Protecting Disputation: What Is to Be Done?

April 2022

“Life is not an easy matter…. You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.” - Leon Trotsky

In the episode of “Rational Space Disputations” with Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) president Mark Mercer, we discussed the problem of universities becoming institutions of “celebration”. Universities, we agreed, should be places of dispassionate inquiry, where the “life of the mind” and disputational processes are supported.

Towards the end of our interaction, the discussion inevitably turned to the question of how to restore the academic character of universities. To this, I offered two main suggestions. The first was changing university governance so that administrators could be elected by faculty members; the second concerned organizing academically inclined faculty so that scaffolding could be rebuilt to support academic revitalization.

With respect to the first suggestion, I originally learned of the possibility of a different form of university governance when watching the proceedings of a conference organized to support Norman Finkelstein. For people who are unaware of this terrible violation of academic freedom, Dr. Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University because of the malevolent intervention of Alan Dershowitz (a Harvard law professor). Dershowitz had crossed swords with Finkelstein for many years, but the former’s opposition became more aggressive after Finkelstein published Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History and claimed that Dershowitz was a “plagiarist and falsifier of documents”. This led Dershowitz to intervene in Finkelstein’s tenure process, which eventually resulted in Dr. Chuck Suchar, Dean of DePaul University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, denying Finkelstein tenure (overruling the departmental recommendation). Finkelstein’s academic career was ended in spite of being a prolific scholar and outstanding teacher because, in Suchar’s view, his “inflammatory polemics” undermined “civil discourse” and were contrary to the “Vincentian value” of “respect for the dignity of the individual”.

This academic purging of Finkelstein led to a two session symposium on academic freedom held at the University of Chicago in 2007. In this symposium, a talk was given by Neve Gordon, who outlined how his university – Ben Gurion University – differed from those in the United States. One of the major differences, according to Gordon, was that faculty at Ben Gurion University elected their Deans and the Provost (the administrative head of academic affairs at universities). The election of these administrators meant that they were directly accountable to the faculty, and when they finished their terms, they would return to their respective departments and resume teaching and research responsibilities. Gordon, in fact, argued that this system of governance would have resulted in Finkelstein being granted tenure at Ben Gurion University.

This governance structure also has been discussed by Camille Paglia. In an interview with Reason Magazine, Paglia referred to a conversation that she had after publishing her famous essay “The Nursery-School Campus” in the Times Literary Supplement. Someone from the publication queried her about what a “Dean of Students” was, and Paglia was surprised to hear that there was no such student-customer support bureaucracy at Cambridge University (with the exception of a “man who runs the cafeteria”). Instead, academic administrators were all drawn from the faculty and, as at Ben Gurion University, would return to being professors after completing their terms.

Paglia points out that, in corporatized American universities (similar to Canadian ones), a massive administrative class has developed that has no ties to any academic functions. As Kenneth Westhues has pointed out with respect to the mobbing case of Denis Rancourt, “[t]oday’s university has moved beyond the classic model of a collegium toward the newer model of a market-oriented business corporation, with power concentrated in the office of the CEO” [see this issue of the SAFS Newsletter]. This puts administrators in opposition to faculty because they are concerned about the university’s “brand” and satisfying its student-customers. Instead of faculty and administrators working together to ensure that educational principles are upheld, they are in a constant struggle with one another. University administrators are concerned with “managing” their employees and are aware that attempts by professors to maintain academic standards and autonomy could potentially reduce enrolment and corporate donations.

To my proposal of faculty electing administrators, Mercer responded by asking about the mechanisms by which this could occur. What would be the entity that could spearhead this transformation of university governance, Mercer asked? The most obvious champion would be faculty associations, but Mercer pointed out that they currently are much more interested in pursuing Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE) initiatives than in trying to protect the university’s intellectual character. They also tend to have a cozy relationship with administration so as to “win” on issues they prize more highly, such as wage increases. This led me to bring up my second suggestion – organizing academically minded faculty to resist and take back their associations.

As of today, attempts to exert control over faculty associations seems almost a hopeless endeavour. This, however, could be changed by building support systems for academics who are concerned about the intellectual character of universities. While this might occur quickly by having slates of academic freedom and open inquiry candidates elected to the executive boards of faculty associations, the current “woke” climate would act against such a change. Therefore, a more fundamental transformation of university culture is necessary, and this requires what is called “grassroots” organizing.

It is important to keep in mind that activists posing as academics make up a small percentage of the faculty. Their numbers seem much larger because of their loudness and ability to form a cohesive faction through zealotry and intimidation. Scholars, on the other hand, are notoriously individualistic and disagree with each other almost as much as they oppose the activists who are destroying the academic character of universities. Many non-activist faculty also are often opportunistic, apathetic, or fearful, which adds to the difficulties.

Organizing faculty, therefore, will not be easy, but I encourage all who value the university as an intellectual space to start to engage in the coalition building that is necessary to save academic institutions. This will require a three-pronged approach – local, national, and international. Nationally, we have SAFS, but this “hub” will need to develop better connections with local and international organizations.

Locally, one promising development has been the formation of SAFS chapters at individual universities. This has already happened at McGill, Brock, and Wilfrid Laurier. It is probably the most essential development, as face-to-face interaction is more effective in building up strong organizations than long distance communications over Zoom. Local organizations also will be able to give “on the ground” support to faculty members who need assistance trying to uphold academic principles.

Internationally, linkages need to be built with other organizations. SAFS is currently engaged in this, but it is a slow process. We have recently reached an agreement with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) to develop events stressing the importance of tolerating the expression of different points of view at universities. Much more time, however, should be spent communicating and holding events with organizations such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS), Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the Free Speech Union (FSU).

It is possible that all is lost. This is the message in a recent piece by SAFS member Bruce Pardy entitled “How to Survive the Academic Pogrom without Compromising on Academic Freedom”. In this piece, Pardy asserts that universities today are “controlled by a particular constellation of interests”, and “administrators, faculty, and students [are] largely of one mind” in their pursuit of woke-ism (identity politics that has become totalitarian). “Your objective should not be to fix the university”, argues Pardy, “but to be left alone to do your thing”. But if we do not “fix” the university, how will we be able to do our “thing”? Although we are all individuals, we are embedded within a society that either nurtures or destroys our capacity to develop knowledge and theoretical understanding. How can we, as individuals, pursue what is true and beautiful when our environment is steeped in lies and ugliness?

Besides, as was pointed out in the Rational Space Disputations episode, one plays checkers mostly for the game, not the actual winning. We can find meaning and fulfilment in fighting for an important cause, even if we are, at this point in time, losing the battle. And even if the game is lost, we can be, through participant and observation methods, the people who document the destruction of our universities so that future generations can learn from our mistakes and rebuild institutions that nourish what Mark Mercer calls the “life of the mind”.