On Feb. 17, 2003, Juan Cole posted a snarky, strident, and altogether typical comment to his blog:
If Bush had been smart, his first move after Afghanistan would have been to throw his muscle around and settle the Palestine issue by forcing an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Apparently he has fallen for a line from the neocons in his administration that they can deliver the Jewish vote to him in 2004 if only he kisses Sharon's ass.
A tenured professor in Middle East studies at the University of Michigan, Cole has published books, articles, and reviews about the history of the region. But he is also part of a growing cohort of academics for whom the urge to say something in a more immediate, more public, more consequential way has proven hard to resist. Professors have always been a part of public debate; ever since the New Deal, the academy has served as policymaker and social critic, as an integral part of the discussion over right and wrong.
The recent explosion of professors using their academic bully pulpits to expound on everything from federal sentencing law to the need for a Palestinian state raises questions of responsibility and consequence. Every year, more professors join the blogosphere, expanding into a medium that lets them write anything about anything and makes them advocates as well as teachers.
As the freedom to speak out has grown, however, so have the questions about what a professor should be saying to the world. More and more academics seem to feel they are walking a fine line between speaking out and shutting up; free and outspoken speech can, perhaps, have its consequences.
They say those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. But, increasingly, it seems that professors are choosing to live in glass houses—the better to speak to a wider audience, to effect more change, to have a greater impact on the world. Should they be worrying about the glass breaking under their feet?
Six years ago, a scientist named Mazin Qumsiyeh was hired by the Yale School of Medicine as director of cytogenetic services, a post that placed him in a position of responsibility over many of the school's genetic labs. Dr. Qumsiyeh had been born a Lutheran in Palestine and, when he wasn't at the lab in New Haven, was working as the national treasurer of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and as an advocate for a single-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East.
In the summer of 2003, Qumsiyeh found himself at the center of a firestorm of controversy for sending an e-mail to a Yale anti-war group listing the membership roster of the Yale Friends for Israel and labeling it a "pro-war cabal." YFI members protested and Qumsiyeh issued an apology, but the issue lingered; many students were concerned that a Yale professor would express such an extreme opinion in such a public way.
But free speech is protected in the academy, and while ITS investigated how Qumsiyeh obtained the e-mail addresses in the first place, there were no further inquiries. No one disputed his right to speak out against a war he believed was crippling his country.
Looking back on the incident, Qumsiyeh still sees it as entitled free speech: "In a democratic and free society it is actually the duty of all people regardless of their profession to participate in public discourse and this is especially true for intellectuals and academics," he said. "Academicians can and do balance career, civic responsibility and family life."
But when his contract came up for review in 2004, it was not renewed. The provost's office would not disclose why; hiring and renewal decisions are as confidential as they can be controversial.
Controversy seemed to surround Qumsiyeh from the start of his career at Yale. He had advocated locally and nationally for Palestinian rights under his title as a Yale professor. Five years later, he was looking for a new job. All this raises the question: When professors turn the ivory tower into a soapbox, what rules of conduct should they follow?
At first blush, the answer seems simple: in any way they want to, as long as they don't bring politics into the classroom. Stanley Fish, GRD '62, a longtime academic and the former dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is also an active contributor to the New York Times, writing op-ed pieces about higher education and free speech and, recently, delving into blogging. He's a proponent of what some would call the modern public intellectual—a professor who is also public citizen, who engages the world outside the ivory tower as vigorously as the world inside. "Faculty members can say whatever they want outside the precincts of their academic responsibilities," Fish said. "They can't get up in class and harangue about the Iraq War, but they can write letters to the New York Times or write op-eds and so forth."
Paul Freedman, chair of the Yale history department, even argued that a Yale professor who contributes to the public debate should be seen as a benefit to a university. "Research universities in general, and Yale in particular, like their professors to be in the public eye," he said. "They like to have professors consulted, rather than only people who are narrowly policy-oriented."
Both Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, GRD '86, and Graduate School Dean Jon Butler (who, incidentally, chaired the committee this summer that would reject Juan Cole's candidacy for a teaching position at Yale) agreed, and reaffirmed Yale's commitment to academic free speech. "The University, like the public, has an obligation to honor the spirit of the First Amendment," said Butler.
But despite its officially unshackled policy regarding protected free speech, both deans agree that there is a gray area between academic writing and political activism. "As a researcher, I generally feel an obligation to limit my public comments to ones that I can support with my own research or the research of others in my field whose findings I trust," Salovey said. "I try not to offer opinions about matters beyond my areas of expertise, even if ‘entitled' to those opinions."
But truly extreme opinions, even if protected, can inherently be dangerous for a professor to espouse. "Making statements about general public matters in which you have no particular expertise, if they exhibited racism or bigotry, would inevitably call your scholarship into question," Butler said. "We think we live in an ivory tower, but our tower's not so tall, and it's not so ivory-clad."
Jerry Gordon, a local political activist and commentator, published an article for FrontPage Magazine, a pro-Israel newsletter, on the Qumsiyeh affair. He put it more bluntly: "To engage in the kind of activities that [Qumsiyeh] was doing, both on campus and off, was kind of a dangerous thing for someone in his position to do."
Qumsiyeh's "position" was an untenured associate professor facing a contract renewal. Enter David Graeber, a phenomenally successful anthropologist and anarchist whose books are taught worldwide. In October, he was invited to give this year's Malinowski lecture, an honor given only to the world's most promising young anthropologists. His contract went up for renewal last year.
And in May 2007, he will leave the University as the result of an unusual plea bargain: an extra year on the faculty payroll in return for an agreement to leave without a fight. Graeber, whose contract was not renewed by the anthropology department, had alleged that their decision was motivated by political animosity, a claim he could not confirm because tenure decisions occur behind closed doors. He had been a controversial figure, but now finds sleeping on couches in his friends' New Haven apartments after giving up his lease. When tenure decisions are made in total secrecy, professors are left with little guidance about where their boundaries lie.
At Yale, tenure is both simple and arcane: You get tenure if you are a star in your field, an academic powerhouse, a professor with a contribution to make. No exceptions. There is no fast-track to tenure at Yale, no way to know exactly what's expected of you, except for an obvious triad of priorities: research, teaching, and service to the University.
A would-be public intellectual can face a delicate balancing act: Extreme examples of political activism, like Qumsiyeh's, can lead to consequences, be they direct and career-altering or more subtle and insidious. Yet to toe the party line can seem a stifling fate to a passionate new hire who's excited to write, to speak, and to serve society inside the ivory tower and out.
When Graeber returned from a one-year sabbatical in 2002—having joined forces in the interim with anti-war and anti-globalization groups such as the Direct Action Network and Ya Basta—he said he found his welcome back much colder than his farewell. "I thought a ‘hello' would have been reasonable," he said. "All of the sudden, no one was talking to me." He continued to be a prolific writer and researcher, but his future no longer looked so rosy.
Graeber maintained that his outspoken political activism had caused his already-distant colleagues to see him as dangerous. Was it the way Graeber had presented himself to the world in his time away from the University, protesting in front of the World Economic Forum and speaking to the New York Times as a representative of anarchist fronts?
"I'm not allowed to know," he said sardonically. It seemed to him that a year away had changed his status in the department in ways he hadn't predicted. One tenured professor went so far as to call the parents of one of his students to warn them that their daughter could be falling under the sway of an anarchist; some, apparently, felt that Graeber's political activities, which he had conducted only in New York, should be public knowledge.
Anthropology chair William Kelly refused to comment on the department's decision not to renew Graeber's contract, nor on its implications for untenured professors who wish also to be activists. Graeber additionally pointed to department relations as a reason behind his departure; many in the department labeled Graeber an eccentric, which may have pointed to signs of major disagreements to come.
"If the judgment is that the presence of this person in the organization makes the smooth functioning of the organization extremely difficult, then that's a reason not to give a person tenure," said Fish, who presided over hundreds of hiring decisions at the University of Illinois.
Yet the silence that surrounds these decisions makes it impossible to know whether to ascribe Graeber's departure to activism, collegiality, or something else entirely; Graeber was informed via letter that there had been complaints about his work ethic as a teacher, an allegation many of his students vigorously deny.
"I didn't experience those things," said Phoebe Rounds, SM '07, one of his students. "I thought his class ["Myth and Ritual"] was one of the most engaging lecture classes I'd taken at Yale."
Despite Yale's hope that its professors will engage the outside world, Graeber worries that its policies discourage intellectual adventurousness. "The structure is such that it rewards mediocrity," he said. "That's the problem—the lack of transparency, the lack of communication, but especially that system that never rewards people for standing out."
Last year, Yale decided to woo Professor Juan Cole away from Michigan. Then it changed its mind.
The decision raised several eyebrows and many questions. Cole, the president of the Middle East Studies Association, speaks Arabic and Persian, is considered a powerful scholar, and had been approved for the position by votes in the history and sociology departments. The provost's office refused to comment on the reasons for his rejection; Dr. Cole refused to comment on this story. But many eyes turned toward Cole's blog as a factor in the decision, one that may have raised his profile and polarized opinion on his candidacy. On his site, "Informed Comment," Cole has provided commentary on the news coming out of the Middle East since 2001. Discussing politics is almost guaranteed to cause controversy, but when professors can speak to their passion while educating an ever-growing blogosphere, how can they resist?
Ann Althouse, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, blogs about legal issues and personal ones—a recent post discussed her unexpected affection for the racially-segregated "Survivor"—and sees an essential tension in the role of an academic blogger. "There are a lot of risks," she said. "There's a certain style in blogging that involves polemic and sharp-laced, pithy opinions that don't necessarily impress people who don't agree with you." She added: "Yet if you try to write in a scholarly style, you're not going to be effective in affecting the debate. It's a trade-off, and a risk, and you shouldn't go into it naively."
At the same time, Althouse said, there's an immense attraction in the free-form nature of the blog. Blog writing can be a way for professors to discuss topics that fascinate them without necessarily possessing a base of expertise in a given field. "I think what's exciting is to have a mix of topics and to be willing to say things
you don't know a lot about," Althouse said.
Moreover, she said, there's an appeal in the way that blogs can raise an academic's profile. "I always read the New York Times, and when they wrote about legal topics before blogging, they'd go to the usual people at the top schools," Althouse said. "But by blogging, you end up being one of the people that they call. There's something to that—some ability to become more prominent."
Cole's blog seems to reflect a similar desire to expand beyond his traditional academic outlets, commenting on a more specific topic with an even more extensive willingness to engage in strident discourse. Yet both Althouse and Cole have a single great advantage over many of their compatriots: lifetime tenure. If untenured David Graeber had kept an anarchist blog, would he have been more or less likely to have seen his contract renewed last year?
There's a prevailing opinion that in the ideal world, at least, faculty should be accorded the right of free, consequence-free speech in practice as well as in principle. "Faculty should be evaluated on their scholarship alone," Butler said. "We shouldn't be judging faculty on what seem to be, or what we deem to be, or even what they say their views are about contemporary politics."
But in reality, a professor's politics can stick with us no matter how hard we try to focus on their classroom lecture. And the same can be true when faculty come up for tenure, admits Deputy Provost Charles Long. "Blogs can't help but raise your profile and create controversy," said Long. And while he wouldn't comment on whether Cole's blog affected his candidacy, he acknowledged that the question had been raised. "I know there was a good deal of talk about the degree to which what Juan Cole said in his blog should be considered part of his application material," he admitted.
And even Butler—who chaired the committee that rejected Juan Cole's candidacy—admits that there can be unintended consequences when one speaks as an advocate. "It's not possible to isolate, in the real world, that kind of speaking out on public issues from one's scholarship," he said. "It doesn't mean that that should be done."
The issues surrounding advocacy can really be boiled down to a matter as old as time: that of free speech. As long as people have been able to speak, they've been saying things other people don't want to hear. Speech has consequences; your right to speak is protected, but you're not protected from what people think of you. Weber was writing about blogger snark all the way back in 1918: "They are not plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; they are swords against enemies: such words are weapons."
If words are indeed weapons, then one must hope that the questions that surround advocacy get answered to the betterment of the academy, one way or another. Certainly free speech can have—has had—its consequences, but none of these three, when questioned, would have chosen any other path. "I do not regret what I did at all," Graeber said. "Everything I was involved in was incredibly important. And given the choice between this kind of role in the world and risking contract renewal, that's a risk you take."
There's a remarkable contrast between Graeber, sleeping on couches in his friends' apartments on the nights he spends in the city, and Jon Butler, whose comfortable, wood-paneled office in the Hall of Graduate Studies seems to epitomize the world Yale asked Graeber to leave. Yet on this, certainly, they agree wholeheartedly. "I'm inclined to think that people should contribute to the public dialogue," Butler said. "If they want to say it, they should do it, just as thousands and thousands of people write letters to the editor to every newspaper in America. And maybe someone down the street doesn't like what they have to say. And maybe someone at the grocery store doesn't like what they have to say. But they say it. That's the nature of our democratic society."