Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘academics’

A real champion of academic freedom

I’ve commented before about the craven assault on academic freedom at the University of Southampton, which feigned concerns about “health and safety” to justify cancelling an uncomfortable conference on international law and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But for me it’s mainly an abstract issue. I’m not involved in the conference, my political views lie messily between those of the conference organisers and their opponents, and it’s not a hugely important topic to me.

One name that I noticed, with interest, on the programme, was that of Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history at University of Buckingham. I know of him from his frequent contributions to the Jewish Chronicle, which I usually filed in the “staunch Zionist” column, with some of the blindspots typical of that worldview. I was impressed with his willingness to appear in such a forum, clearly slanted against his beliefs, both because of the discomfort that entails, and because of the danger that his ideological allies would see him as a traitor to the cause.

He has now written a letter to Times Higher Education, forthrightly condemning this triumph of obscurantism.

As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.

Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment.

As a proud non-Zionist Jew, I am hugely impressed, and encouraged.

Heckler’s veto in Southampton

A couple of weeks ago I signed a petition in support of a conference planned for 17-19 April at the University of Southampton, on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” that had been threatened with cancellation because of pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the UK Zionist Federation; ubiquitous-parking enthusiast and Communities minister Eric Pickles also contributed his opinion. It seemed to me an obviously legitimate academic conference, on a subject of both academic and public interest. If the choice of speakers does not cover all possible opinions on the matter — my impression is that my own view would not really coincide with any of those represented, and the framing of the topic is too politically tendentious for my taste — well, that’s unfortunate, though I’d wait until after they’d spoken to comment on what they have to say, and then opponents are free to organise their own conference.

Now the university has decided to cancel the conference because of specious “health and safety” concerns: because protestors threatened violence, or because the university authorities consider them the protestors — or the conference organisers — inherently deranged. I recognised long ago that “health and safety” is the leading weasel word in the British bureaucratic vocabulary. Pretty much anything can be justified with it, and it sounds so much more decisive and incontrovertible than saying “I am worried that someone could get hurt” (or “someone could catch Ebola”).

This is a dangerous decision. As someone whose grandparents’ generation was forced out and/or murdered by brownshirt thugs who came to power in Germany and then most of Europe after applying the strategy of directed violence against opposing political and intellectual viewpoints, I am dismayed to see that Jewish organisations in the US (see, e.g., the Salaita affair) and UK have come to the conclusion that the main problem with the Third Reich was too much free speech. Never again!

This is a dangerous step. Either Southampton will make itself a pariah by this move, or it will make itself an example to other universities, who increasingly find that all that academic exchange-of-ideas mumbledy-goop just gets in the way of the free exchange of money and services with well-connected donors.

James Watson has cashed in his Nobel prize

So can we ignore him now?

Of course, he couldn’t sell the prize, only the medal. But the fact that this deeply mediocre and bigoted mind received so much attention and adulation for so long casts a harsh light upon the scientific cult of genius. Exalted prizes and prestigious chairs often serve a similar purpose to those plaques that we see on buildings around Oxford, marking the place where an important intellectual event once occurred. There might be a frisson to sitting in the room where Robert Boyle discovered the gas law, but you wouldn’t really expect any important scientific insight to come out of it. (more…)

Math and science

Corey Robin updates us on l’affaire Salaita. I was struck by his comment

Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president[…] Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences. During the summer, lots of folks dismissed this story because the natural sciences weren’t involved. Well, some of them are now.

Math and statistics aren’t really natural sciences, in the crucial economic sense. The people who dismiss the boycott because it’s just the humanities and social sciences are somewhat expressing a sense that those academics are woolly-headed cultural relativists; but even more, I think it’s about the idea that “serious” academics have big grants and big labs and generally deal with big money. Chemistry is the outlier here. Math and statistics are still much more constructed on the same economic model as the humanities, hence barely one step removed from socialism.

Is it better if they spy accurately?

There’s a fascinating article in the Guardian about how Berlin has become a centre for “digital exiles”, people — mainly Americans — whose online activism has put them in the crosshairs of various security services, leading to low-level harassment, or occasionally high-level harassment, such as this frightening story

Anne Roth, a political scientist who’s now a researcher on the German NSA inquiry, tells me perhaps the most chilling story. How she and her husband and their two children – then aged two and four – were caught in a “data mesh”. How an algorithm identified her husband, an academic sociologist who specialises in issues such as gentrification, as a terrorist suspect on the basis of seven words he’d used in various academic papers.

Seven words? “Identification was one. Framework was another. Marxist-Leninist was another, but you know he’s a sociologist… ” It was enough for them to be placed under surveillance for a year. And then, at dawn, one day in 2007, armed police burst into their Berlin home and arrested him on suspicion of carrying out terrorist attacks.

But what was the evidence, I say? And Roth tells me. “It was his metadata. It was who he called. It was the fact that he was a political activist. That he used encryption techniques – this was seen as highly suspicious. That sometimes he would go out and not take his cellphone with him… ”

He was freed three weeks later after an international outcry, but the episode has left its marks. “Even in the bathroom, I’d be wondering: is there a camera in here?”

This highlights a dichotomy that I’ve never seen well formulated, that pertains to many legal questions concerning damage inflicted by publication or withholding of information: Are we worried about true information or false information? Is it more disturbing to think that governments are collecting vast amounts of private and intimate information about our lives, or that much of that information (or the inferences that also count as information) is wrong?

As long as the security services are still in their Keystone Cops phase, and haven’t really figured out how to deploy the information effectively, it’s easier to get aroused by the errors, as in the above. When they have learned to apply the information without conspicuous blunders, then the real damage will be done by the ruthless application of broadly correct knowledge of everyone’s private business, and the crushing certainty everyone has that we have no privacy.

It’s probably a theorem that there is a maximally awful level of inaccuracy. If the information is completely accurate, then at least we avoid the injustice of false accusation. If the information is all bogus, then people will ignore it. Somewhere in between people get used to trusting the information, and will act crushingly on the spurious as well as the accurate indications. What is that level? It’s actually amazing how much tolerance people have for errors in an information source before they will ignore it — cf., tabloid newspapers, astrology, economic forecasts — particularly if it’s a secret source that seems to give them some private inside knowledge.

On a somewhat related note, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has given concise expression to a reaction that I think many people have had to the revelations of pervasive electronic espionage by Western democratic governments against their own citizens:

 It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens… was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were,… but I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.

 

The force of “overwhelming”

The New Republic has published a film review by Yishai Schwartz under the portentous title “The Edward Snowden Documentary Accidentally Exposes His Lies”. While I generally support — and indeed, am grateful — for what Snowden has done, I am also sensitive to the problems of democratic governance raised by depending on individuals to decide that conscience commands them to break the law. We are certainly treading on procedural thin ice, and our only recourse, despite the commendable wish of Snowden himself, as well as Greenwald, to push personalities into the background, is to think carefully about the motives — and the honesty — of the man who carried out the spying. So in principle I was very interested in what Schwartz has to say.

Right up front Schwartz states what he considers to be the central dishonesty of Snowden’s case:

Throughout this film, as he does elsewhere, Snowden couches his policy disagreements in grandiose terms of democratic theory. But Snowden clearly doesn’t actually give a damn for democratic norms. Transparency and the need for public debate are his battle-cry. But early in the film, he explains that his decision to begin leaking was motivated by his opposition to drone strikes. Snowden is welcome to his opinion on drone strikes, but the program has been the subject of extensive and fierce public debate. This is a debate that, thus far, Snowden’s and his allies have lost. The president’s current drone strikes enjoy overwhelming public support.

“Democratic theory” is a bit ambivalent about where the rights of democratic majorities to annihilate the rights — and, indeed, the lives — of individuals, but the reference to “overwhelming” public support is supposed to bridge that gap. So how overwhelming is that support? Commendably, Schwartz includes a link to his source, a Gallup poll that finds 65% of Americans surveyed support “airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists”. Now, just stopping right there for a minute, in my home state of California, 65% support isn’t even enough to pass a local bond measure. So it’s not clear that it should be seen as enough to trump all other arguments about democratic legitimacy.

Furthermore, if you read down to the next line, you find that when the targets to be exterminated are referred to as “US citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists” the support falls to 42%. Not so overwhelming. (Support falls even further when the airstrikes are to occur “in the US”, but since that hasn’t happened, and would conspicuously arouse public debate if it did, it’s probably not all that relevant.) Not to mention that Snowden almost surely did not mean that he was just striking out at random to undermine a government whose drone policies he disapproves of; but rather, that democratic support for policies of targeted killing might be different if the public were aware of the implications of ongoing practices of mass surveillance. (more…)

Mixing up the issues

The Salaita fiasco rumbles along. I have commented before on the case, where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took advantage of ambiguities in its hiring process to try to destroy the career of a tenured professor of American Indian Studies, whom they pretended to want to hire, and then fired after he had resigned his old job, but before his new contract had formally started. (Admittedly, by presenting it in these terms I’m pretending that it is not just a giant cock-up. This is what it looks like if you try to pretend that the people acting for the university have any idea what they’re doing. Depending on your perspective, I’m being either generous or unfair.) The current state of play is well summarised here. This was punishment for anti-Israel tweets that had attracted unpleasant attention of some of the university’s major donors.

Anyway, having made her university a place where senior academics need to consult with expert legal counsel before accepting a job offer — if they even want to challenge an international boycott and join an academic pariah — UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise (who insists, according to the Chicago Tribune, simultaneously that “she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision” and that “there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.”) has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that

“People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” she said in an interview. “I stand by the fact that this institution and all of higher education stands on the bedrock of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that we should be and are the place where we deal with the most contentious and difficult and complicated issues that face the world, and that we have to provide the platform where discussions that are difficult and contentious and uncomfortable and unimaginable happen.”

That’s the kind of careful thinking on challenging questions that we look to academic leadership for! Some confused people are mixing up the issues. UIUC stands foursquare behind the principles of academic freedom, and the open discussion of “difficult and contentious and uncomfortable” issues, while confronting the completely unrelated practical real-world challenges of firing a professor for openly making contentious and uncomfortable statements in a public forum.

Or, as the irrepressible Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith since before the Flood, more succinctly put it,

Donors give money and they expect certain things. There’s nothing wrong with them voicing their opinion.

Hiring formalities

One other point has occurred to me, with regard to the firing/not-quite-hiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, which I have commented on here and here. Defenders of the university’s decision say that he had no right to have his academic freedom respected by UI because he was not formally in their employ. The fact that he had accepted a written offer of employment nearly a year before, agreed on a starting date, signed a contract, quit his previous job, moved across the country, and been assigned courses to teach in the fall semester were simply free-time activities, which only would become a real employment in October — a month after he was supposed to start teaching — when the board that meets once a semester ratified the hiring.

Whether this is legally accurate I can’t really judge. But I’m just thinking about the effect on future hiring, particularly at UI, but elsewhere as well. Clearly no one is going to let themselves be fooled this way by UI in the future. Everyone knows that claims of “just a formality” are simply deception at that university, and will insist on ironclad promises before they begin steps to move to a position there. Other people will just spare themselves the stress by not applying for positions at UI. (Remember, this is not about low-level jobs, of which there is a great shortage in the humanities, and a huge mass of qualified people desperate to take any meagre job. This was a tenured position.) And the ripples from this decision will affect other universities as well. Even if they make the offer in good faith, why take the chance that someone will comb through your public utterances and scare the university off hiring you. Best to insist on an ironclad contract before taking any steps. And this includes withdrawing the applications from other posts. Universities are likely to find senior academics who they thought they’d hired suddenly withdrawing shortly before they were supposed to start, because they didn’t consider themselves bound by the agreement until the formalities were taken wrapped up, and in the interim they got a better offer. This is likely to gum up university hiring in the US for a long time to come. Procedures will have to change, and the traditional role of occasional board meetings to ratify hiring decisions changed or eliminated.

Respect for others’ perspectives

It sounds like a good idea, but can get you trapped in contradictions. With regard to l’affaire Salaita, which I commented on here. Much more information from Corey Robin here and here, including links for various subject-specific petitions; a general academic petition (which I have signed), committing to a vaguely defined boycott of U Illinois until Salaita is rehired, is here. The public opposition to Salaita has been led by UI English professor and former AAUP president Cary Nelson. Leaping to his defence is Stanford German Studies professor Russell Berman:

Given that Illinois has a diversity policy that includes respect for others’ perspectives and world views, and that Salaita’s tweets “indicate that he would not respect others’ opinions on the Middle East,” Berman said Nelson’s conclusion “is reasonable, and I agree with him.”

Agree or disagree, Berman added, the “ad hominem attacks” on Nelson are “reprehensible.” Similarly, he said, “it is appalling when [Salaita’s supporters] blame pro-Israel or Jewish groups,” as some commenters have. Berman said that there’s no evidence thus far, only innuendo, that outside pressure influenced the university’s decision and the “fact that pro-Israel groups are nonetheless blamed is evidence of a rampant anti-Semitism in this affair, cut from the same cloth as the recent riots in France.”

The most important thing is to respect other peoples’ opinions! Since the people who disagree with me are a howling mob of rioters, they must be silenced. Dismissal from their jobs is too good for people on that side of the argument, since they have no respect for diversity of opinion.

Fortunately, the silent majority supports Nelson, as he is quoted in the same article saying

ad hominem attacks are also a BDS strategy that serves to silence opponents. Many faculty who believe the university made the right decision about Salaita are now unwilling to say so publicly.

Perhaps Nelson could do more to contribute to that climate of respect that he craves, where no scholar is silenced by the gripping fear of public criticism or, I don’t know, losing their jobs.

As Tom Lehrer famously declared (introducing his song “National Brotherhood Week”), “I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!”

When did anti-semitism become “horrible”?

I was just reading about the case of Steven Salaita, who had his offer of a tenured professorship of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois withdrawn because of some fairly ferocious anti-Israel tweets that he perpetrated. Now, I strongly support his right to write whatever he wants, particularly in his free time in a non-academic forum, as long as it does not cross the line into outright personal abuse or overt racism, sexism, etc.

Nonetheless, I feel obliged to point out that the content of these tweets would not encourage me to believe that their author is a clear and careful thinker. In particular, there was this one:

Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.

For someone in a field with a significant historical component this is particularly embarrassing. For substantial portions of respectable society anti-semitism was considered perfectly honourable, until the Nazis embarrassed everyone by taking it too far. So maybe there was a period of about 3 years when anti-semitism was “horrible”. Then it went back to being honourable. But it’s all the fault of the Zionists.

Actually, there need not be any gap at all, since some of the atrocities of Jewish fighters in Palestinians are at least as bad as the current attack on Gaza. So he might have made an even better tweet:

Zionists: preventing ‘anti-Semitism’ from being horrible after 1945.

I’m guessing he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with that one, though.

But I’m still writing to the University of Illinois chancellor to protest against this firing. I am appalled by the weaselly excuses of former AAUP president Cary Nelson (who proudly drapes that emeritus title about himself while undermining the AAUP’s principles), that this is striking a blow for “civility”, and that Salaita was fomenting violence.

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