Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Hawaii's SCR 83 & Anti-Faculty Sentiment

A good friend of mine, Matthew Lopresti, a philosophy Ph.D. candidate and instructor at Hawaii Pacific University, recently helped spur discussion in Hawaii's State Legislature about a resolution that would ask the U.S. Congress to consider impeachment hearings against President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney. The text of the Senate Concurrent Resolution 83 (SCR 83) can be found here.

SCR 83 was introduced by Matthew's state senator, Les Ihara, a Democrat serving the Kapahulu, Kaimuki, and Palolo districts in Honolulu. SCR 83 has garnered some national attention through the Internet, but mainstream media outlets--even local outlets in Hawaii--have been mostly silent about the issue. Matthew has been tireless in his efforts to spread the word about this important piece of political expression; this past Friday the 13th was the deadline for the Hawaii Senate's Judiciary Committee to decide whether or not to consider SCR 83. Although I'm not sure about the outcome of that Committee's meeting on Friday, I will post an update as soon as I get the facts.

According to Matthew, online responses to his political work have been almost entirely negative. On one Hawaii-based political blog, Matthew has been attacked not simply for his editorial letter in support of SCR 83 (as far as I know, this letter was the only "coverage" that SCR 83 received from the mainstream media) but also for his status as a teacher and scholar at a university. It's this latter form of attack that continues to concern me as someone who believes scholars should not shy away from making serious intellectual and political contributions to/in the public sphere. One commentator, without so much as addressing the merits or demerits of SCR 83, claims that university professors should not have tenure, and that they "should be held accountable and responsible for everything they say." Another, writing as an "HPU alumni [sic]," claims s/he's "deeply disappointed that a Hawaii Pacific University Professor is behind this ignorant Resolution." And "kapena" goes so far as to say, "I am aware of people like you in academic circles who think and truly believe you have a more learned opinion than the rest of us...just because you're employed at an educational 'place of learning.'"

Wherever they come from (I'm not quick to assume these are "just" reactionary conservatives we're talking about here), I think responses such as these index increasing suspicion of the role and purpose of higher education in U.S. society. In fact, quite often these attacks have very little to say about the topic at hand. Rather, they are more insistent in pointing out two things: that university faculty 1) have an elitist, "liberal" bias against the will of the majority of Americans, and thus 2) should not involve themselves in social and political affairs beyond academia.

The first claim confuses "liberal" political soapboxing with what I conceive as the intellectual practice of critical thinking. Needless to say, the claim doesn't have an adequate answer to intellectuals' demonstrated commitment to critical thinking, even under seemingly "friendlier" regimes of power (i.e., the Clinton era, "blue" states or districts, etc.).

The second claim expresses the somewhat dumbed-down fear of higher education itself: whom it serves, what it's meant to provide, and so on. It seems to me the real threat of professors' social and political expression in the public sphere resides not in their particular "liberal" beliefs but in the very fact that higher education could mean something beyond what the corporate university is supposed to legitimate: the paying customer, or student--his/her professional drives, his/her "sense of self," his/her readiness to enter the "real world." So it seems to me that as more and more professors move between the academic and public spheres (not least aided by the Internet), there are those who will insist that faculty shouldn't express what they believe (and, goodness knows, even go so far as to say that what they believe is related to their vocation of critical inquiry) but should only serve their disciplines and their charges (i.e., students) in the disinterested realm of scholarly professionalism.

Duke faculty, graduate students, and instructors are all too familiar with these sorts of issues, particularly given the fallout from the Duke lacrosse case (which topic--the fallout--merits a very long blog entry of its own). I raise the issue here, in view of Matthew's participation in the SCR 83 push, in order to highlight how common anti-faculty sentiment really is in our country. What's this sentiment about? Is it unique to our polarized political times? (I happen to think aspects of it are unique, while others have been exploited by reactionaries many times in the past.) Why is intellectual public culture so much at odds with certain people's understanding of the mission of higher education? What's the relationship between anti-faculty sentiment and American institutions' taking up various modes of privatization (from profitable online course programs to lucrative endowment deals to scientific copyright contracts...)? At least this scholar wants to keep the conversation going.

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