When free speech costs a career
- How profs' political advocacy outside academia can threaten their
success within it.
When free speech costs a career:
BY ALEX HEMMER
Cover Story Yale Herald
September 15, 2006
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
They say those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. But,
increasingly, it seems that professors are choosing to live in glass
housesthe 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
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
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 intellectuala 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
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
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 2002having joined
forces in the interim with anti-war and anti-globalization groups such
as the Direct Action Network and Ya Bastahe 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 problemthe 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 onesa 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
thatsome 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 Butlerwho chaired the committee that rejected Juan Cole's
candidacyadmits 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 havehas hadits
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
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