Blog Post

Violence in the University: State-Sponsored and Illegitimate Intimidation

I've been thinking about Micha's recent post "HASTAC community standards and interdisciplinarity" which describes the threat of losing access to: "a host of other very important discussions on HASTAC regarding the intersections of digital culture with art, race, gender, sex and ability and how those intersections inform our understanding of comtemporary power and social control." I think that Micha is right to draw attention to the ways in which discourse is shaped when it comes to potentially "objectionable" material. This complex tug-of-war happens as a matter of course in education, as race, gender, class, ethnicity, and intellectual authority are constantly being critiqued, validated, ignored, or glossed over.  Here at Michigan State, there was a rash of acts of "ethnic intimidation" which prompted calls that the University was protecting "hate speech" for the purpose of creating a climate of "free speech."

In this light then, the entire academic community becomes a discourse community in which various acts are happening that refer to different ideas about all sorts of questions about how "academic study" happens at a university-- including who gets to do it, what the "study" is, where it should be conducted, what are the outcomes, etc. The protests at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, to name but a few, speak to students' willingness to fight for education in the face of massive cuts, rising tuition, and general anxiety about their future. One of my interests is looking at how these social concerns make their way (or don't) into "the academy." I was more than a little disappointed that the University did not use this string of events as a true "teachable moment." President Lou Anna Simon begins to make the case, saying, "Acts of this nature have resulted in members of the community feeling threatened and devalued," which, I would argue, are a bit of an understatement when, according to the State News, "there were reports of a black doll hanging by its neck from a green, beaded necklace in the Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building. 

Sadly, there is a history of hate crimes at MSU: Two years ago, a tenured professor sent an email in which he called on "aggressive, brutal, and uncivilized slave-trading Moslems" to "leave" and "return to their ancestral lands." It turns out that  even though Southern Poverty Law Center reported on this terrible act, and although the professor was "admonished," he still remains the adviser of this student group (which was under investigation as being a "hate group"). Six years ago, a Mexican-American student was assaulted in a brutal attack.

This rash of violence on university campuses-- both the illegitimate "hate crimes" and the university-sponsored policing efforts-- represent a fundamental attack on the notion of what the university is for, and who it serves. At MSU, the President-- whose core goals include "inclusion" and "free speech"-- should have opened up a more thoughtful-- and potentially troubling-- discussion about the effects of such free speech, given the disturbing history of racial intimidation, ethnic violence, sexism, heteronormism, crimes against gay and lesbians on campus in the U.S. It should be abundantly clear that in many cases, the idea of "free speech" has in either "legitimate" or "illegitimate" ways to threaten or intimidate certain people or groups from having access to education.

I would challenge universities to commit themselves not just to "free speech" but to becoming communities where students, faculty, staff, and community members intervene in the face of intolerance and injustice. At MSU, in not one of my three official courses was the subject of the Occupy movements brought into discussion-- imagine, one of the most vibrant, distributed (yet loosely coordinated), enduring social protests that has been happening continuously for over 2 months (!) and it is not brought up (even when #occupylansing has been praised for its open conversation between protestors and local government. For such communities to become forces fighting intolerance and injustice, there will need to be committed people aware of the battles for "power and social control." I would argue that professors have a moral responsibility to turn their attention both inward and outward-- to use their same finely-honed critical lenses to examine the critical fights that are happening around the country (or in their own backyard, as at MSU and in Lansing). Next, they should decide literally "where they stand."

Nonarticulation of political power does not eliminate it-- on the contrary, it makes it seem like faculty are in accordance with a university that does little to examine its place in a continued history of racial and ethnic intimidation (and state-sponsored violence against protestors). Faculty who do not "bring in" the most critical social movements (ie Occupy) or who fail to acknowledge the contested nature of "free speech" or who do not situate their teaching in a political context may find themselves adrift...

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