Internal threats and outside agitators

In my last post on academic freedom, I suggested that alongside ‘the tyranny of public opinion’ in universities we need to consider the dictatorship of money and influence.  Universities always needed money, and public money came with strings.  But now we are symbiotically dependent on private money: tuition fees, corporate grants, work-for-hire, and always and everywhere the philanthropy of the rich, especially, rich alumni. 

Payment schemes are overtly transactional: fees for tuition, grants for research.  In a weirdly aristocratic way, universities regard these as more suspect, more degrading–as if the family had married into ‘trade’–than alumni donations and legacies. But it seems to me that the closer university support comes to a market transaction (some fresh tit for a bit of ancient tat) the more above-board things are.  There will be CFPs, competitions, contracts, accountants, and the possibility of regulation.  The downside is that tuition turns students into consumers who must not be disappointed, and non-productive subjects and departments become impoverished.

I have served on ‘development’ or ‘advancement’ committees in every university I’ve worked at, and every charity with which I volunteer. Although I am (as the late G.A. Cohen would put it) extremely rich as the world population goes, and even quite rich as university professors go, I am not all that rich. Yet for reasons I have never understood, the odiously rich often get on with me.  I can make a million pounds piss its pants with laughter, while standing it Château Yquem for Château Yquem, and crooning folk songs in any of four languages. So I know about ‘advancement’ culture.  

It is not overtly transactional.  It is covertly transactional. The covert part is the problem. The only side of the exchange the public ever sees is a name on a library or a professorship.  But that is only the bill before VAT.  The tax has still to be paid.  That is accounted in influence: the understanding that a call will be answered, a meeting held, an opinion considered, a direction affirmed or thwarted.  Donors need not ask for influence anymore than the treasury need ask for VAT at the till.  It is common knowledge that it must be paid. 

Covert transactions can work smoothly, and also innocently.  But now and then a donor feels disturbed, even cheated, and then trouble begins.  He may have misread the price-tag. He may not only have paid for things to happen, he may think he bought the right that things not happen.  Faculty working in good faith are then blinded-sided by constraints they never knew existed.  Pressure is applied.  Sometimes it causes bruises that show in public.  Like a battered wife, a pusillanimous dean tells everyone she walked into a closet and that her husband still loves her. And, in truth, she does crave the creature comforts of his family mansion.

As in battered-wife syndrome, escape from a covert transaction gone bad requires publicity.  But how can that happen?  Those who know most are the most involved, a small group.  And a university scandal can affect everyone there, including innocent bystanders. Many have an interest in shutting down scrutiny.  The first screw they tighten is the appeal to confidentiality.  (A covert transaction, get it?) Then the unctuous appeal to ‘collegiality’ is wheeled in, holding off the use of actual ostracism until the top blows off.  You need to understand just how badly concealment now matters.  Actually, I doubt you can understand unless you have been there.

In the last post I offered examples of external assaults on academic freedom.  This is how a typical internal assault develops.  And that is why—if I may here answer some emails—it falls to ‘outside agitators’  like me to intervene.  (Email 1: ‘It’s none of your fucking business!’) In the cases I wrote about, it was the fucking business of the academic deans and presidents who had most to lose.  It was the business of everyone in their faculties with a shred of integrity. In one case, it is now the business of the judiciary.

But it is also the business of the lawyers and academics around the world including the Butlers, the Chomskys, and the Falks who now demand transparency at the University of Toronto, (Email 2: ‘So what? They sign every protest’.) It is the business of professors like the Leiters who take time out of their work to make the covert overt and to ensure that news from tiny fiefdoms reaches others in what we still, optimistically, call the ‘academic community’. (Email 3: ‘You proffesors [sic] getting off on your blog. If you know so much say that name.  I know why, you Zionists [sic] always protect.[sic]’ {Author’s note—does the sender not have access to Google?}

Probably, for many readers of this blog, it is your business too.