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Academia Under the Influence

(Image: Minnesota Press)

While we may tend to romanticize universities as bastions of free thought and intellectual rigor, Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s new book, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, demonstrates their subjection to the same ideological underpinnings as the general body politic.

The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, Edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira University of Minnesota Press, 400 pages, $29.95.

For the past 10 years, I’ve taught English at a large, public community college in Brooklyn, New York. Most of my students are the first in their families to attend a university – and while some are disaffected, the majority are engaged and eager, hopeful that the promise of a higher education will open doors and provide them with a stable future. They’re also largely immigrants, and it is not uncommon for 28 students from 20 countries to find themselves sitting side-by-side in a classroom, arguing and debating about the meaning of a particular text.

But if it sounds idyllic, don’t worry – it’s not. As tuition increases, students are often forced to take leaves of absence, causing a program that might be completed in two years to stretch into five or six. Not surprisingly, some students get discouraged and vanish. Others attempt to juggle full-time work with evening or weekend classes, only to eventually learn that an associate’s degree is far less useful than they had initially imagined. Even more troubling, as their exhaustion mounts, few are able to muster the energy to protest soaring fees or inadequate financial aid packages. And my school is not unique.

Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s The Imperial University charts the many ways that institutions of higher education fail to meet the needs of students and the teachers who instruct them. They further zero in on the ways intellectual exploration is suppressed – especially when it comes to contentious issues like Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – and chronicle the many ways that dissent is stifled. It’s a wonderful, stimulating and anger-inducing book. While a few of its 14 essays are dryly academic, for the most part, The Imperial University is accessible and jargon-free.

Chatterjee and Maira, in a 43-page introduction to the text, situate the academy within a “global structure of repression, militarism and neoliberalism.” Indeed, they report that colleges and universities have historically done the bidding of government, weeding out rabble-rousers who challenge the status quo. They describe how, in the last decade, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have been used to provoke concern over security and safety and justify additional expenditures on cameras, guards and heightened surveillance. This, coupled with very real financial shortfalls, has given administrators across the country the leverage to shrink or eliminate gender and ethnic studies departments, disciplines that have long rankled traditionalists who charge that such fields “dumb down” curricula and allow students to forego more rigorous work.

Sadly, the editors note that cutting – or in some cases coopting – programs that question assumptions about American exceptionalism and foreign policy is not a 21st century phenomenon. Our government has a long history of recruiting academic researchers to support its policies. During World War I, Chatterjee and Maira report, for example, some university-based anthropologists and archeologists worked as spies. Their job was “to literally offer on ground geographical knowledges that were highly valuable in wartime intelligence circles.” While it is noteworthy that scholar Franz Boas protested this, Chatterjee and Maira write that he got support from precious few colleagues. Nonetheless, they conclude that the controversy he generated “has shaped the debates about the politics and ethics of anthropologists’ relationship to military intelligence to this day.”

Government has also worked to stymie campus opposition to US policies at home and abroad. In 1940, the Rapp-Coudert Committee was established to investigate subversion among faculty members at both public and private colleges in the New York area. This followed on the heels of a decade of pro-worker and anti-fascist protest at the City College of New York. The upshot of the Committee’s work? CCNY fired 60 faculty members, an action that proved to be a powerful deterrent; several decades later, during World War II, 227 campuses allowed army specialized training programs to set up shop. Then, by the time the Cold War started, the state-university compact was so entrenched that it ensured that scientific knowledge would serve US global interests. Add in McCarthyism, and most academics quickly hunkered down and towed the line.

By 1960, Chatterjee and Maira write, the political science department at MIT was fully funded by the CIA – and MIT was not an anomaly. “The CIA supported social science research throughout the 1950s and 1960s to perfect psychological torture techniques that were outsourced to Vietnam, Argentina and other countries,” they write.

Flash forward to September 11, and the focus on international and homegrown terrorism kick-started a trend with roots going back to the 1950s, prompting a wide swath of teachers to self-censor, “altering their research agendas and teaching for fear of threats to their career.” Despite lip-service to “academic freedom,” Chatterjee and Maira conclude that faculty came to understand that outspoken critiques of neoliberal privatization or support for Palestinian statehood were not only dangerous, but were guaranteed to engender protests from the right-wing American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Campus Watch.

Even organizations like the American Association of University Professors have done little to contest this, again following a pattern that was established more than 60 years ago. In a mind-boggling example of the AAUP’s capitulation, The Imperial University reports that during the height of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts, the group said and did nothing. Instead, its leaders argued that “to be a communist was to be enslaved by dogma and to be unfree,” so there was no need to oppose McCarthy or HUAC’s assault on academia. Twisted, eh?

Needless to say, what becomes clear from reading The Imperial University is that colleges do not exist apart from society. What’s more, while we tend to romanticize them as bastions of free thought and intellectual rigor, reality places them squarely within the mainstream, influenced by the same ideological underpinnings that guide the more general body politic.

Roberto J. Gonzalez’ Militarizing Education is a case in point. He begins by quoting Jane Harmon, a former US representative from California, who warned her Congressional colleagues that, “we can no longer expect an Intelligence Community that is mostly male and mostly white to be able to monitor and infiltrate suspicious organizations or terrorist groups. We need spies that look like their targets.”

This realization led to the creation of the Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence (IC). Its target audience? Largely underserved high school and college students of color. According to Gonzalez, 21 IC Centers have been established at schools including Florida A&M, Howard University, the University of Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Wayne State.

The IC also recruits high schoolers for summer Intelligence Seminars. There, they encounter teachers who accentuate the positive. Gonzalez writes that after hearing presentations, participants typically leave the program stoked about traveling, doing challenging and varied work, and serving their country.

As for the schools that take part, there’s money, and lots of it. Gonzalez cites the University of Texas Pan Americans [UTPA] as a model. UTPA received $500,000 a year from 2006 to 2011, a $2.5 million total. When questioned about this, Gonzalez says that UTPA’s administrators were quick to highlight that “in a period of scarce resources, the IC Center grant was beneficial because of the generous funds that were made available to students and faculty.”

When Gonzalez probed further, expressing concern that “students might be corralled into dangerous careers with agencies that have a record of human rights abuses, the dean emphasized this was primarily a program for better global understanding, not an intelligence-gathering program.”

In Teaching Outside the Liberal-Imperial Discourse, authors Sylvanna Falcon, Sharmila Lodhia, Molly Talcott and Dana Collins describe the ways that their students respond to critiques of present-day capitalism and issues surrounding national security and war. Their collective insight explains the lure of the IC and similar projects. “Students seem more willing to accept historical critiques of slavery and colonialism because they don’t feel implicated in, or at least feel more detached from, this history. When we enter into the terrain of evaluating US military interventions in Afghanistan or explore the racialized implications of national security, the classroom environment is profoundly altered by a perceived threat to Western hegemony.”

Therein lies the challenge for teachers.

Another challenge emerges around the teaching of Middle East politics. Julia C. Oparah’s Challenging Complicity and Jasbit Puar’s Citation and Censure: Pinkwashing and the Sexual Politics of Talking about Israel, dive head-first into the backlash that has greeted critics of Israeli policy. Take Atkins College, a pseudonym for a liberal arts program that purportedly accepted a huge contribution to build a new graduate-level business school. The donor, Oparah writes, is a “leading funder of colleges, universities and high schools and is committed to opening doors for women. He is also a passionate supporter of Israel and has given more than $30 million to Technion Institute in Haifa.” Technion, she continues, is responsible for developing much of the surveillance and military equipment used in the occupation. On one hand, the money allowed Atkins to expand. On the other, “Atkins was enlisted in the normalization of an illegal military occupation that routinely violates Palestinian human rights and transgressed international law.” So what to do?

It is well-documented that educators who cross the line and violate what anthology contributor Nicholas De Genova calls “the ordinarily unspoken and unwritten limits of permissible speech,” are sometimes censured or denied tenure; it is also true that faculty members need to decide how far they wish to go in speaking out and showing their students what it means to be people of conviction. My experience tells me that students look to teachers for all kinds of things, from academic and personal guidance to insight into how to live in a world that is likely very different from the one they grew up in.

My prayer is that we can do right by them. The Imperial University reminds us why this is imperative.

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