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 firstname.lastname@example.org.