and innovation.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014
As you have probably heard, the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois voted 8-1 against the appointment of Steven Salaita.  You can find a report here.

I don't have much to add at this point but others have offered commentaries and I am providing a few links.  If we find other links either to the Salaita Case or to the civility discussion we will add them.

Corey Robin comments here.

John Wilson comments on the arguments in favor of the administration's decision here.

You can find IHE Coverage of the Salaita vote here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers reports here and here.

The Good Enough Professor on civility and power is here.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014
On Friday, Chancellor Dirks of UC Berkeley released an open statement to his campus community that seeks to define the limits of appropriate debate at Berkeley.  Issued as the campus approaches the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Chancellor Dirks' statement, with its evocation of civility, echoes the language recently used by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (especially its Chair Christopher Kennedy) concerning the refused appointment of Steven Salaita. It also mirrors language with the effort by the University of Kansas Board of Regents to regulate social media speech and the Penn State administration's new statement on civility,  

There are historical ironies here enough to make a satirist happy for years.  At Illinois, donors, alumni, and some conservative activists have argued that Professor Salaita should not be allowed to teach at Urbana to ensure that Jewish students are comfortable. They seem oblivious to the fact that it was alleged incivility of Jews that was used to justify the exclusion and marginalization of Jews at American colleges and universities in the 19th century and a sizable portion of the twentieth century.  To be sure, his critics are not calling for Salaita to be denied an appointment simply because he is a Palestinian-American; there is nothing so uncivil as that going on. But then Jews were excluded because of what their critics deemed their uncivil behavior. 

At Berkeley, Chancellor Dirks, in his efforts to set the limits of civility, appears not to see the ways that he repeats the 1960s demonization of the FSM (hardly praised in California in the early 1960s) as themselves barbarians at the gates of proper university discourse and debate.  Although each of these administrative statements have responded to specific local events, the repetitive invocation of "civil" and "civility" to set limits to acceptable speech bespeaks a broader and deeper challenge to intellectual freedom on college and university campuses.  Because it is forward looking it may be best to start by looking more closely at Chancellor Dirks' statement.


As with so many of these of these calls, Chancellor Dirks' aims to strike a tone of reasonable fairness and matter-of-fact common sense:

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.  Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.  As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation. This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.
Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.

As I read this, it was easy to nod at different points: yes, it is important to have ideas and problems "engaged and debated"; of course people should feel "safe" in presenting their ideas and positions; and of course the "boundaries" of many of the issues he raises "have never been fully settled."  But for me it is impossible to hold that moment for long.  Instead, what seems clear is the vagueness of the categories, the shift from the unsettled boundaries to the insistence on how one should debate, the paternalistic instruction in manners and the culminating gesture (further along in the letter) that "Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously."  

And then I shuddered.

If Chancellor Dirks is right we would have to repudiate much of the intellectual traditions and practices he claims to be defending.  As the great English historian Edward Thompson put it in a review of Raymond Williams The Long Revolution:

Burke abused, Cobbett inveighed, Arnold was capable of malicious insinuation, Carlyle, Ruskin and D. H. Lawrence, in their middle years, listened to no one. This may be regretable: but I cannot see that the communication of anger, indignation, or even malice, is any less genuine.... And it is easy for the notion of “good faith” to refer, not only to the essential conventions of intellectual discourse, but also to carry overtones—through Newman and Arnold to the formal addresses of most ViceChancellors today—which are actively offensive.

Thompson's point--which he put without too much graciousness--is that the calls for civility are, in fact, not true to the intellectual traditions they claim to develop and respect. Whatever the immediate intentions of the chancellors, the emphasis on civility as essential to intellectual, and yes political, arguments render debate anodyne and could only be achieved by bowdlerizing many of the great intellectual interventions of the last few centuries.  

But the problem is broader than a misapprehension of the past.  The demand for civility effectively outlaws a range of intellectual, literary, and political forms: satire is not civil, caricature is not civil, hyperbole and aesthetic mockery are not civil nor is polemic. Ultimately the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest that there is nothing to be angry about in the world.  The call for civility in discourse confuses the enforcement of administrative time, place, and manner restrictions with the genuine need to defend people from personal threat.  The result is that the administrative desire trumps all else.


These problems are expressed in two different ways in the Salaita case.

First, the justification that the Illinois administration and Board has provided concerns the incendiary and, for many, offensive nature of some of Professor Salaita's tweets.  Given that all the evidence I have seen shows that his tweets have no connection to his pedagogy or relationship with his students and his encouragement of them to think for themselves, there is no educational relevance to his twitter account.  It is, in part this confusion of venues that has led a remarkable number of professional organizations, from the American Anthropological Association to the American Historical Association through the American Comparative Literature Association to the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of America (to name only a few recent ones) to condemn the University administrations decision and its basis.  But the issue goes beyond this particular case.  As Natalie Zemon Davis pointed out--in her own letter to Chancellor Wise--twitter as a medium has its own rhythms and forms of engagement.  It is designed--when not simply providing for publicity or celebrity gossip--to be a form of provocation a call to alertness. Now, I don't tweet.  I don't particularly enjoy its form and I prefer longer-form modes of argument and elaboration.  But if you are going to evaluate statements in a particular medium then you must understand the rules of the medium.  If you don't then you risk following in the footsteps of those who condemned modernism as "decadent art."

Second, there is the imbalance in the relationship of the police and the policed.  The expressed concern at Illinois concerns the imagined possibility of Professor Salaita imposing political opinions upon his students or of making them feel unwelcome in his classes.  As I noted in my last post on the case this concern runs in the face of the actual evidence of his teaching.  But Chancellor Wise and the Board's concern for the closing off of debate seems remarkably narrow.  Who after all has the greater ability to curtail intellectual engagement: one lone tweeter or a University's management? This point is one made with great force in a statement by UIUC faculty from across the University's departments. Having described the background to Chancellor Wise's decision, the faculty point out that:

This makes it all the more troubling that the Chancellor and Board have described this decision as a victory for civility, academic excellence, and “robust debate.”  Their statements leave us to ponder how one upholds civility by overriding the decision-making of faculty members and deans without consultation or due process. How, we must ask, does one foster academic excellence by making academic decisions without the advice of scholars in the field?  Can it really be that debate is best served by secretive decision-making that silences dissent?  Recent reporting on this issue suggests that particular donors may have had an impact on this decision and that a task force will soon be charged to “develop a new process” for situations in which the chancellor “does not agree with a hiring decision.”  This seems to represent a radical departure from principles of shared governance which have been the bedrock of academic excellence on this campus.  

Civility in this context enables managerial intrusion into the academic review process and the dismissal of the measured evaluation of both faculty and academic administrators closest to the issue. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the drive to overturn the appointment came through back-door threats from donors to cease their contributions if Professor Salaita was allowed to take up his appointment. Secrecy and non-academic issues trumped the established protocols for making appointments.  All in the name of civility.

I understand (and indeed have argued in different contexts) that public universities have responsibilities to the public.  That is one reason for my opposition to the rapid expansion of out of state and international students at State universities.  

But it is a far cry from serving the needs of your state public and responding to the demands of selective donors who are using their financial power to demand intrusions into academic life.  Administrators can argue as much as they want that they are protecting the rich and open traditions of their institutions; but if they are even allowing the appearance--to say nothing of the reality--that decisions at a University can be sold to the highest bidder then they have failed their institutions badly.  To be sure, administrators are, and should be, part of the academic review process, but they must be administrators internal to the process and making decisions based on academic criteria.  When managers and boards seek to overturn an academic decision because of their fear of making donors and others unhappy, they are betraying the best traditions of the institutions they govern.  And they should be ashamed of themselves.

Sadly, I don't expect Christopher Kennedy to understand this point.  He is, after all, a person who can insist on the one hand that real discussion and debate requires "a lot more effort than having a shouting match or name calling," and on the other showed no reluctance to call James Kilgore a "domestic terrorist" for violent activities from nearly 40 years ago. Leaving aside the issue that the term "domestic terrorist" is an anachronism it is hard to see how calling Kilgore a "domestic terrorist" in the present is anything but "name calling" and as the Board of Trustees put it in their attempt to justify Chancellor Wise's actions in the Salaita case "disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice."  In the annals of academic managerial self-contradiction this one ranks high.  And while I can understand why Chair Kennedy might not have wanted to vote in favor of granting emeritus status to William Ayers it is hard to see how he wouldn't have recused himself from the proceedings--if his desire was for an open and non-prejudiced debate.  But because he speaks from the position of authority no one is going to police or punish him at the University.  The arbitrariness of civility and its uses is, one might say, a truth self-evident.


But I would expect Chancellor Dirks to understand.  The Chancellor is, after all, a noted scholar of Indian history.  Among his different works is a consideration of the Warren Hastings impeachment trial.  In it he not only engages at length with Edmund Burke's evisceration of Hastings (and Burke was hardly one for avoiding insults in his speeches and writings as the "nabobs" and "swinish multitude" knew well) but also with the ways that, despite Burke's intentions, the trial enabled a long period of English colonial rule justified under the terms of liberal civility.  As the Chancellor must realize, in the long history of its use, the demand for civility is not a demand to enable open debate but a tool for excluding those who don't abide by your standards.

It is for this reason that Chancellor Dirks' statement is so dismaying.  Not only does his attempt to define the terms of acceptable discourse extend beyond social media and enter into all interactions on campus; not only does it seek to catch students and staff (the least powerful on a campus) into its net; not only is its vagueness and terms a drastic reduction of the moral courage of the moment it insists it wants to honor, but it is a terrible missed opportunity.

For the Chancellor is correct when he insisted that the Free Speech Movement "made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world."  To honor that, though, requires a call not for a crimped vision of civility but for open and reasoned debate.  Members of the university community don't need to be told to behave; instead, we need to demand of ourselves that we support our claims with evidence and coherence.  We don't need to pretend that all debates are friendly ones or that there are not real interests in conflict.   If universities in general, and Berkeley in particular, are going to model intellectual discourse and life for the country, it is not going to be imposing some rule of tone; it is going to be by demanding of people that they argue with reasons.  

This is the challenge facing many upper administrators: do they wish to take up the position of managers from above or speak from within the university and campus they inhabit?  It is a particularly acute challenge at a place like Berkeley.   For 2009 made it clear what a managerial response to open debate and protest would look like.   The attitude of the present administration is unclear--at least to me.

We have then a tale of two campuses.  On one, the language of civility has been employed to override the outcome of the academic process and to intrude into the independence of academic decisions.  It has provoked a firestorm of protest.  On the other, it is a fall of remembrance of protest.  50 years ago the claims of free speech confronted the force of the police.  In 2009, student and faculty efforts to preserve the public purpose of the University were met again with force.  What 2014 holds remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thursday, September 4, 2014
Marina Warner has a fascinating essay in the latest London Review of Books. Seeking to explain why she resigned from her position at the University of Essex, Warner describes a rapid collapse of the University's traditions of scholarly openness and institutional democracy under the pressure of the Coalition government's new funding model and (lack of) scholarly commitments. As she reveals, the tentacles of the new audit technocracy are infiltrating the University by means of the faculty review process.

Describing a meeting presided over by the Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster, Warner describes a situation that may sound all too familiar:
At the meeting, Forster was galvanising the deputy vice-chancellor, and his leadership style was making a colleague’s chin wobble in her eagerness to meet his requests. Others round the table hung their heads, staring sullenly at their laptops. The Senate had just approved new criteria for promotion. Most of the candidates under review had written their submissions before the new criteria were drawn up, yet these were invoked as reasons for rejection. As in Kafka’s famous fable, the rules were being (re‑)made just for you and me. I had been led to think we were convened to discuss cases for promotion, but it seemed to me we were being asked to restructure by the back door. Why these particular individuals should be for the chop wasn’t clear from their records. Cuts, no doubt, were the underlying cause, though they weren’t discussed as such. At one point Forster remarked aloud but to nobody in particular: ‘These REF stars – they don’t earn their keep.’

In England, as you probably know, academics have been subject for many years to a two-step system of accountability.  Individuals have been asked to provide proof not only that they are producing things but of their impact on society and on their fields.  It has led to a Kafkaesque system of evaluation and surveillance (with manifold levels of arbitrary categories masquerading as hard, quantitatively defined accomplishments) to force individuals, departments, and higher education institutions to prove their worth.  Without certain scores you receive little or no research funding.

But with the Coalition government's attempts to force a new market structure on Higher Education (considered as a consumer good) there is a new level of managerial intrusion at work.  For the government has cut direct funding for Universities and raised student fees (and loans) while effectively forcing universities to try to recruit international students to make good the shortfalls in funding.  As Warner's story of her personnel meeting makes clear, the upshot of this is that while academics are still being subject to the system of research surveillance, or in this case subject to a new system that they had not been prepared for, the demands for scholarship were increasingly irrelevant for the funding of the university or for the allocation of resources within the university:

At that stage, everyone in the university was still obsessively focused on meeting the demands of this year’s REF. By the end of 2013, all the evidence had been gathered, and the inventory of our publications fought over, recast and finally sent off to be assessed by panels of peers. Everyone in academia had come to learn that the REF is the currency of value. A scholar whose works are left out of the tally is marked for assisted dying. So I thought Forster’s remark odd at the time, but let it go. It is now widely known – but I did not know it then – that the rankings of research, even if much improved, will bring universities less money this time round than last. So the tactics to bring in money are changing. Students, especially foreign students who pay higher fees, offer a glittering solution.

In this new system scholarly activity was only worthwhile as a symptom of consumer desirability.  In England, you still needed to manage your REF profile--but only while you did more and more teaching to more and more students.  And it is the managers, not the faculty, who decide if you are desirable enough.

Warner began her account by describing the visit of a friend from California who noticed that the library (from the 1960s) had been built in the style of the "new brutalism" (Think of most old UC or CSU buildings). But as Warner herself notes, "new brutalism in academia was taking on another meaning."  Although it has happened with ruthless ideological will in England, it is not an alien story to the US.  Indeed, what has happened over the last few years under David Cameron is really just a fast-forward version of what has been going on in the US more slowly and in less centralized fashion.  We are in the midst of our own new brutalism.  Although not as centrally directed we have been witnessing it for years: the recent intrusions by governing boards at the Universities of Illinois, Kansas, and Virginia; the shuttering of small language departments; the dramatic rise in tuition at public universities; increasing student/faculty ratios; ever growing reliance on adjuncts; cuts in Federal support for scholarly research; and our own, albeit less developed, auditing system.  In England, the transition occurred with such speed as to catch most people off-guard (despite the efforts of individuals like Stefan ColliniAndrew McGettigan, or the Campaign for the Public University).  But we have no excuse.This is the time to master the details to be able to oppose the systems being put into place on campuses across the country.