Cowardice, Elitism, Racism and Academia
By Ahmed E Souaiaia*
August 1, 2019
While launching his political 2020 presidential campaign, Donald Trump, clarified beyond doubt what he means by his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He called on four congresswomen to go back to their countries of origin. The four congresswomen are, Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY). Omar is a naturalized Muslim US citizen who was admitted to this country as a refugee from Somalia. Pressley is a Black US-born citizen whose ancestors were enslaved and brought to this country against their will. Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez are US-born citizens descendants of non-white migrants. The implication is clear: in the mind of Trump and some of his supporters, being a woman of color who migrated recently, whose parents migrated recently, or whose ancestors were slaves would preclude her from being an equal citizen to her white counterpart. Making America great again, therefore, is about taking America back to before the 1868 14th Amendment (citizenship and slavery), before the 1870 15th Amendment (citizenship and race), and before the 1920 19th Amendment (citizenship and sex). This white nationalism impulse is now supported by a growing body of evidence in the form of statements and policies.
The attack on these women was ostensibly triggered by their critical views of some of the US domestic and foreign policies. Trump equated their criticism and political views to being unpatriotic and disloyal. This comes from a man whose slogan implies that America (especially under Obama) was not great, and that he is the person capable of making America great again. When white men, like Trump, criticize the conditions of the country, it is patriotism; but when non-white American citizens do the same, it is treason. This is not a political campaigning rhetoric; it is a lethal narrative that will be co-opted by those who wish to make American a homeland exclusive of non-white people and who are willing to kill to achieve that goal. This toxic, lethal discourse amplified by the chief executive officer will endure beyond political cycles, and should Trump lose his bid for another term, his supporters will likely resort to more violence.
When the political leader of the nation’s highest office makes a statement telling a group of citizens to go back to their countries of origin, reasonable, fair-minded persons would expect leaders at places of work to standup and remind everyone that we live in a country of laws where discrimination, threats, and retaliation are illegal. Regardless of what a president would say or do, leaders should reaffirm that respect for the law and the constitution that binds us together must supersede personal politics—including the president’s. An unequivocal stance from leaders of the institutions that is responsible for educating future generations is fundamental given the institutions’ core mission. Silence emboldens those who act above the law. But silence is what is happening.
Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic reported that leaders of universities and companies are all silent and none of them are willing to go on the record saying anything about such racism. Off the record, however, they admit that if the statements were made by someone in their institutions, the person making them “would face serious consequences… But virtually none of those leaders — from schools and universities to big global companies to nonprofits and local government — have been willing to publicly express that consensus as President Donald Trump has deployed that incendiary and openly racist language himself.”
Leaders in my institution, the University of Iowa, too, were silent: No leader from the department, college, or central administration came out publicly to reassure students and employees who are of the same background as these women or who have family members who fit the same profile as these women that, as leaders, they condemn racism and that they stand up for constitutional rights of all citizens, as equal under the law. That silence, for a person like me who feels that Trump’s tweets are directed at my family members who share the same background as the four congresswomen–is stunning.
As I live this experience, I could not help but think of the words of the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he invited to give a speech at the Morningside campus in 2006. Introducing his guest, Mr. Bollinger said:
We at this university have not been shy to protest the challenge–and challenge the failures of our own government to live by our values, and we won’t be shy about criticizing yours. Let’s then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.
While there are reasons to be critical of Mr. Ahmadinejad, calling someone now term-limited into retirement a dictator is more problematic for an institution that received money from the Saudi government whose crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has no concepts or institutions of election or term limited positions. As absolute ruler who controls all the levers of power, bin Salman sent his agents to literally dismember a US resident Saudi dissident with medical saws in a diplomatic building in Turkey. Ignorance aside, consistency and credibility are the real issues leaders of US academic institutions must be mindful of.
It has been a week since Trump published the most recent racist tweets. Yet, Columbia University has not issued a public statement about this or other discriminatory statements and policies of “our own government.” I now realize that persons from “shithole” countries, to borrow the words of the head of “our own government,” are expected to criticize their governments and white men who are not even citizens of such countries do, too. But the reverse is not true. We, non-white citizens that is, cannot criticize “our own government” and if we do, we will be asked by the white president to go back to our countries of origin and neither the president of Columbia University nor any other university president will “challenge the failures of our own government.” It is easy for white people to challenge a brown-skinned president of a distant Muslim country and expect brown-skinned persons to join in. In fact, we are not expected to just join in, we are expected to only limit our challenge to governments in our countries of origin. The rudeness to an invited guest who also happened to be the head of a state was applauded, but the discrimination against US citizens is met with absolute silence–racism is deeper than a tweet. While Trump’s racism is explicit, the silence of leaders and professors of academic institutions is implicit. And while administrators silence can be explained, though not justified, by their worry about losing government funding or about challenging their hiring/firing superiors (public university presidents are usually hired by board members appointed by political leaders), the silence of senior professors is even more troubling.
In Academia, the most compelling justification for tenure is the need to protect experts and scholars against intimidation, threats, and retaliation so that they are able to express themselves freely on critical matters of public interest and speak fact-based truth to power. Unfortunately, it would seem that courage, in academia, is limited to pointing out the wrongs done by dead kings and dictators, foreign authoritarians, and/or democratically elected leaders of countries “our own government” does not like—not for any other principle- or fact-driven reasons. Many of us make use of the archived writings of the few courageous dissenters (who put their freedom and sometime their lives at risk and spoke truth to power) to reconstruct reality but avoid, at all cost, to speak against cruelty in the moment and challenge failure to uphold the law the instant it happens—not after the deed is part of the archived history. How useful is tenure if all it affords us is delayed outrage against dead racists, fascists, authoritarians, and violators of human rights.
Simply, it is cowardice that prevent academicians from standing up for social justice, rule of law, and human rights. Systemically, cowardice is a result of a tenure process that was turned into a domestication, pacification, and elitism-inducting scheme. In many institutions, tenure-review processes lack transparency, due process, and fairness empowering senior faculty members to indulge their personal biases and political views. Such corrupt process, overtime, produced distorted understanding of collegiality and became an obstruction to innovation, debility to imagination, and decrepitude to originality. A typical academician must go through an average of six years of navigating the sensitivities and temperaments of mentors as a graduate student, about seven years of fittingness with senior colleagues as a junior faculty member, and an average of eight years of expected reverence to elitist class of full professors as an associate. After about twenty years of leading a life shaped by the views and judgements of one’s mentors and senior colleagues, one is likely to lose perspective of who they were and what they stood for. These are some of the reasons that are making faculty unionization more appealing to some faculty members than the elitist tenure system. The silence of senior professors in the face of such openly racist attacks on historically marginalized social groups is the strongest argument against the value of tenure system as is. The good news is that there are more options than tenure/non-tenure binary options. For instance, faculty members could stop pursuing further promotion beyond the associate rank with tenure and focus on the public good they could do rather than on subjugating themselves to further domestication for the sake of a useless rank that has to do with prestige and elitism and less with achievements and expertise. If we have to choose between public good and elitism, public good should prevail.
For administrators, however, presidents of US universities like Mr. Bollinger and the president of my own university are adding to their credibility deficit and betraying the core missions and values of the institutions they lead. Knowledge is consequential and leadership is responsibility therefore silence is not an option. To regain the trust of the people they lead and communities they serve and for their words to have meaning, they need to stand up for the laws of this country and say to a president, who has built a self-incriminating body of evidence, and tell him, “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel racist.”
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, History, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.