Thursday, November 12, 2015

Going Out On a Limb on Race

Let me state the obvious up front: I'm a white man in a privileged position. I have tenure, rank, and an administrative position of some authority within a university. I have a social position within my community that is comfortable and oftentimes even respected.

So from some points of view, I may not be the best person to engage the current discussion about race, racism, and higher education. On the other hand, there are a lot of people like me running universities and colleges across the country. So if we don't engage, then solutions will be difficult to find. So I dip my foot in these waters tentatively, with humility and understanding that mine is a particular perspective.

A number of articles have been written of late that are well worth reading. There is Nicholas Kristof's excellent piece in today's NYT. There is a very good article in the Atlantic in defense of civility and against censorship. There is this blog post about racism written compellingly from a young black man's perspective.

In the midst of all of these conversations about clashing free speech and racism concerns, I appreciate these perspectives. In particular I appreciate the voice of the young blogger trying to explain what racism really is to those who never experience it. It is powerfully put and I believe sincere. He isn't attacking anyone in particular, but a broader problem in general. This is the kind of thing that can contribute to a conversation.

In order to actually push that conversation forward, however, it is not enough to hear from the victims of racism about the pain it causes. We need to know more - not about those who suffer from these indignities and injustices, but about those who perpetrate them.

Not all whites (or members of any group, for that matter) are racists. But some are. How do we address those who engage in these behaviors? How do we identify them, engage with them, and ultimately persuade them to change? That, it seems to me, is the real challenge. Beyond the protests and the screaming and the back-and-forth internet trolling, this is what real leadership (from wherever it emerges) needs to do.

Earlier today I likened the ongoing protests (some of which are occurring on my campus today, in solidarity with others) to a conflict. As a conflict scholar, the steps towards resolution are clear:

- Identify the essentials of the conflict. Who are the players? What are their interests, and what are they fighting about? What are the rules of the surrounding environment that shape how the conflict is conducted?

- Decide on the desired end goal. If the conflict were over, what would you want that to look like? What resolution do you seek, and what does that resolution look like for ALL of the actors involved?

- Evaluate and choose a strategy for achieving that goal. Can I get there through unilateral action, or do I need the cooperation of those with different views? Can I engineer a solution that meets my needs regardless of what the other side wants, or do I have to persuade others to join with me in a mutually-agreed settlement?

I don't think we've yet had much clear thinking about any of these things. Conflicts often arise between aggrieved students and university administrators or faculty, which is an example of the lamppost fallacy: tackling what you can see, rather than going where the problem really is. The fundamental conflict is between members of minority groups (blacks, latinos, transgender, etc.) and members of the majority group who want to discriminate against and oppress them. If that is the core of the conflict, there is no unilateral solution - neither group can wipe the other out, both must continue to live in the same society together. The question is, how?

I don't have any good answers. I don't know how you identify who the racists are, much less how you draw them into a political process designed to address their real interests and fashion a mutually acceptable solution. All I know is that until we do so, we are likely to be stuck in the ugly stalemate of today - sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, but with very little progress towards a better future.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Power on University Campuses

There has been a lot of struggle and conflict on college campuses lately over a variety of issues, particularly racial tensions and ongoing problems with minority and marginalized persons. These issues affect some campuses more than others, and some (Yale & Missouri) have become national flashpoints.

Today we get word that, one day after saying that he would NOT resign, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe has stepped down as President there.

What brought national attention to Wolfe's situation, and what may have led to his ouster, was a threatened strike by their football team (over 50% of which is African-American). The university stood to lose upwards of $1 million in TV revenues if it doesn't play next Saturday's game.

There you have about as stark a statement of power on campuses as I can think of. Student movements, even some fairly sizable ones, haven't accomplished much of anything. A Mizzou student has for over a week been on a hunger strike, vowing to starve himself to death. None of this moved the needle much. But when the football team threatens to cut into the university's revenue ... well, that's a different story.

For those that claim sports don't run Div I universities - do you still think so?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Defense Spending: We Used to Have a Real Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:
[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers' lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don't tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, "Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?"
R. William Ayres You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between "liberals" and "conservatives" about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base...
There's a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don't think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.

The observation is this: we have long since ceased to talk about the defense budget. Once upon a time, there were significant policy differences and debates around the issue of defense spending as a component of both the US budget and US foreign policy. There were "hawks" and "doves" (and, to hear some tell it, "owls") who had different preferences about how much money the US should spend on defense and what that money should go towards. This debate was a significant part of the American political landscape, regularly featured in Presidential addresses and press conferences and almost always a topic for debates in Presidential election years. Candidates were asked their opinion, not only of the defense budget as a whole, but of individual weapons systems.

Today, despite broad public interest in the US federal budget, there is no discussion of defense spending at all. Zip. Zero. Zilch. From an economic perspective, this is astounding - depending on whose numbers you use defense spending takes up between 19% and 25% of the US federal budget, roughly equal to the entire expenditure on Social Security and larger than all other discretionary spending put together. Politicians will talk about Medicare & Medicaid reform (23%) and even Social Security reform (20%). But nobody talks about possibly cutting defense spending.

This is also crazy given the state of the world. According to the latest data from SIPRI, the United States in 2014 spent a little more than $600 billion on military expenditures. That is almost 50% more than the entire continent of Asia (including both China and India), more than 50% greater than all of Europe put together, and more than three times the combined expenditures of every single country in the Middle East (friend and foe alike). It dwarfs Russian military spending by a factor of more than 7, and Chinese spending by more than 2.5. The entire world in 2014 spent about $1.7 trillion on military expenditures; the US accounted for more than 30% of that total.

Even in the waning days of the Cold War, when we were outspending the Soviets, the margin wasn't this large. This isn't just being out front or staying ahead of the competition; this is utter and complete domination in the category of buying weapons.

And yet, to hear our politicians tell it, the US has never been less secure militarily than it is today. Most of this criticism is coming from blowhards running for President who would criticize the current administration if it said the sky is blue, and so shouldn't be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this is what the American people hear.

More importantly, there is no countervailing view. The Obama administration has shown no signs of suggesting that the US spend less, and there is no indication that anyone in Congress (Republican or Democrat) would be willing to vote that way anyway. There's a lot of vague, one-sided language about "keeping America safe" and "supporting our troops", but nothing like what you would call a discussion. It's pretty much just radio silence.

I framed this on FB as part of a broader political shift to the right, and I think that's partly true. But closer to the truth is that this silence represents the ultimate triumph of the military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned us about back in 1960. Those structures - the businesses and government agencies which together make up the nation's defense machine - have always done extremely well. But they used to have to at least compete for their share of public dollars in the public arena. Now, we just write them a (very large) check, quietly and without comment.

This goes far beyond liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican (since all are now singing from the same page of the hymnal). This is what it looks like to be an empire, simultaneously fearful of the world and utterly unconcerned about how it responds to those fears. We the people have conceded somewhere between 1/5 and 1/4 of the entire US government to a system that, from an economic point of view, is largely pointless. A small fraction of that $600 billion could be spent in myriad ways that would have a far greater positive impact on the American people. But we say nothing.

I don't expect this to change - not soon, not later, not in my lifetime. The systems that hold this in place have been decades in the making. They are powerful economically, politically, and (as my colleague pointed out above) philosophically. They are rooted in deep assumptions that have been developed over generations.

Because I don't expect this to change, I don't have any solutions to suggest. Really, I just find it sad that we have so abandoned one of the most fundamental questions of public policy. Maybe Mearsheimer had the right title, even if his argument was wrong - in this way, at least, I really do miss the Cold War.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where Have All the Conservative Professors Gone?

I came across an article today asking "Where are all the conservative university professors?" This is a perennially interesting question, enough so that I got into an interesting FB conversation about it with a friend. On the off chance that anybody else could benefit from my side of that conversation, I'm going to reproduce my thoughts here.

In case you don't want to click the link above and read the attached article, here's a basic summary. What the author is looking at more specifically is why there aren't self-identified conservatives (or very many) on the faculties in humanities and social sciences departments. The article acknowledges that business and engineering are different animals, but since a lot of people equate "college education" with some pieces of the liberal arts, the question of how "liberal" they are is a relevant one, at least in the public mind.

I should stop and point out that there are real political scientists who have studied this question with actual data. You can find one of the better examples of this at this link; the research is written by a couple of friends of mine who are genuinely interested for scholarly, as opposed to op-ed, reasons. The article linked at the top of this post doesn't really get into data; it's more about rampant speculation.

That speculation boils down to this: current incentives for humanities and social science professors involve doing research that questions existing conventional wisdom, often in radical and new ways. This is means by which these disciplines advance knowledge, and it's also the path to success for professors who must "publish or perish". Because questioning things from radically new points of view and trashing conventional wisdom are seen as liberal, not conservative, traits it stands to reason that professors in these fields will likely be more liberal than conservative.

This is a plausible explanation, but only barely. I think there's some element of truth here. It is the case that "boundary-pushing" research in the humanities and social sciences encourages questioning things that are political and normative in nature. Similar cutting-edge research in engineering or medicine doesn't generally call into question preexisting social and political beliefs. Business is built on a set of assumptions which are fundamentally conservative (in the classic sense) to begin with, and so research within that paradigm is likewise unthreatening to conservative views. So it is reasonable to observe that there would be more political bias or impact in fields in which the subject is more inherently political and philosophical in nature. There is no such thing as "liberal engineering" or "conservative engineering" - there's just engineering, because designing circuits or aircraft isn't an ideological exercise. Interpreting Shakespeare, studying and analyzing history, and researching sociological phenomena all involve political & ideological issues.

All of this is only true if you understand "conservative" to mean what Edmund Burke meant: a respect for tradition and the past and a desire for change that is evolutionary and measured rather than radical. In this regard, modern humanist scholarship is indeed "non-conservative" in that it tends to reject what has come before and want to start fresh, rather than preserving and respecting inherited wisdom. By this standard, many who call themselves "conservatives" today aren't conservatives at all, which further muddies the waters.

I think the much better explanation for the original question - why so few conservative faculty in the liberal arts - is basic tribalism. People tend to sort themselves - where they live, what they do for a living, who they interact with - into groups that are comfortable. The fact that some (many?) humanities and social sciences departments ARE deeply liberal tends to drive conservatives away from those fields, because it's just not comfortable to be there. This is a complex phenomenon with a number of different vectors, as my colleagues who study this stuff will undoubtedly point out. But I wonder whether it doesn't have more to do with our social relations than with the nature of what we study as academics.