Compromise and the Fall of a University (November 8, 2021)

By 1933 the FZ [Frankfurter Zeitung] had committed itself to a policy which was governed, in [Rudolph] Kircher’s words, by “the law of the lesser evil” (26 June I932). This law continued to be applied after Hitler’s accession to office, and it ordained that compromise was preferable to confrontation, despite the blatantly anti-democratic, racist, and violent nature of National Socialism, characteristics which the FZ had never ceased to bring to its readers’ attention and to decry before I933. Attempts to appease the political right were an established practice before Hitler was appointed chancellor.

Modris Eksteins, “The Frankfurter Zeitung: Mirror of Weimar Democracy”

Ed elli a me: “Questo misero modo

tegnon l’anime triste di coloro

che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.

(And he said to me: ‘This miserable state is borne/ by the wretched souls of those who lived/ without disgrace yet without praise.)

Dante Aligheri, Inferno, Canto III

On Saturday night, the University of Florida football team—which in the last year has twice valiantly fought back to be within a few points of defeating reigning national champion and currently number two-ranked Alabama—suffered a humiliating 17-40 loss to the University of South Carolina. This dropped the team, which in early October had a 4-1 record and was ranked in the top ten, to a dismal 4-5, including 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference and with losses to long-time rivals LSU and Georgia. The response of fans and sports analysts has been decisive and uncompromising. Calls for the replacement of Head Coach Dan Mullen as well as current UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, both of whom previously worked together at Mississippi State University (Stricklin was also responsible for bringing Mullen to UF) have exploded across the internet. One UF graduate on Twitter concisely summarizes the affair in this way: “Scott Stricklin is just as absent in leadership as the football head coach is.”

William Blake, Illustration to Dante’s Inferno, Canto III (1824-27)

A similar response to the failure of UF’s academic leadership has emerged following last week’s revelations of decisions by university administrators to deny at least eight faculty members, from a variety of different disciplines and colleges, permission to testify in court or provide expert witness in cases involving the state government. The administrative argument for these denials runs as follows: “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.” The university first tried to back track and claim this was only for services that involved payment, but this was followed by further revelations of other denials in cases, including those in the medical school, that did not involve any payment whatsoever. The result has been a growing chorus of voices throughout the nation and abroad condemning these actions as well as an investigation on the part of the national accrediting agency into potential violations of academic freedom standards. Thus, far more significantly than what has occurred this fall on the playing field, these actions represent a dire threat both to the core principles of the university and the reputation and ranking of the institution as a whole.

In the November 1, 2021 online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Michigan Professor Silke-Maria Weineck describes the chilling parallels between these developments at UF and the lead-up to the Nazi seizure of control in 1933 of the state and its institutions, including the university. Weineck points out, “The most deeply troubling aspect of this episode is the explicit conflation of the interest of a state government with the interest of a state university. A public university is beholden to truth-seeking and truth-speaking, and neither can possibly be subject to direct political control. A university that bars its faculty from criticizing the government in court has abandoned its core mission and tossed what should be its most fundamental values to a foul-smelling wind.” Weineck concludes her essay on this powerful note: “Democracies go bankrupt the same way everybody else does: very slowly, then all of a sudden. We are still at ‘slowly.’ All of a sudden is scheduled for Tuesday, November 8, 2022. If Florida’s administrators have ever asked themselves how they would have acted in 1932, now they know.” 

Fully uncompromising in her assessment of the actions of UF’s administrative leaders, Weineck also sheds significant light on the path that led to this morass. To many, the revelations in the past few weeks of the extent of the capitulation of the university’s leaders to the whims of the governor—and even what Weineck refers to as their vorauseilender Gehorsam: “‘obedience ahead of the command.’ The Yale historian Timothy Snyder translates it as ‘anticipatory obedience,’ and that is close enough, but it doesn’t quite capture the scurrying servility implied in ‘vorauseilen,’ to hurry ahead”—seems an “all of a sudden” shift in policy. Of course, through his media spokespeople the governor continues to deny that he in any way influenced these decisions—though DeSantis campaign “mega-donor” and the head of his transition team Mori Hosseini is currently the Chair of UF’s Board of Trustees and thus works closely with UF’s upper administrators and a raft of legislation the governor happily signed last summer, which will have a chilling effect on education in the state more generally, also indicates that he is no champion of “free speech, open inquiry and viewpoint diversity on college and university campuses.” Moreover, we should keep in mind that this “all of a sudden” also encompasses UF’s President Kent Fuchs’s sudden reversal at the beginning of the fall semester of the university’s plans to act on the recommendation of its own medical experts and have the first weeks of classes online or require masks to be worn in all campus facilities. Fuchs claims that he could not allow obvious COVID mitigation strategies such as mandatory masks or vaccines because he believes the “university does not currently have the authority” to counter the COVID-denying mandates of the governor. Then in September, Fuchs informed “the UF Faculty Senate, which was considering a statement critical of the governor’s COVID policies, that anyone who represents UF shouldn’t do anything to rupture or fracture our relationship with our state government and our elected officials.”

 Fuchs’s decision was made even more shameful by the fact that the local K-12 school board, in the face of dire threats from the governor and state Board of Education, courageously stood by the recommendations of UF’s faculty experts and required masks in all school facilities—a policy now extended, with the exemption of those with documented medical conditions, until at least early December. A few weeks later UF’s administration along with Hosseini were again in the news for “fast tracking” the approval of a position at the university’s medical school for Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the governor’s controversial appointee to the position of state Surgeon General. Buried in the glut of other terrible news this past week was the story of Democratic State Senator Tina Polsky who received “a profanity-laced, anti-Semitic death threat” as a result of her request, because she is in treatment for cancer, for “Ladapo to leave her office because he wouldn’t wear a face covering.”

However, UF’s “bankruptcy,” just like that of its football team and the state of Florida as a whole, has been unfolding, as Weineck would have it, much more “slowly” over the course of many months and even years. Such changes are part and parcel of the “tyranny of neoliberalism” that continues to be imposed on all institutions of higher education. On the eve of the 2016 U.S. election, University of Virginia American historian Alan Taylor characterized these changes as involving the gradual elimination of those aspects of the university that aim at producing the social “public goods” necessary for democracy to flourish—including the core values of expert knowledge, academic freedom, and the full autonomy of the university and its faculty from state control—and an increasingly exclusive focus on individual “economic goods,” those that flow both to the university’s graduates and the institution itself. Taylor points out that today the reigning common sense is that “the individual student is the primary beneficiary of education and that its value is best measured in dollars subsequently earned.” 

Taylor’s observations were born out in September when at a press conference—indoors and unmasked—announcing UF’s climb to a tie for fifth place in the U.S. News & World Reports most recent rankings of public universities, DeSantis crowed, “Students and families know that getting a great education for a great price, with minimal debt, and skills to prosper and adapt in a fast-changing workforce, there is no doubt the success of UF is tied to the success of our state—present and future.” As a result of this change, Taylor further points out, “it now sounds fuzzy and naïve to speak of any other benefits of higher education, such as knowledge for its own sake, increased happiness, an enhanced appreciation of art, or a deeper understanding of human nature and society. Along the way, we also have shunted into the background the collective, social rewards of education: the ways in which we all, including those who do not attend college, benefit from better writers and thinkers, technological advances, expanded markets, and lower crime rates.” This narrowing of the mission of higher education has contributed in no small part to the deeply polarized, paranoid, unstable, and increasingly violent society we inhabit today.

These changes came about slowly and in a piecemeal fashion through a combination of the undermining of real shared governance on campus and the increase in top-down dictates from the state, university governing boards, and local administrators to the university’s other “stakeholders”—the majority of its faculty, students, and less well-positioned alumni. These mandates include unprecedented interventions in curricular and classroom matters. While it is rare that these changes came with the endorsement of these other stakeholders, they were also not often enough challenged directly and in the public sphere. Instead, those lower down the university chain of command were forced to turn their attention to the task of implementing these new policies, asking themselves: how do we do these things, even if we are convinced that they are wrong, so that they result in the least amount of harm to our students and communities? The result is the establishment of precedents such that UF’s President Fuchs can now claim, “the policy ‘is very simply about participating in litigation against your employer. . . . We have a tradition here recently of not approving any employee that is an employee of the state of Florida then serving as an expert witness in litigation against the state of Florida. . . .That’s been our practice.” If any such “recent tradition” (an oxymoronic notion if there ever was one) exists, it is only because public challenges were not raised by either those whose activities were blocked or those who implemented these changes.

At the root of this acquiescence on the part of the university’s administration, and in turn its faculty and students, is what Rachel Greenwald Smith identifies in her recent book On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal as the essential neoliberal value of compromise. Greenwald Smith points out that such an ethos serves as way of “avoiding of ideological conflict: invocations of you do you and do your own thing, idealized notions of consensus, and simple acts of erasure— of conflict itself and of those who might provoke conflict” (6). In her book’s moving final pages, Greenwald Smith further observes,

[C]ompromise requires the belief that unsatisfactory things can be made satisfactory, at least temporarily. That the pain and loss generated by a bad situation can be managed, or made fair, or tolerable, even if the underlying conflict remains. We have been trying to give things up to make each other happy, but in doing so we have made the mistake of so many compromisers: we have pushed away the reality of those unsatisfactory conditions, when we could have confronted them in all of their intractability, in all of their dread. (195)

 Greenwald Smith is not so naïve as to suggest that compromise is not necessary in specific and local contexts and decisions. Rather, problems arise with the “confusion between compromise as a means and compromise as an end” (9). From the former perspective, the only good compromise is one in which all the parties involved feel as if they have failed and thus remain committed to battling on: “When I say compromises are ugly things, I don’t mean that they are monstrous or oppositional or disturbing or challenging. I mean that they are unsatisfying, awkward, boring, haphazard. They might be the best we can get, but they do not and should not please us” (51). The value of compromise as an end leads to the excoriation of those who do resist as being inflexible (“flexibility,” as Catherine Malabou reminds us, is another of the fundamental neoliberal values), dogmatic, or, worst of all, uncollegial. This condemnation further results in the marginalization of other viewpoints in any meaningful decision-making process regarding the university’s future. Such a marginalization of the faculty in these processes has in recent years become more and more the norm. This is so much the case today that in his praise of those who participated in UF’s climb in the rankings, a climb that began long before his administration took office, DeSantis could overlook one of the most important contributors to the university’s success: “There’s a lot of great students, administrators, the Florida legislature, and board members that have continued to make Florida the best place in the nation to get a great education.” But where would the university be without its faculty?

Inscription from the early 1930s at UF’s Norman Hall

Here is where we might extend Weineck’s parallel between our current crisis and the gradual ascendancy of the Nazis in Germany. If the ready acquiescence of the university’s administrators to the whims of current political leaders places them in a position similar to German leaders in 1932, then silence and passivity on the part of faculty and students make us the equivalent to those journalists who worked for The Frankfurter Zeitung in the years “before Hitler was appointed chancellor:” those who may have fully understood what was coming into being but who believed that “compromise was preferable to confrontation,” and in so doing, began slowly to acclimate to a terrible new reality. Only when the path forward was set did they respond, but by then it was too late. At this point, the only options that remained were making do in this new situation or flight; however, as much today as in those earlier dark times, flight, even if it were necessary, remains an option available only to a privileged few.

Thankfully as Weineck emphasizes, we have not yet reached the point of no return. There is still an opportunity to renew the best traditions of the American university and, along with it, democracy. However, these changes will not come about through such risible actions as the university’s president appointing of a “task force,” largely made up of other upper administrators, to make recommendations to him on how “UF should respond when employees request approval to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party.” Even the suggestion that this is an issue to be discussed represents a fundamental threat to the autonomy of the university and its role as a servant of the public good of our state and nation rather than of their current leaders. Travel down this path and very soon the “king’s two bodies” become one again.

One of the other great historians of the modern American university,  Christopher Newfield points out,

Advancing the new education can’t rest mainly on appeals to the better angels of society’s top brass. Its advancement will depend on intellectual and social movements, on political, ethical, and sociocultural justifications that address a wide range of society’s conflicted publics and seek to build political majorities, often in opposition to business elites and their politicians. One last twist: tenured faculty members will need to join this opposition even though, as descendants of the postwar professional-managerial class, they are traditionally allied with business elites and have used professional rights, like self-governance, quite sparingly. As any of our students might say to us—good luck with that.

At UF, the organization that remains most committed to these rights of self-governance, while also having the collective power to act uncompromisingly in upholding the core principles of a democratic university, are the faculty and graduate students unions, United Faculty of Florida (UFF) and Graduate Assistants United (GAU). While opponents will grumble that unions only “politicize” higher education, the events of recent months make clear where such politicization always begins. 

It is no coincidence that the pushback against Fuchs’s “recent tradition” began in earnest when active members of the university’s collective bargaining unit were prohibited from testifying in support of legal challenges to the state’s recently enacted voter restrictions. Moreover, it was only after a UFF press conference announcing a set of demands and possible actions that the administration agreed “to reverse the decisions on recent requests by UF employees to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which the state of Florida is a party and to approve the requests regardless of personal compensation.”

While this is a significant first step and an encouraging demonstration of what coordinated collective action may accomplish, it is only a first step. This is the moment when a retreat into the bad habits of compromise might occur: after all, the thinking goes, shouldn’t we accept this positive turn and wait until December in the hope that the president’s task force will make the only reasonable decision? Recent actions would only suggest, good luck with that. Moreover, while the university has reversed its most recent decisions, it has so far ignored UFF’s other demands:

  1. The University must also issue a formal apology to faculty affected by these prohibitions for violating their academic freedom and their rights as workers.
  2. University administration must affirm that it will not interfere with the right of any employee to exercise their conscience, academic freedom, free speech rights, and expertise in an expert witness context, regardless of whether they receive payment for their expertise.
  3. UF must affirm its support for voting rights and commit to opposing ongoing efforts to suppress voting rights in the state of Florida.
  4. UF must formally declare that the University’s mission to serve the public good is independent of the transitory political interests of state officeholders. Instead, UF should uphold its mission statement as the prime directive for all University activities.

After President Fuchs’s Friday announcement, UFF-IUF president Paul Ortiz stressed the need to be uncompromising in our expectations: “UFF-UF is looking for a clear and unambiguous commitment to academic freedom going forward. We are also requesting an external review of UF’s practices regarding requests for approval of outside scholarly activities. This external review should mirror best academic practices of peer review and external review in higher education.” Until such steps are taken, it remains absolutely necessary to keep in place the specific actions recommended for UF donors, national education leaders, artists, scholars, and intellectuals invited to appear at UF, and all faculty. By refusing compromise on our core values, we may yet avert UF’s and Florida’s own 1933. Then, perhaps, one day in a not too distant future, we might be able to respond with pride and dignity when asked the question: how did you act in 2021?

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