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.

The Real Problem is…

Whenever my students write of some dispute, ‘The real problem is…’ (poverty not racism; sovereignty not control…) I put in the margin, ‘Yes, that is one problem.’ Important problems have many aspects. When we work at one, we forget others.  Yet if we do want to rank them we first need an idea of what is on the list.

Some people think ‘the real problem’ of academic freedom in our universities is ‘cancel culture’, or a lack of ‘diversity’ in ideas, or the ‘colonization’ of the curriculum.  Well, those are some problems.  But it is strange that anyone thinks they are the only problems, let alone ‘the real problem’.  They are prominent only in a few fields.  Their restrictions on inquiry are cultural, what J.S. Mill called ‘the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’.  (Do we need to explain to people with PhDs what a metaphor is?)

Admittedly, culture can harden into policy. It can also drive those who make policy.  What is the culture that dominates among vice-chancellors, provosts, and deans?  Not, I need to tell you, liberal hegemony. It is was it has always been: money and influence.  This is what drives which departments (and professors) are rewarded.  It determines student numbers (and thus, how much time is left is for scholarship).  It can  lixiviate job searches into power and influence.  Two examples:

In June, Toronto’s B’Nai Brith petitioned the President of York University to ‘demand [sic] that Associate Professor Faisal Bhabha no longer teach any “human rights” courses at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.’   Bhabha had allegedly twice compared Zionism in its present form to white supremacy in the US. A harsh but common and lawful view that can be heard every day on Israeli campuses. The sledgehammer then struck quietly, in the silence of a Dean and President who lacked the courage, or principle, to robustly defend their faculty. (Not the first time that York had been humiliated this way by its administration.)  The ‘tyranny of prevailing opinion’?  Not at Osgoode Hall (where I taught for twenty years).  Supported by his faculty union and colleagues, Bhabha was hung out to dry by those who owed him a duty to protect his academic freedom.

Another example. The press reports that Toronto’s other law school just terminated a job search after, it is alleged, a judge and prominent donor sitting on Canada’s federal Tax Court had a quiet word.  He or she expressed displeasure at the (unanimous) recommendation that Dr Valentina Azarova be appointed Director of the International Human Rights Programme. The Judge is alleged to have complained about her views on human rights abuses in Israel.  Law Dean Edward Iacobucci decided not to appoint, and terminated the search. The Chair of the search committee resigned, followed by every single member of the faculty Advisory Committee of the Programme.  ‘Tyranny of prevailing opinion’?  Clap your hands if you believe.

Dean Iacobucci is reported to have explained, first, that ‘The uninformed and speculative rumours have reached such a level that, no offer of employment having been made, the University has decided to cancel the search for a candidate at this time.’

But the pertinent question is whether the ‘uninformed and speculative rumours’ are true, not whether  they became such a nuisance, or risk, that the Dean needed to cancel the search.  Today’s press now reports [paywall] that ‘In a written statement to what he described as the ‘faculty of law community’… Edward Iacobucci did not deny that a Tax Court Judge contacted the administration to express concerns about the candidate, Valentina Azarova.’

Chew on that, over your hegemonically liberal chai-soy lattes.

A law dean did not deny published reports that a sitting judge attempted to influence a University hiring decision.  Presumably, then, he also did not deny that a judge had found out, or was told, who was on that short list?  (Even the University of Toronto law school is not yet required to get pre-clearance from the judiciary.)  And, presumably, if ‘contact’ was made, it was made with someone.  So who was listening (reluctantly? anxiously? eagerly?) to the judge’s ‘concerns’? It was not the faculty members of the Advisory Board. They resigned in protest.

In this scandal, the broader public is not concerned with academic freedom but with judicial integrity.  If a judge as much as attempted–or even could be perceived to have attempted–to  interfere with academic hiring for these reasons it is an offence against judical ethics.  Every Muslim, Palestinian, or Arab litigant and lawyer before that Court would have reasonable grounds to doubt its impartiality.  (That is now a matter for the Canadian Judicial Council, to which formal complaints have been made.)  But there is  a broader issue of academic freedom at stake, one that reaches far beyond Dr Azarova’s disgraceful rejection.

Every member of the Advisory Committee who worked on that file only to learn there were invisible constraints on their decisions, wasted their time. That is not a trivial matter; you can’t do  research without time.  Worse, every Palestinian–and many Muslim and Arab–students and faculty  at the University will now feel on notice that, if a private ‘contact’ should be made from an influential figure who disapproves of a  line of inquiry about the Israel/Palestine conflict, then that ‘contact’ can expect an audience from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.  There is now precedent.  You can’t get a case heard in the Tax Court that easily.

And so it goes. What then is the ‘real problem’ of academic freedom?  There are many.  But in all-too-familiar cases like this one, it has nothing to do with the hegemony of liberal ideas on campus.  In fact, several well-known, soi-disant, liberals at the law school know enough to keep schtum.  Now think about that, too.  You’ll find something else to put on your list of threats to academic freedom.