I was a student-politician at Tufts; I was not very good at election-day polling (lack of charisma, short on a catchy campaigns), but I was reasonably good at the wonky stuff. For most of my college-career, I proudly represented the student-body (top issue: financial aid) as their representative on the faculty budget and priorities committee and on the board of Trustees (Administration & Finance). It was a challenging period because the university suffered budget shortfalls during the recession of the downturn of the early 1990s and Tufts had a very small endowment at time. (My reputation for financial acumen among members of the student union was created by the astounding financial success of the Booze Cruise I co-organized in my capacity as Treasurer of the International Club.) I was also a College Democrat, and volunteered on various campaigns.
Not unlike some of my friends at the time -- Steve Simon was just elected Secretary of State in MN (!); Stu Rosenberg is a brilliant campaign manager --, I considered a future in professional politics after college. I hesitated because in reflecting on the fate of Ricky Ray Rector, I came to discern I may not be ruthless enough. More prosaically, I decided against it because I did not want to be begging others for money (and the not-so-subtle strings/deals attached to them) for the rest of my life,* and I was not eager to have every angle of my personal life dissected in the media.
Two decades later, my academic life consists in no small part of asking people for money: that is, grant-writing (with lots of strings). More important, I also now recognize that academic politics can be no less dirty than the real deal. For, there are anonymous blogs where people can smear each other's personal lives. The people so targeted are often folk that are trying to improve the norms of the profession. In fact, it seems that any change from the status quo that does not serve to enhance the status quo, and those that benefit from it, can expect the following, by now predictable four-cycle backlash:
- Some professional heavy speaks out on a blog or facebook against the proposed change or new practice, but quickly falls silent when he (it is often a he) realizes he is short of arguments and allies. This, in turn, activates:
- The more anonymous push-pack begins--often this seems to involve not just professional heavies who recognize that their prejudices lack good arguments, but also the not yet fully privileged who fear they cannot secure the privileges they have been implicitly promised but know they are unlikely to attain (especially, perhaps, they think with the proposed policy change). This push-back sometimes generates new and better arguments to resist the change to the status quo (fair enough). But generally this moment in the cycle devolves into open (gossip) season on the characters of those remotely associated with the change in the status quo; details of personal lives are shared; reputations are smeared, positions misrepresented, (etc.) all under the cloud of anonymity but sometimes amplified by attention from the widely read professional blogs (some of these are, in turn, anonymous or regularly rely on anonymous sources).
- Meanwhile, the vast majority of the heavies who benefit from enduring status quo and quietly keep quiet pretending as if they are above the fray do nothing except guiltily [you know who you are!] read the anonymous blogs, too. This silence at the top part of the cycle has been captured eloquently by Bharath Vallabha. (Recall also my blog on the culture of silence.) Undoubtedly, there are some professional heavies who really, really focus exclusively on their deep thoughts and social causes, and spend no time on facebook and checking out blogs. But we can ignore these, because they will never hear about this post. Most benefit from their privilege and are indirectly complict in it (recall).
- Eventually, some blogger or some professional heavy, who sometimes is on the right of the the true and the good, enters the public area and turns against social reform (sometimes backed by anonymous sources sometimes just relying on contrarian-spirit) and, thus, betrays the hopes of all the nascent professional reformers. (For example, my qualified defense of the PGR.)
Why does this matter?
In any given case of proposed change from the status quo the pushback cycle has little impact on the overall outcome. The push-back may even energize would-be-social reformers to stick with the plan and stay unified under duress. But some people observing this will undoubtedly think, who needs this crap? And they may also add, there are more worthy causes for improvement than my profession. So, judging from my inbox, the pushback strategies have the non-trivial side-effect of deterring future would-be-professional-reformers. (Congrats assholes!) This is especially significant because those that wish to change the status quo tend to have fewer resources (income, secure jobs, flexibility with their time) than the professional heavies that benefit from it.
Moreover, given that jobs are scarce and the path to tenure precarious, the backlash cycle identified here is especially risky to un-tenured faculty and (graduate) students that prudently may come to think, 'why risk getting involved before tenure?' It is telling about the risk-averse environment of the profession that the most insightful blog on our mores is by somebody who left the profession. As a student, who grew up on stories about how Norman Daniels landed in prison as a student-activist (but with a Rawls or a Putnam in his corner), I used to believe that philosophically talented-activists would get special mentoring from the professional heavies. Now, I am not so sure anymore.