Working Under Siege

At noon this past Friday, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, I presided over a “Just in Time” session (one of the sessions designed to address timely events or developments in the profession) on the topic of working in the profession at a time when that work is under attack. When I had put the roundtable together, I took an April speech by the architect of the Critical Race Theory panic, Christopher Rufo, as emblematic of those attacks. The speech, given at conservative Christian Hillsdale College, was titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” That morning, as I found out after the session, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had announced the appointment of six new trustees to New College of Florida, including a dean from Hillsdale College and Mr. Rufo. Members of the roundtable shared accounts of situations at their campuses and of how they have responded. I’m posting my introductory remarks below. I’m including the introductions of participants so you can follow their work; I didn’t include their titles because I wanted to emphasize that at times like these, maybe at all times, we are workers more than we are professionals. The session was grim and inspirational and, while I can’t share their remarks, I’m grateful for them and for the discussion that followed as well as for all the other people I heard last week theorizing academic labor and strategizing about how to protect academic workers in and outside of the academy.

Welcome to our Just in Time Roundtable, “Working under Siege; or, A Hill to Die On.” I’m Sam Cohen, and since the current chancellor of my campus and president of my university system has asked that we not identify ourselves as working for the university if we’re going to be saying critical things about it, I won’t. I’ll do brief introductions so there’s more time for discussion and then say a few words to introduce our topic:

Helane Androne works in the English Department at Miami University of Ohio; Emily Hind works in the University of Florida’s Department of Spanish and Portugese; Mercedes Chavez works in the Ohio State University’s Department of Comparative Studies; Christopher Hanlon works in the Department of English at Arizona State University; Alex Trimble Young works in the Honors College at ASU; Peter Caster works in the Department of English at University of South Carolina Spartanburg. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Insko is unable to be with us today, but he’s here in spirit.

Today we’ll be addressing escalating challenges to post-secondary instructors’ freedom to do their work. It’s a red state problem, but it’s also a national problem with astroturfed roots in Washington think tanks and in the fertile soil of American fear and hatred. And it’s a problem whose effects are felt on the ground where we study and teach and where students learn. The roundtable is framed as a response to a speech by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo delivered at Hillsdale College on April 5, 2022 entitled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” In the speech, Rufo, architect of the campaign against public education using the largely imaginary presence in them of Critical Race Theory, broadens his attack on education to call for universal school choice in K-12 education and for legislative control over public higher education.

With regard to higher education, seven states have passed laws that qualify as what PEN America, AAUP, and other institutions keeping an eye on this kind of activity call “educational gag orders”; additionally, there are eleven live bills now working their way through state legislatures across the country. In my state of Missouri, home to many colleges that might be the one where I work, Rep. Ann Kelley has prefiled one of these, and it includes language of the kind we’re hearing around the country. Here’s a snippet from Missouri HB75:

No employee of an institution of higher education shall require or make part of a course the concept that:
(1) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
(2) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;
(3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race or sex;
(4) Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex;
(5) An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex;
(6) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
(7) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex; or
(8) Meritocracy or traits such as a strong work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race

Of course, people have been and will continue to be punished and fired for such activity, regardless of the existence of these laws. Another part of the strategy is to work not just on the institutions but on public opinion, and that battle is ongoing, as scholarly and pedagogical work is cynically misrepresented and deployed by think tank hacks like Rufo and eager right-wing politicians like Rep. Kelley. So, again regardless of what happens in state houses—and in court houses, as Florida’s “Stop WOKE” Act is under federal injunction—faculty and staff are under threat—as is itself clear from Governor DeSantis’s recent demand, in the words of a memo published Wednesday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that public colleges “provide a comprehensive list of all staff, programs, and campus activity related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and critical race theory.”

So that’s the siege. It’s not a new phenomenon—we’ve had culture wars in this country for a long time, although they heated up after the end of the Cold War and people didn’t call them that until the early 1990s, thanks to James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars. The teaching of histories of racism and oppression was a topic of debate when I was in graduate school in the 1990s, with John Brenkman speaking at the 1991 English Institute about “the multiculturalism controversy” and Henry Louis Gates writing about arguments over Critical Race Theory in Luke Menand’s 1998 collection on academic freedom. We’re decades into these wars, with the old issues still live, now joined by global warming and the pandemic and fanned by a now-ended presidency entirely built on them and a party dedicated to running on them.

Siege warfare is an ancient and mostly outmoded strategy of attrition, carried out by surrounding an enemy inside its walls and by a combination of direct assault and blockade attempting to force surrender. The object of the siege tries to hold off the assaults and survive the attempt to starve it. That’s us. But this modern kind of institutional warfare, if you listen to Rufo’s speech and pay attention to what’s happening on your own campuses, also involves assaults from within. While state legislatures try to control the purse strings, private money works with upper administration to build academic centers that hire and program according to right-wing agendas and that weaken traditional department-based hiring and tenuring, the fundamental basis of academic freedom; perhaps most threatening, the tenure track dwindles to a fraction of its former self, depriving most faculty (73%, last I heard) of the fundamental protection tenure is supposed to provide. In the next few minutes, we’ll hear from faculty who have worked under sieges of various kinds and we’ll hear about strategies they’ve employed to defend against them. And then we’ll hear from you about ways to think about all of this. Maybe we’ll also have the opportunity to talk about ways to reconcile what we know about the historical and current damage done by the institutions in which we work with our desire to save and even improve them—to talk about why this hill, even though its buildings may be built on stolen labor and stand on stolen land and even though what happens here can be as likely to perpetuate as to challenge social hierarchies, is a hill worth dying on.

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