SCHWARTZ: Politicizing Yale’s next president

Dissentery

In the last few days, students’ Facebook threads have been littered with links to a website, progresslab.org, run by a group of students and alumni concerned about the Yale presidential search process. This group claims to be concerned by the overly corporate makeup of the Yale presidential search committee and has endorsed specific candidates for the committee’s faculty slots. Students and faculty should resist getting caught up in the group’s alarmist fervor and feel-good language and should resist the attempt to supplant scholarship with politics.

The Progresslab group has presented its campaign as an attempt to protect the University’s fundamental values: its commitments to the liberal arts and sciences, teaching, “unfettered freedom of speech” and “academic leadership.” The professors the group selected were chosen, we are told, because they were “thoughtful and accomplished” and shared the above-mentioned values of the University community. All of this sounds quite good. Who isn’t in favor of “leadership,” “freedom of speech” and professional scholarship?

But the bland, motherhood-and-apple-pie-ness of this list of values is precisely the problem. Of course, if this totally uncontroversial list of values were what the Progresslab group was actually about, the group would have no reason to exist. Does anyone — even the most anti-corporate fanatical conspiracy theorist — actually believe that the members of the Yale Corporation don’t care about education, scholarship and the First Amendment?

If the Progresslab group is waging a full-fledged campaign, they are doing so because they actually think there is something at stake. That something, it is clear, is whether the University is going to be a place dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge, or a platform for the advance of specific political agendas.

First, let’s examine the group’s statement of values a little more closely. In the context of current campus debates, emphasizing the importance of “unfettered freedom of speech” is not an innocent assertion of obvious values. It is a thinly veiled indictment of a specific project: Yale-NUS.

The group’s purported concern for free speech is actually about a specific, and controversial, policy question, and they are taking a stand: the privileging of a rigid attachment to an abstract political ideal over the concrete advancement — academic, political and social — of a society that currently lacks a serious engagement with liberal arts.

This emphasis on politics becomes even more obvious in the group’s addition of a final element in its list of values and its choice of professors. The list of values concludes with “a determination to manifest and defend these values in the public sphere.” Aside from the relevance to Yale-NUS, the group is clearly looking for professors — and subsequently, a president — who will take an active role in public policy debates. We should not begrudge anyone the right to have a political position, but conceptualizing the University presidency as a partisan bully pulpit is a misguided project that can only detract from the University’s commitment to scholarship. Engagement in political debates should be a professional qualification for politicians, not university presidents.

Finally, the choice of professors only confirms the group’s barely concealed commitment to politicizing the University. The professors chosen are indeed “thoughtful and accomplished,” beloved teachers and respected scholars. But there are many such individuals in this University, and it is no accident that three of the four endorsed professors have appointments in interdisciplinary area studies that are largely defined by their politicization.

Let me be clear, I have no objection to the study of race, migration or sexuality, and chances are good that I share most of the political views held by the professors who teach in these departments. But we are fooling ourselves if we deny that the omission of professors of philosophy, classics and traditional history was deliberate. When combined with a call for increased activism in the public sphere, the selection of these particular professors can only be seen as a symbolic endorsement of the increased politicization of the academy, and that politicization is something that those of us who care about the University’s mission must resist.

Chances are that all of the debate and discussion over the presidential search is simply hot air. Months from now, we will all wake up happily to an email announcing Provost Peter Salovey’s selection as Yale’s 23rd president. Nevertheless, we should be wary of those who militantly and frantically advocate for the obvious. More often than not, they are pushing an agenda. And when that agenda calls for watering down scholarship in the service of politics, we should cry foul.

Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

Comments

  • SY10

    What is “traditional history”? George Chauncey is a historian, with an appointment in the history department. So is Stephen Pitti. Each of them is a quite distinguished scholar, well respected by other historians both at Yale and outside it. In fact, I’m now a grad student in history at another university, and Chauncey’s book Gay New York was on the syllabus of the only course that all history grad students are required to take. Historians think Chauncey is a historian. Historians think Pitti is a historian. So Yishai, why aren’t they? Given your mention of classics as a discipline that should have been represented (in a group of only four people), and your use of the word “traditional” to describe the sort of historian who should have been picked, I have a suspicion that it is, despite your protestations, for the very reason that they don’t study straight, white, male political leaders, but rather racial and sexual minorities and the poor. You claim this makes them “politicized,” and perhaps you’re right; there are important political consequences that come from understanding the histories they’ve uncovered. But if they are politicized, they are no more so than the faculty in the Grand Strategies program (who I should note also include distinguished historians well respected by their colleagues, whose work I am not in any way intending to disparage), who I imagine would have been reasonable choices in your mind, but whose work also has certain political consequences. By taking a certain sort of history as the default – what you imagine as “traditional history” – and otherizing anything that deviates from it as “politicized history” you only reveal your own biases and your own political goals for the university.

    I think Yale would be a better place if it had a president who reflected the sort of values Stephen Pitti and George Chauncey display in their work than it would with a president who did not. You are welcome to disagree, but your argument would be less convincing to most Yalies if you engaged with the content of those beliefs, rather than dismissing them as “politicized” where their colleagues are “traditional.”

    • LtwLimulus90

      Where did he say that classics or traditional history professors *should have* been included?

      • SY10

        “But we are fooling ourselves if we deny that the omission of professors of philosophy, classics and traditional history was deliberate.”

        Is that good enough for you? I think that’s a pretty clear implication that he would have supported the inclusion of professors of “traditional history.” Do you actually take fault with my logic (which amounts to opposing an omission being basically equivalent to supporting an inclusion), or did you not actually read the whole article before accusing me of putting words into someone’s mouth?

    • LtwLimulus90

      You’re putting words in his mouth and deciding with no empirical support that he would actually prefer a more politically conservative president

  • joematcha

    I wholeheartedly agree with SY10 and would like to further add that the context in which progresslab was operating was that the Faculty, alumni and students were not given any real time to truly reflect and consider who they want on the search committee. In light of that these alumni put up the four people they chose as examples alumni were free to chose to include in their nomination emails should they agree with the progresslab assessment of them.

    I seriously doubt they expected everyone to just chose their examples without any further thought, and I think it’s obvious they just wanted to create an easier way for people to delve into this choice when pressed for time.

    For example, when I wrote in my nominations I actually used two of their recommendations, Chauncey and Urry, because I was one of the many who didn’t have time to put the thought in necessary for this type of decision and I agreed with wholeheartedly with those two choices. I also added two of my own. One of them was Diana Kleiner, Dunham professor of Art and Classics, who was literally my first thought and number one choice to be on the committee and the other was Jill Campbell, an awesome professor in the English department who has been making a point of going to Town Hall meetings and asking relevant questions of the University’s administration.

    So I found progresslabs’ effort extremely helpful and I find the criticism in this column a little lazy and lacking context.

    • LtwLimulus90

      I disagree. I think this column is very thoughtful and full of good content. This is quite the opposite of lazy. I think laziness is using two recommendations just because they were there and not investing time in thinking about these choices and their implications…

      • joematcha

        You and the columnist are both missing the fundamental problem, which is that no one was given adequate time to consider this question. I don’t think his criticism makes sense in general, but the criticism is especially incoherent when the context is considered.

        The entire point of my original comment was to show how ridiculous it was to give everyone one business day to make these choices since they do require thoughtful consideration. I didn’t use two of the progresslab recommendations just because they were there; I explicitly said that I used them because I agreed with their assessments.

  • ethanjrt

    I was clutching my seat to remain oriented to the ground as I read this op-ed. A few thoughts:
    1. I visited the group’s web site, and the main idea I got from it was that it’s not okay to give students and faculty a token one business day to nominate future presidents – a charge that I agree with, but which Schwartz scrupulously avoids mentioning in his search for a conspiracy.
    2. Speaking of conspiracy theories: Do I need to be an “anti-corporate fanatical conspiracy theorist” (nay, MORE extreme than that, says Schwartz!) to suspect that – to take one example – Indra K. Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, will not make it a priority to search for a President who places a high value on freedom of speech?

    Back to reality…

  • metempsychosis

    Some of the points in the column are certainly well-taken, and some of the criticisms seem wildly detached from reality (e.g.: “I seriously doubt they expected everyone to just chose their examples without any further thought”–really? The point seems to be that these names should be a default for those who don’t want to put in any “further thought.”).

    But the idea that the presidential selection process requires politicization is also absurd. It’s inherently politicized, and ignoring that existing politicization is dangerous. The example of Yale-NUS, which Mr. Schwartz himself brings up, is an obvious example of the political nature of the presidency–and it’s barely the tip of the iceberg. The president will provide the guiding vision for the relationship between the administration, undergrads, faculty, staff, and graduate students (who are actively working for recognition as a union at the moment); the relationship between Yale and New Haven, which is always rife with political battles about the responsibilities we have to the rest of the city (including the question of which of Yale’s properties should be exempt from municipal taxes); to some extent, what a responsible use of the endowment looks like; and–the perennial hot topic–how to shape a healthy sexual climate on campus.

    Those are political, and political in a way that is and should be important to students. Students need to make sure their voices are heard as this process goes forward, particularly in making sure important questions are being asked. We have very limited means of doing so.

    I certainly hope to see students exploit all of the channels of influence we have been given. That doesn’t mean students need to enter this process with a confrontational mindset. But it does mean that they need to have a strong sense that something is at stake for them when the president is chosen. Whatever the outcome of the search process, it’s important that the new president shares that sense that students are invested in how Yale operates.

    Our first chance to communicate that investment is this Wednesday at 10:00 in Bass Cafe for Brandon Levin’s “office hours.” Whatever vision they have, I hope to see plenty of students there.

    Why? Because this is political.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Let’s just fast forward and make [Bill OR Melinda Gradgrind][1] or Rahm Immanuel (sp?) president.

    Education is an INDUSTRY. Let’s come out of the closet people.

    Remember Lucy and the chocolate factory? We want all those little chocolates shaped and formed to STANDARDIZED perfection.

    ONLY a corporate mentality can do that.

    Liberal ARTS? Liberal Schvartz (sick-pun intended, censorship-shamed Yale)!

    PK

    PS:

    The wonderful thing about a “student body”—-and which administrators and Nixon relied on, indeed prayed for, after the Kent State murders —is that one quarter of its corpus is amputated every year. By now half of Yale’s student body is OBLIVIOUS to any allusion to the Schvartz censorship scandal.

    [1]: http://gradgrindfoundation.com

  • The Anti-Yale

    PS
    Join the Bill and Melinda Gradgrind Foundation at
    http://gradgrindfoundation.blogspot.com