Academic Freedom and Political Dissent
A Conversation with Katherine Franke and the Community
Independent Media Center, Urbana IL
Gender & Women's Studies
On September 11, 2014, the Board of Trustees rubber-stamped Chancellor Wise’s recommendation to not hire Steven Salaita. In an upsetting majority vote of 8-1 (Trustee James D. Montgomery casting the only no), the Trustees sided with the Chancellor in her assessment that Salaita’s presence on this campus was not welcomed.
In the days and even minutes before the votes, many saluted the Chancellor’s position as one guided by courage.
I want to take a few minutes tonight to reflect on the ways the rhetoric of courage has been articulated in the Salaita case. Far from making Salaita’s firing a state of exception, I use his case as an illustration of what’s cooking right now in the academe for scholars whose intellectual and teaching mission is to provide critical tools to understand how discrimination, social injustice, and inequalities shape both the social and academic economy. I suggest that the language of courage has become a means by which the privileged few appropriate a position to step up, to speak up, and to speak at the expense of those who have been historically injured.
Courage: how noble it sounds.
As a queer theorist, I have been interested in the ways that the rhetoric of courage has been used in a series of LGBT civil rights battles over the past few years. Courage has emerged as a mode of public address in battles over same-sex marriage and the repel of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Queers and non-queers are asked to show courage and demonstrate their civic engagement and duty by supporting demands forequality. Courage is asserted as a virtue, a mark of self-abnegation, of self-sacrifice for the good of all and for the nation. The language of courage promotes a patriotic ideal of the community: a community in which dissent is hushed in order to leave room for the real American cultural values of military service, family, liberal economy, and tolerance as a whole. It is no coincidence that most of the legal battles for LGBTS rights for the past years have been for rights that fall under good civility and service provisions. The rhetoric of courage is evoked to produce and maintain a particular vision of political order, and not to provide new models of citizenship. Ultimately, to be courageous is to be civil.
Over the past weeks, many of my colleagues have articulated beautifully how the Salaita case is deeply entrenched in broader concerns about shared governance, academic freedom, and also the perpetuation of structural racism, homophobia and sexism on this campus.
To claim that Wise’s decision and action is a matter of courage is to consolidate a top-down model of governance and a culture of sameness in which the people of courage are actually the people who have incommensurable discretionary power (In this case, the president of the University of Illinois, the Chancellor of the Urbana campus, and the Chair of the Board of Trustees). When Chancellor Wise and her supporters use the language of courage to manufacture a discourse of civility, they legitimize racist interpretations of academic work and consolidate acampus climate in which free speech and political protest can be portrayed as bullying. But we all know that bullying is the privilege of the big and the strong, and not of the weak or the oppressed.
The language of courage re-directs our sense of who is under threat. In using the rhetoric of courage to describe Chancellor Wise, commentators discredit the scholars, students and academic units who have worked for years in a climate of physical and institutional violence, often under precarious conditions, negotiating threats, and at the expense of their own intellectual and personal safety. In using the rhetoric of courage to describe Chancellor Wise, commentators portray courage as an aristocratic virtue rather than a value that conveys a fierce desire to bring academic work to bear on questions of social justice. The so-called courage displayed by and attributed to the Chancellor is in fact a breach of institutional procedures, of due process, by someone whose position of power insulates her from the protests of those who support academic freedom without qualification.