Discipline, Punish, and Illiberalism in Academia

The spread of #METOO movement is finally creating some salutary momentum in academia. But then you hear of cases like Terry Speed where it has been suggested no punishment was mete out. In another case, Christian Ott was suspended from Caltech. He eventually resigned, found new employment in Finland, which was roundly criticized, then he was fired again. NSF has announced a requirement for all institutions to report findings of abuse, which seems like a good idea, but does this mean a life time black list for some? As we uncover the guilty (hopefully in a proper manner) with #METOO,

What is the right punishment for the abusers in academia?

Foucault’s classic analytical treatise “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison“, starts with a gruesome four-page description of  the 1757 public torture of Robert-Francois Damiens, the regicide, as an example of the old system of punishment. This is punishment as a spectacle, where the act is a play of the power of the King upon its subjects and a display of the truth of the crime. Every crime involves not only the perpetrator and the injured but also the transgression to the sovereign that necessitates the grisly excess.  Foucault next narrates a detailed daily schedule of rule for prisoners in Paris, consisting of meals, work, study, and exercise, much in the manner of modern prisons. Mere eighty years separate the spectacle of punishment reformed into a private and institutionalized discipline imposed on the guilty.

The Age of Enlightenment provided moral and philosophical background for reform. But, Foucault asserts economic developments generated complex webs of contradictory interests, eventually creating the idea of the abstract public against the criminal rather than the king:  People vs John Doe. Now, punishment must consider its effects: that on the guilty, on the public, and on the punisher, leading to an effort to bound the excess and match the punishment to the character of the  crime and the guilty. One end of the reform was the Philadelphia model, with roots in Quakerism, based on the principle of penitence and the transformation of the individual. Punishment was private, behind the walls of the coercive institution, with the public only given assurance of its inevitability. Thus, from the public spectacle to the private penitentiary, the political technology of punishment reflected the economy, ethics, and morality of the polity wielding the rod.

What then, is the moral, ethical character of academia?

One of the greatest ironies is the idea that academia is full of liberals–so much so that we have “Professor Watch Lists” and many similar flails against ivory-tower liberals. Some surveys suggest registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by up to 12:1 in some fields. So what is the irony? It is this. Academics might be politically liberal in the greater world, but within our own domain, our views, preferences, and actions are as radically conservative as one might find in the halls of the Heritage Foundation.

Let’s start with something simple. How many professors are known to favor hiring more administrative mini-deans? You know, those people who are the “governments” of academia? That is, how many academics are for more government in their own daily lives? How many show joy at the regulations handed down from those  same governors? Say, for example, imposing diversity sensitivity training for hiring committees. I have sat in august discussions amongst august faculty within august institutions, asking “whether such training is truly effective” and “whether the matter should be seriously studied before we implement the rules”. Pointing out the parallels to those who think global climate change is an unsettled problem did not change the solemnity of the proceedings nor induce sudden pangs of self-awareness.

Here’s more. Academics strongly believe they got to where they are because of their extraordinary merit. Those who fail? Lack of mojo and poor work ethic. Who else believes the poor should buckle up and work harder? I could go on and on and find continued examples, such as the commonly accepted practice of free-for-all competition on par with the worst of Wall Street.  If I cheat a little by taking somebody’s ideas, slave drive a trainee, or collude with my friend who is an editor at a Nature-lite journal, that is all par for the course. Fine liberal ideas there.

The truth is, we are not conservative or even neo-conservative. We are positively alt-right fascists. “The two cultures” barely touches on the degree of nationalism/tribalism found in academia. It isn’t just sciences vs humanities but molecular biologists vs ecology and evolutionary biologists; evolutionary biologists vs ecologists; field ecologists vs theoretical ecologists, and so on. We all look down on the other and blame the immigrants. (I don’t even want to go into actual racism such as when a senior scientist told me “give me a hard working Asian boy any day”, as a complement.) We practice privileged illegalities (i.e., actions forbidden to others but allowed to the privileged class) finely graded by membership levels in the circles of power. And, we create circles of power with the center crusted by a cult of personality (“Heroes of CRISPR” anyone?), celebrity talk circuits, and argumentum ad verecundiam from the editors who tell us “top experts were consulted and their hands are tied”.

Returning to punishment in academia, what if Terry Speed were actually given the Philadelphia model and that is why we hear of nothing? I presume nobody believes this. We don’t believe Terry Speed was given a quiet secret punishment because we know in our hearts that our academic society is far more primitive than that which allows the Philadelphia model. There are no inexorable punishment in academia; quite the opposite – there are lots of privileged illegalities swept under ivy rugs.  Christian Ott actually lost his job and had to move home and country. When we think of our own lives and what impact that would have on us and our families, such a punishment is no small thing. Yet, we feel justice has not been served. We talk of “pass-the-harasser” problem and want more done to him. Why? Because, we know we live under the illiberal sovereign of academia requiring no less than the spectacle of pilloried guilty to feel justice served.

How to punish the guilty is actually the least of our problems. In normal society, if a random rich person were to proposition you, you could just tell them to bugger off. In academic society, if the top star of your field propositions you—well, now you are weighing your career versus your dignity. How is it that academia is a society where kings and princes flaunt their power to ruin a career, jeopardize tenure, or dangle access into the chamber of favored children of Nature and Science as leverage for morally despicable behavior? Academia, below its veneer of rationality and analytical rigor, runs on the fuel of privilege, access, and shiny Nobel crowns, all of which is twisted into the economy of power and abuse.

If we are to come to true grips with righting the wrongs raised by #METOO, academics must live up to the liberal and enlightened ideals we profess to hold before we demand amende honorable of the guilty.  And, unless academic culture changes, movements like #METOO will be mere bandages over the latest wound of the sick body.

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