By Mark Bauerlein
Many years ago when I was an assistant professor, a man in another department knocked on my office door and proceeded to make a delicate request. I didn’t know him very well, and I was only in my second or third year at Emory. I was a nobody, in fact, with only a couple of articles in print, no conference papers delivered, and hardly any contacts in the field of literary studies. (My thesis advisor from graduate school had passed away and I had little guidance from anyone else.). Nevertheless, this tenured professor wanted my help. He sought me out, to my surprise, for my support regarding something that had happened at the highest levels of the university. He wanted me to sign a letter.
Upstairs in one of the foreign language units, an assistant professor up for promotion had been denied. Emory had hired several prominent figures in French and Comparative Literature in the preceding years, and they had decided that the candidate’s research and teaching didn’t merit tenure. He would be given one more year of employment and salary, then be sent off.
The man who came to my office was quietly upset. He wasn’t close to the new famous professors; he’d been on campus longer than they had; he knew the candidate. He thought the tenure review was unfair. It had applied to assistant professors standards higher than those that had been applied before. He may have intimated a personal animus against the candidate, too, on the part of the senior faculty, but I can’t recall for sure.
In any case, he’d written a letter objecting to the process and addressed to the dean. Now, he was canvassing the nearby departments for people would would endorse his statement.
I hesitated. I didn’t want to disappoint or irritate anybody, but I wanted to show my colleagues that I was principled and fair-minded and collegial. I worried about my own tenure, too; all of us young ones were insecure. I knew my visitor somewhat, and I barely knew the fresh arrivals from French and Comp Lit, who had made their way to Emory from Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Paris. (Some of the names I recognized.). I felt pity for the fallen comrade, but had heard nothing about his record of achievement. I had no cause to doubt the sincerity of my visitor, and I could imagine that tenure reviews sometimes got unprofessionally personal. But I had no knowledge of the motives of the senior professors, either.
In other words, I didn’t know what to do. So, I said, “I can’t sign.” A dismayed look crossed his face. I explained that I couldn’t object to a process whose details were a mystery. That would put me in the position of accusing the full professors upstairs of misconduct, and I didn’t plan to do that without knowing more.
He understood my point, but not quite in the way I intended. My rationale was simple: don’t join a protest if you’re ignorant of the facts. Don’t rely on second-hand accounts. But he heard by demurral as reluctance to defy powerful people. It was easier for him to interpret my refusal in terms of institutional politics, not scholarly principle. The latter point, you see, would pose uncomfortable questions about what he was doing in asking outsiders to sign his letter. It was true, of course, that I didn’t want to irritate important local people, but if I couldn’t even see a reason for irritating them, well, that made the choice a simple one. Solidarity with younger professors wasn’t enough.
That was nearly 30 years ago. At the time, I thought most about what actually went on in the tenure review and how my yes or no would impress others. I look at the episode differently now. What strikes me today isn’t the circumstances and principles of the tenure case. Instead, it is the collectivist nature of the response. My acquaintance didn’t dispute the negative decision on his own, doing some investigative work and reporting any dicey findings to the authorities. Rather, he wrote a protest note and rounded up names to add to it–the more names, the better. Moreover, he was willing to accept signers who knew nothing about the case. The people who ended up agreeing to post their names on the letter didn’t have to be insiders familiar with department politics and personnel. All they had to be was, precisely, signers. It was the raw numbers that mattered.
This month, we had a similar instance of name-seeking and list-lengthening. This one collected more than 3,000 signers. An Italian physicist from University of Pisa delivered a speech asserting that women are not being discriminated against in science, while men are. Predictably, a letter was written decrying his “morally reprehensible” argument. The count of signatures was exceeded only by the solemn indignation of the language.
One year ago, after Penn law professor Amy Wax co-wrote an op-ed praising bourgeois culture and 1950s social norms, 33 of her colleagues in the law school signed an open letter denouncing her.
Around the same time, Chicago historian Rachel Fulton Brown was the target of a protest letter signed by more than 1500 people and addressed to her home department. It accused her of ignorance and harassment and violating “basic norms of professional behavior.”
Ten years ago, when Naomi Shaefer Riley published a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education stating that Black Studies had lost all scholarly credibility, a petition calling for her removal was signed by more than 6,700 people. Riley pointed at recent dissertations profiled in a Chronicle news story as evidence of low standards, but the protesters didn’t compile dissertations in the field and present them as evidence exploding her assertions. They just signed the letter. (Riley was, in fact, fired.)
I have no doubt that many or most of the signers of these statements had little specific knowledge of the circumstances surrounding them. They signed because they didn’t like the fact that Brown had expressed admiration for Milo Yiannapoulos, or because her main adversary was Asian American. Or, they wanted to defend Black Studies no matter how weak is graduate training in the field. Or, they aimed to shut down any other scientist who dares to state that men and women have different mental talents or dispositions for STEM.
As for those people who signed and who did know some of the details of these cases, one wonders why they took the course of joining a crowd instead of speaking for themselves. Why be the 873rd person to take a swipe at the miscreant? What is this willingness to let others frame your objections for you? If you believe a wrong has been committed, you should speak for yourself.
For my part, the moment that a group forms against one person, and the group swells to more than a dozen, it’s time to pull away. The one, in these cases, didn’t have any serious power apart from her or his opinion. He or she wasn’t an agent of the state or of large corporations. Still, the originators of the letters and petitions acted as if they needed big numbers to take him and her down. Every added name only made the target a bigger bogeyman. All those hundreds on the statements certainly signaled their virtue, but there is no virtue in massing against one person who voiced an opinion they didn’t want to hear.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau would scorn them. American individualism demands that when a group asks you to sign a letter trashing one person who said an unpopular thing, you answer, “No, thanks, I’ll write my own letter.” Be a man, be a woman, not a crowd-member, our tradition insists. The signers, of course, are big on human dignity and free expression, but there is no dignity in appearing on a roster of thousands against one, and it’s not even their own expression that they have signed. Enough with these absurdly unbalanced contests.