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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The New McCarthyism Intensifies

Columbia President Shafik's capitulation to, and then collaboration with, the House Republican Show Hearings marked a turning point in the development of the New McCarthyism in the United States.  Her decision to suspend encamped students and declare them in "trespass" and to then call in the NYPD in violation of, at least the spirit of Columbia's governing documents has unleashed a remarkable number of copycat Presidents.  Presidents at Emory, University of Florida,  Indiana University, University of Texas, Humboldt Polytechnic, and Yale and Connecticut to name only a few, have suspended student protesters, called in police (in some cases including snipers), and struck poses of campus emergency--all in response to what have been overwhelmingly peaceful protests in support of Palestinian rights.  

Of course, as President Shafik quickly learned, if she had hoped to appease the right-wing critics of the protests and of higher education she was sorely mistaken.  Her naming names and revealing confidential information about investigations at the hearing only provided new openings for the Right to intensify pressure as she effectively conceded their claims that her campus was in crisis.  Who could be surprised when House Speaker Mike Johnson, himself under pressure from his own right wing, decided to make Columbia a photo op in order to call for Shafik's resignation, while Senators Hawley and Cotton called for the National Guard to be mobilized to break up the encampments.

The evident failure of President Shafik's strategy to appease the House Republicans and the ongoing imitation of her actions make manifest the politically precarious state of higher education today.  In thinking about this situation I'd suggest that three points are crucial:

1. Shafik's strategy, and those of her epigones, was doomed from the start because the right wing focus on anti-Semitism was never a good faith effort.  That there have been anti-Semitic statements and actions seems clear, but these have been isolated and on the margins.  That Republicans who didn't condemn Charlottesville and who promote the Great Replacement Theory have suddenly become concerned about the safety of Jewish students beggars belief.  Instead, this specific effort to smear campuses is a continuation of the Right's prior campaigns to limit the teaching of subjects critical of current and historical structures of class, gender and race.  There is little movement needed for Florida to go from limiting discussion of sexuality and race while attacking academic freedom and faculty authority, to suspending anti-Zionist student organizations, to reinstating requirements to teach anti-communism as if that remains a pressing issue.  It's true that there is nothing new with attempting to insist that anti-Zionism is by definition anti-Semitism.  But that conflation has always been about limiting knowledge and political debate at least as much as it has been about protecting Jews.

2. The fact that Shafik's turn to police has been imitated so widely should give us pause about treating her as a special case.  It is true that she is a classic example of a university president whose experience is not as an academic.  But that excuse cannot be made for so many other presidents.  Instead, the reliance on force marks both the structural separation of senior management from the everyday life of campuses--especially their everyday intellectual and academic life--as well as the overweening power of donors and, in the case of public universities, governors and state legislators.  Governing Boards have become much more active and much more closely tied to wealthy and intrusive donors given the relative decline in public funding support for higher education.  These are all outcomes of the long-term spread of managerialism in higher education.  But this need not be written in stone.  As the cases of Brown,  Northwestern, and Wesleyan demonstrate, it is possible for Presidents to choose an alternative path.  But they have to recognize the academic nature of their institutions to do so.

3.  Indeed, the fact that there have been alternative approaches to the encampments suggests what college and university leaders need to do if they want to preserve the autonomy and nature of their institutions.  One of the failures of President Shafik, as well as her predecessors from Harvard and Penn, was her failure to use her time to challenge the premise of the hearings.  I recognize that to do so would be extremely difficult.  The whole thing was a show trial.  But President Shafik could have used her time to defend her institution and the nature of higher education, to explain the nature of academic inquiry, to insist on the importance of the intellectual autonomy of universities from political interference.  She did none of those things.  Instead, she violated some of the most important traditions of academic freedom we have.


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