"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."—Henry Kissinger
In the university, politics manifests itself at many levels. It is there when decisions are made about tenure and promotion. It is always there when departments try to hire. There are student politics and the unseemly politics enshrouding university athletics. Where there are faculty and staff unions, there is a special brand of politics. The latter needs and deserves its own narrative. There are politics of professional societies and politics in relationships between institutions. It is obvious Kissinger knew the academy far better than most. Unlike the public political arena, the political pressures at the university are experienced by both individuals and the institution. The outcomes are usually different and while individuals may suffer in silence just like in bad marriages, institutions are more resilient. The stakes of course, are very different. When external political forces try to interfere with the internal workings of the academy or attempt to insert their values, both the public and academy react. All the world takes notice and eventually the forces of reason mobilize to defend institutional academic freedom. It is never an easy ride and at least in the fifties and sixties, many a career was shattered by arbitrary actions of institutions driven by fear, public backlash, and the prevailing "red scare."
The interference of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the life of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) was one of the more egregious examples in the 50s. Those who can remember those years will know that they were times of Apple Pie America and Gentle Canada, with Louis Saint Laurent at the helm in Ottawa and Harry Truman in Washington. In 1953, the structure of DNA had just been published in Nature, by Watson and Crick. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had just conquered Mt. Everest and Queen Elizabeth II had just been crowned. The Korean conflict (war) had ended and "Uncle" Joe Stalin had died suddenly. Elvis cut his first record and Playboy had just published its first edition with Norma Jean featured on the cover.
Meanwhile in Canada, the Stratford festival had just opened, David Chomiak was born, and in "Taranna" people were sitting around their Sylvania "halo light" black and white T.V.s watching the Cisco kid and Donna Reid during dinner. In the USA, the then President of the University of Michigan, Harlan Hatcher, had been notified by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that professors Chandler Davis, Clement Markert, and Mark Nickerson were going to be questioned about their possible connections to the Communist party. All refused to answer questions about their political beliefs and on May 10, 1954, Hatcher suspended all three for refusing to cooperate and appointed a Senate committee to investigate.
On Aug. 26, 1954, Hatcher dismissed Nickerson along with Davis. Markert was reinstated through the intervention of the Senate. Of course the story doesn't end there. Clement Markert went on to Yale and an illustrious career in molecular biology. Chandler Davis was also cited for contempt of Congress and ultimately served a sentence in federal prison in 1960. In 1962, he came to Canada where he went on to be a pre-eminent mathematician, scholar, writer, and editor at the University of Toronto. Mark Nickerson went on to McGill University in Montreal to become one of the world's most esteemed pharmacologists. Although it ended well, this period continues to be a blot on the conscience of the American academy. For many, this elicits sentimental recollections of noble sacrifice for academic freedom. For others, it is a reminder of the fragile nature of the democratic system and the ease with which political expediency can subvert academic integrity and freedom of speech.
Of course Canada had its own version of political chicanery in the university context. The RCMP had its plants in the Canadian universities and Steve Hewitt's Spying 101: The RCMP's Secret Activities At Canadian Universities, 1917-1997 is a comprehensive review of the RCMP's incursions at Canadian Universities. It makes interesting reading but is a story of the triumph of "file creation and maintenance", as if bureaucratic cataloging was in itself a deterrent to subversion. In Canada, subversion consisted of acts by individuals who fomented discord and at one point, before CSIS came into being; the RCMP SS had files on over 134,000 people and organizations. The Mounties always get their files.
On the other hand, Canada has been a leader in exposing some questionable commercial influence in university research enterprises, stories that have become so arcane, convoluted, and nasty that they are potential plots for T.V. soap operas. The article herein by Jon Thompson, Patricia Baird, and Joceylyn Downie speaks volumes on this issue. These cases at the Universities of Michigan and Toronto are elevated examples of political machinations in the academy and can be pointed to as classics in "high narrative" as opposed to the more sordid, earthy, and banal incidents that characterize daily living in every department, faculty and committee in the noble academy.
This is the latter kind of politics that Henry Kissinger alludes to in the opening quotation. The petty retributions, discriminations, calumnies, character assassinations, and herding attacks are most often abuses of power in the cause of self-promotion and aggrandizement. It is the politics of the herd and lower forms of bottom dwellers, but politics nonetheless. The acts and tactics often mask incompetencies of the perpetrators and collective obfuscation of truth. For the most part it is based on vacuous notions of rank and disciplinary worth and comes out under the rubric of "critical thinking". It goes deeper and wider than that however. Many academics believe that a PhD confers special magical powers. To whit, their actions and pronouncements would lead you to think that their expert opinions are valid across all issues public and private, as well as in all cultural nooks and crannies. Try Robert Fuller's, Somebodies and Nobodies, Overcoming the abuse of Rank, ISBN 0-86571-487-8 (New Society Publishers, 2004) for a good insight into this "ism".
In the university, the PhD degree is the font of power and the discipline is the flavour, and to many academics the validation. This power excuses actions and behaviour that are petty, arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, and often childish. Hardly something we should expect from the esteemed professoriate, you say. Think again. Expecting higher ethical standards of academics is naïve. Behind the mask of erudition lie ordinary humans with all the warts and inclinations of all other groups of humans. The flaws begin with degree and rank and proceed to the misused notion of critical thinking or higher criticism. In the hands and mind of legitimate scholars, critique leads to a better approximation of truth. In the hands of the intellectual charlatan, it is opinion camouflaged in the context of academic freedom and usually devoid of any moral sense. One needs to be reminded that in the university the men of principle far out number the men of honor. You assume that our professoriate is enlightened but enlightenment is too often understood as relying on reason (principle) alone (the French version), as opposed to reason flavored with virtue and conscience (à la Scottish English enlightenment). I'm referring to social virtue: compassion, benevolence, and sympathy. For those interested, Gertrude Himmelfarb, gives a lucid history of the concepts in her recently published "The Roads to Modernity"(Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). That is of course only part of the story. The patterns of behaviour are certainly masculine and the games are played by male rules of dominance.
Beyond rank there is the collective discrimination between tribes and herds. This is commonly referred to as the "Clash of Cultures" and involves the illiterate tribe, science and engineering, versus the great innumerate clan, humanists and social scientists. In this discourse, the artists and musicians are simply outré, while the lawyers and doctors are viewed as money- grubbing apprentices. The professional educators are hardly worth consideration as academics. In the battle for political power in the academy, criticizing other disciplines has always been a popular pastime. Depending on what side you are on, the hierarchy of worth goes something like this in science:
physics > math/computersciences > chemistry > biochemistry > biology > geology > psychology > geography.
This is the fundamentalist argument. Physics is more fundamental than chemistry; chemistry is more fundamental than geology and so on. For a recent elaboration of the politics within the Physics community, you might want to peruse a commentary, "Pushing For Power", Tales of brilliant scientists and their heroic discoveries can overshadow the true nature of scientific communities which are often dominated by battles for power and success, by Ad Lagendijk (Nature/Vol. 438/24, November 2005, page 429). But physics isn't alone. Science views itself as more fundamental (explanatory at least) than the arts, humanities or social sciences (science without numbers). The arts and humanities consider themselves more "critically thoughtful" than any of the unwashed from faculties of Education and so on... And everyone knows that applied programs don't count. In the arts and humanities it isn't quite as defined, but the literary criticism scholars occupy a separate, special, and exclusive category. They are usually right no matter what the issue and wallow in the jargon of Lacan, Derrida, and the like, occasionally joined in their battle against the scientific elite by Richard Rorty the darling of the philosophically obscure. Complex, eh!?
The purest embodiment of this abuse of "the critique" is in the assessment of "other" disciplines and the other flavours. The general daily politics of the academy certainly isn't about the "Clash of Cultures" or the postmodernist feminists versus the scientists and the philosophy of realism. It is about credit for work, obscure and miniscule as it might be. It is about playing the game, traveling from conference to conference proselytizing, collecting citations and principle investigator fees, patents, and more invitations to spread tiny pieces of obscure gospels. It is about denigrating qualitative research in favor of the quantitative (read correct and valid). It is about minimizing young academics and putting women in their place. It is about appearing to be important by being unreadable. It is about pontificating in local newspapers about... you pick the topic. It is about abusing secretaries and non-academics when your academic ego needs stroking. It is about the low road to morality. A few years ago, a few well-known CAUT gurus and I were swapping stories about the difficult academics we have been subjected to across the country. As we listed them, one thing became surprisingly obvious. Their list and my lists were exactly the same. We suffered the same top fifty!! Why am I not surprised?
Of course, politics in the University differs from politics in public life. One gadfly has summarized the difference this way: "In real politics you can see the knives!" Then again there are many, many honorable men and women in the academy. Over the years I have met many of them. They teach, do research and serve their community. In many institutions they stand up and set the higher standard. They truly are the best and brightest, the prizewinners, and models to students. Luckily they are the majority.
"All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field."—Albert Einstein