Many of us have encountered the view that recent social justice efforts on college campuses across the continent have been gross overreactions to purportedly harmless assertions of free speech. As many writers have competently explained, these appeals to free speech, like refusals to respect calls for trigger warnings or safe spaces, deflect conversations from the racialized and sexual violence, ableism and phobias that social justice movements are trying to address. In fact, these deflections are thinly veiled forms of victim-blaming, targeting those who carry the burden of oppression and work against social injustices.
While university students and faculty are often the ones carrying out this kind of justice work, there is a lesson to be learned from how university administrations have lagged behind. As they are currently, most are no longer compatible with the future that social justice movements are building. In fact, administrative bureaucracies are part of the problem.
Looking to post-inauguration America, the idea that the university ought to be a contested platform of public discourse cannot be said without taking account of the political situation in which these schools find themselves.
As Jelani Cobb explained in the New Yorker, “the freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” But, Cobb also drew attention to the fact that anti-justice efforts threaten the principles purported to be at the heart of the academy. “The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.”
Without any appreciation of context, a myth persists that administrations are impartial and lack the power to mobilize the vast resources at their disposal to deny oppressive attitudes on campus. Events that would have given, for example, white supremacism a platform at larger schools in the U.S. were shut down, not cancelled—part of the problem is that they were scheduled in the first place. In fact, public discourse on matters of free speech and censorship often fail to question whether administrations ought to base decisions on value judgements, such as a commitment to disallow white supremacists on campus.
The problem is that administrations do make decisions according to their own values – but these values are often incompatible with a just future. This thin veneer of administrative neutrality conceals the fact that administrative power and the power of the far-right concentrate by means of complementary processes: the outright refusal to critique or stand against injustice.
There are plenty of example how administrations’ commitments to neutrality reproduce unjust conditions. Anti-racism and anti-sexism policies are made operational in an attempt to combat incidents of racism and sexual violence, without challenging the cultures of oppression to which these incidents belong. Financial practices are unresponsive to vital critiques by labour unions and divestment movements. And, administrations refuse to express institutional stances on issues of justice. Decisions are rationalized through a network of committees and bureaucratic processes, without recourse to any standard of justice or of community good.
Whether oppression is given a platform in the lecture hall is determined not by any leadership or values of the university as an institution, but rather by the personal views held by the students and faculty who plan events or sit on speaker-selection committees. While just decisions are often made, it is because individuals, and not our institutions, are capable of recognizing their responsibilities to work against injustice.
To the extent that the liberal arts were once concerned with this kind of work, the liberal arts academy is under attack from within and without. Oppressive attitudes are often held by those who would say that the liberal arts and humanities are an economic drag – that they are not worth keeping. And administrations, in the way they are currently structured, have cheapened to the point of meaninglessness the principles for which our universities exist. The decision that our universities face is not between risk-free neutrality and the unnecessary expression of a political stance, but rather between adopting an oppositional stance to injustice and ceasing to exist. Unless administrations make clear their commitment to do justice work, social justice movements will leave the academic institution and its bureaucracy behind.