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When free speech costs a career

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    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2006
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      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
      SEE: http://www.yaleherald.com/article.php?Article=4796


      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."

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