Open Letter: Concerning Mark Schlissel

unnamedIn the past six months, we have seen a rising tide of challenges to higher education’s commitment to money over ideas. Across the country, members of the higher ed community are challenging the priorities of the contemporary market-driven university through antiracist actions, Title IX mobilizations, labor organizing, local crackdowns on university tax evasion, and convocation protests.

What principles guide the U.S. university? Who does the U.S. university serve? Can it be reclaimed as an engine for a more deeply and broadly conceived public good?

Stand Up for Grad Students (SUGS), Brown University’s on-campus advocacy group for graduate students, joins this growing chorus, calling on universities to renew their commitment to free inquiry in teaching and research, dedication to the broader public interest, and the social and material well-being of members of their communities.

We at SUGS write to express our solidarity with students at the University of Michigan Student Union who have critiqued the policies and perspectives of their new president and our former provost, Mark Schlissel.

In the ten years since the NLRB’s 2004 Brown University decision, which excluded graduate students at private universities from organizing in labor unions, we have experienced the dramatic cost of privatization and corporatization: the growing disposability and devaluation of Brown’s community members. Brown has been one of many universities at the epicenter of the debate around the institutionalized neglect and hostility students face in pursuing redress of sexual violence on campus. Over the summer, Brown fired nine members of its mail operations staff and contracted out its mail operations to a private corporation over student and staff protests. Last spring, graduate students publicly protested the denial of funding and healthcare to advanced students in good standing just as they were finishing their degrees and entering the job market. International students whose visas are tied to funding and active enrollment felt this disastrous decision all the more acutely.

Last but not least, President Schlissel opened his tenure at Michigan by condemning Brown undergraduates, grad students, and Providence community members who, one year ago today, protested the invited lecture of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on campus. Students spoke out against Kelly’s unconstitutional “stop-and-frisk” policies and raised larger challenges to institutional racism in the US. Protesters were censured by administrators, who considered taking punitive actions against involved students. In a recent response to an investigative task force report on the Ray Kelly protest, President Christina Paxson argued that University policies “protect the right to protest as a form of expression, as long as protest does not interfere with the rights of others to benefit from the free exchange of ideas.”

We at SUGS affirm that protest and free speech are not at odds with each other. Rather, protest stands at the heart of free speech and inquiry. Positioning protest as a dangerous threat to free speech is a clear attack on the least powerful members of the higher ed community—those most in need of the essential freedoms of dissent and critical engagement.

University administrators’ appeals to “academic freedom” and “civil discourse” hide the chilling effect these tactics have on true civil engagement and free inquiry on campuses across the country.

The Student Union of Michigan has already argued that administrators want academic freedom and civil discourse only on their own terms. University presidents are calling for a very narrow and one-way definition of freedom and civility: people in positions of power get stages and microphones; everyone else must listen patiently and quietly. The architects of institutionalized racism, mass incarceration, and permanent war are, by this logic, entitled not only to speak but to be listened to with respect. But students—whose research and teaching preserve the value and integrity, and indeed the fundamental mission of the university—are not equally empowered to speak and be heard.

In this hostile institutional climate, it’s important we speak up. We offer students at the University of Michigan, and particularly its graduate students, a window into our experience with President Schlissel’s brand of “civil discourse.” Just before he left Brown, Brown’s graduate students pushed Provost Schlissel and other administrators to speak to the growing precarity and pressures to accelerate our labors at programs across campus, in the wake of student defunding. When presented with questions about the university’s funding protocols, Schlissel told us:

“We live in extremely challenging times, and you’re experiencing what the whole world’s experiencing…When you say, ‘I can’t live with uncertainty’ [ed. note: nobody said this]—well, guess what? You’re gonna live with uncertainty your whole life.”

We made a commitment to higher education fully aware of the profession’s “challenges” and “uncertainties.” However, we do not perceive the “challenge” of our times to be the unavoidable product of circumstances beyond our control, but of a set of priorities which can be changed.

In fact, as Provost of Brown, Schlissel was the primary architect and enforcer of what he introduced to graduate students in a 2011 meeting as “the new time frame” for graduate study. When challenged on the diversity of requirements and methodologies across the Humanities and Social Sciences, Schlissel betrayed an impatient disregard for the pursuit of knowledge and “academic freedom”:

“I am unsympathetic to the argument that some programs need more time. We are here to teach you how to learn, not give you endless time to work on ideas. Your programs should change their models for knowledge production to fit the new time frame.”

Graduate students pointed out that Schlissel’s new five-year time frame made funding increasingly uncertain for students in disciplines that rarely award dissertations within five years. But Schlissel saw this as a problem with those programs’ “models of knowledge production”—not the economic constraints he chose to impose on them. When the predictable funding crisis came to a head last year, he not-so-civilly told us at the meeting last spring that changing the policy was impossible because “the world just doesn’t work that way,” and dismissed as naive our proposal that the graduate school delivers funding packages which match standard time-to-completion rates in higher education.

In these “challenging times,” the challenge we must confront is reminding high-level administrators that students, teachers, and workers produce the real value that makes higher education a spiritually rich community dedicated to free inquiry and expression.

We ask graduate students at the University of Michigan to join us in reminding Mark Schlissel about a central lesson of liberal thought: academic freedom isn’t clean and quiet, and civil discourse isn’t polite and restrained. Not all great ideas with public value are profitable. When it comes to racism, sexism, labor exploitation, the appropriation of public resources, and the overall devaluation of the people who work, teach, and research for the classroom—there can’t and won’t be consensus. 

Whether or not it is considered “civil,” academic freedom means that people won’t always agree with administrators, major donors, and powerful invited guests, nor administrators with each other. And civic participation means that, whether or not it supports the university’s corporate brand, people will sometimes hear us disagreeing.

We join those at U-M who have disagreed with their administration, and we pledge solidarity with their work of reclaiming institutions of higher learning for teachers, learners, and workers.

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