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Wednesday, October 11, 2023

One Observation About University "Statements"

One generally has, or has not, an appetite to wade into questions when they touch on matters that are greatly upsetting to many people (including me); I generally don't, since words fail or are repetitive or superfluous. And it is perhaps harder, or at least more unwise, to wade into such questions by way of general policy discussions, given the strong feelings of such moments. Still, allow me to make one observation about university "statements," the presence or absence, or strength or weakness, of which have been much discussed in the past few days.

As a matter of background, I believe that as a general rule, "universities" should not make statements on any issues except those which directly and immediately affect the mission and function of the university. For one thing, "universities" in this context does not mean "universities." It means university offices of public communications or other non-professorial apparatchiks writing under the name of the president or trustees of the university, neither of whom speak in any useful sense for other shared governors of the university and neither of whom generally take a sounding of those other governors before speaking. Why professors, who spend most of their time enumerating the ways in which their administration does not speak for them, should want PR statements issued on the deeply affecting issues of the day from such figures is beyond me. For another, university presidents have no relevant expertise on most of the issues on which they pronounce--and that is assuming, charitably and generally fictionally, that the pronouncements come from them personally and not from an even more unqualified flack. Third, and as we have seen, once such a practice takes hold, its scope widens ever further, the dynamic surrounding such statements favors ever more statements, the controversy surrounding the issuance or non-issuance of such statements and their contents becomes ever greater as more statements are issued, and whatever comforting or galvanizing quality they are supposed to have becomes ever weaker. Finally, I believe they are based on a false and clichéd premise, one that universities are happy to trumpet in speeches and sales materials: that the university is a "family" or a "community." The first is false, and arguably harmfully so: few disappointments are so bitter as discovering that your "family" is in fact nothing of the sort, and cannot or will not do everything for you that a family does. The second is truer, but it is more accurate to say that the university is a particular, special-purpose community, defined by a shared commitment to a common academic enterprise.

Better, then, not to issue such statements at all, except insofar as they touch very directly on matters occurring at or of immediate concern to the university qua university--and without widening and attenuating the meaning of "immediate concern" in the now-usual ways, involving vague and/or disingenuous invocations of safety or security or harm. The Kalven Committee's Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action is quite right on these questions: "The university is a community only for [ ] limited and distinctive purposes," "cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues," and should limit itself to speech on matters which involve either specific managerial or internal functions or which go directly to "the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry." (Statements on such issues by sub-units of the university, such as individual departments, or, most of the time, by disciplinary organizations, generally again speaking on questions as to which they lack expertise and issuing statements as to which they have not sounded out their members properly, raise questions of their own. The answer to such questions is not "no," but "God, no.")  

Notwithstanding the committee's wisdom on these questions, universities have gotten hooked on the statement habit and it's unlikely they will kick it easily. (It is not an incidental or coincidental fact, but a fundamentally connected one, that such statements have exploded at the same time that universities have embraced a heavily consumer- and market-oriented conception of themselves. University statements of concern, solidarity, and the like are not impassioned reactions to, but part and parcel of, "late capitalism" or "neoliberalism" or whatever your stock phrase of choice is.)

In the present moment, that means that some universities, which have been slow to offer statements or have offered anodyne ones designed to offend no one, and which therefore invariably offend many people, have been accused of pusillanimity, specifically as their recent statements are compared to other recent statements on other issues.

This leads to my single observation. Such statements may indeed be pusillanimous. But given the dynamic I described above, which every inhabitant of the university and of many other institutions besides is now fully familiar with, even the more full-throated statements that universities have issued in recent years on matters beyond their expertise and immediate function have generally been issued out of fear, under pressure, to head off protestors or the press, or for PR purposes closely related to the desire not to alienate potential tuition-payers, donors, foundations, and other internal stakeholders or external pressure groups. No doubt conviction has played a role too, but it has been only one factor and not necessarily the most important one. In short, we should not limit ourselves to the suggestion that university statements issued in the past couple of days have been pusillanimous. Instead, we should take a moment to consider the possibility that the kinds of recent statements that are now being held up as examples of what universities say when they really care or are really brave are, at bottom, equally pusillanimous.    


Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 11, 2023 at 10:53 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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