On Boycotts, Pressure, and Kristof

Yesterday, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote an inane piece lamenting the lack of engagement of the larger public by academics. He was then taken to task by many, many academics who engage with the public. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned regarding Kristof is that engagement with the public, in certain places, can result in government pressure. I’m not talking about outside the U.S. either. Recently, the great state of New York has attempted to pass a bill (it’s in the NY Senate now) that would bar public institutions and academic groups from receiving funds if they boycott countries in which the New York Board of Regents charters their own institutions (Maryland, Florida and Illinois are investigating similar bills). This is a response to the decision by American Studies Association to boycott Israel over human rights.

Apparently, this is the wrong kind of engagement (for the record, I don’t agree with the boycott).

Moving to below the Mason-Dixon Line, we visit the great state of Louisiana (boldface mine):

I turned in a portfolio for full professor on January 15. Over the course of the past 5 years since I turned in my portfolio for tenure and promotion to associate professor, I published perhaps 200 op-eds and letters to the editor, gave many presentations on issues related to higher education, state budgets, academic freedom, healthcare, pensions, K-12 education, and the like….

How much of this work ended up in my promotion file this year? ZERO. I won’t stop doing public service, but it is hard to recruit others in a right-to-work, deep red, higher education under siege state like my native Louisiana. The advocacy work won’t count toward advancement. In fact, one of the highest paid professors on my campus… said to my face that I was committing “career suicide.” People are scared here, and it is mighty hard to blame them. We have more campuses under AAUP censure than any other state, and we are a small state. If I didn’t have tenure, I would have already been fired. Please get to know what it is like in the trenches.

It’s also worth remembering how Juan Cole, for his moderate views on the Middle East (which unfortunately coincided with the insanity of the reign of Little Lord Pontchartrain), was a denied position at Yale in 2006, according to one professor, due to his blogging activities.

Perhaps Kristof, from his lofty perch at the New York Times, would want to consider these anecdotes. Then again, he essentially has tenure, so why would he….

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7 Responses to On Boycotts, Pressure, and Kristof

  1. sethkahn says:

    Thanks for making this point; I’ve been making it among friends on the social networks too. The other level of threat is from outside activists/agitators.

    Right after I got tenure, I had a group of local conservative activists (this was early 2008, so they were a kind of nascent Tea Party-like gang) threaten to take over my classrooms because they didn’t like what I was blogging. When one of them claimed she’d sent a letter to my university president, I posted an open letter to all of them, and to my university president, inviting any of them into any of my classes any time, as long as they played by certain basic rules (announcing their presence, not interrupting the class, not haranguing any students). Of course as soon as I made the invitation publicly, they disappeared. But they had in fact gone to my university president, who (thankfully) shrugged it off.

    Last year, while my full-prof application was in process, some whacko sent a letter to my Provost accusing me of consorting with terrorists because I had befriended and advocated for an adjunct faculty member in TX who’d been non-renewed as a result of a blowup on her campus about religious displays on state property. She had given an interview to Al Jazeera, which the whacko letter writer confused with Al Qaeda. The letter was so incoherent that the Provost never even asked me about it (I had to ask her if she’d seen it), but that’s more a happy accident than anything else.

    Those anecdotes are nothing, of course, compared to suspensions and dismissals of tenured faculty for angry tweets about the NRA, or blog posts that expose ALEC shenanigans, and so on. Kristof doesn’t seem to register that “public engagement” in many cases = “making yourself a target,” and that telling people they’re irresponsible for not doing it is, er, irresponsible.

  2. colnago80 says:

    Re Juan Cole

    Prof Cole was denied the position at Yale when it was found that his claim that former Iranian President Ahmadinejad had never called for the elimination of the State of Israel was false. Cole mistranslated the speech in question and was shown up by a professor who was born in Iran and who had a far better grasp of Farsi then he did. An account of this was published in the New York Times several years ago and cited by the late Christopher Hitchens, not known as an apologist for Israel.

  3. Kathy Barker says:

    I agree with Kristof on this. You speak out, and take risks, if it is important to you. If you want to keep your mouth shut because you are afraid, go right ahead. You decide what is important. But those academics who don’t speak out aren’t helping the world.

    And I am in favor of the boycott.

    • sethkahn says:

      Sure, Kathy, but for Kristof not to understand or acknowledge that there’s any risk at all exposes to me how facile his thinking is.

  4. Kathy Barker says:

    Seth, I think he knows there are risks. I would imagine he has faced similar risks to his own job, and he certainly knows other journalists who have paid a big price for standing up for their beliefs. You handled what happened to you, right? None of the people I know who have lost jobs or promotions have regretted speaking out, though they may be devastated by the lack of support from institutions or supposed allies.

    • sethkahn says:

      The *tone* of Kristof’s piece belittles academics for opting out of doing something that we should do. Whether any individual academic has regretted taking a risk is beside the point. The point is that Kristof chooses not to acknowledge that there’s any risk at all–especially in a historical moment where those risks are higher than ever. And if you’re right that he has faced similar risks (which I’m sure you are) that makes his failure of empathy even more annoying.

  5. Kathy Barker says:

    Perhaps a discussion of the risks will be another column! But let’s all keep speaking out and reduce the risk for all.

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