Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Sounds of University Silence

Mark Graber

University presidents have not addressed the Trump campaign or perceived crises in American constitutional politics.  No one is calling for them to do so, at least on these pages.  This omission is curious.  Most of us have no influence on Paul Ryan, John McCain or other Republicans we regularly insist must take political risks and do the “right” thing.  We do, however, have some relationship with our university president and leading administrators at our home institution.  Many of us have good friends who are university presidents or otherwise hold high positions in the academy.  Nevertheless, while lots of us professor types criticize Trump on a daily basis (at no personal risk whatsoever), a consensus is forming that American universities as institutions apparently have nothing to say and should say nothing about the state of American politics.

This silence is less curious in light of the ongoing transformation of higher education in the United States.  The days are long gone when the nation expected academic leadership out of the people who hold high administrative positions in the academy.  Friends in North Carolina and some other states indicate they would be happy with displays of academic interest on high.  University administrators are fund raisers and managers.   Politics is bad for business.  Trump may have already became such a buffoon that some university presidents at matriculation will criticize his more outlandish behavior knowing their comments are as safe for the university pocketbook as calling on students to be engaged citizens.  Trump’s personal pronunciations aside, we are likely to hear far more from university presidents about universities being sites for economic development than universities as sites for serious thought about the roots of contemporary American constitutional miasma and possible solutions.

Whether university presidents as CEOs and CFOs of the academic business are appropriate leaders during the present constitutional crisis is a fair question.  Most commentators believe increased inequality is the central issue driving American constitutional politics and the issue driving American constitutional politics crazy.  Over the past generation, the prizes for winning are greater in value and fewer in number while punishments for losing are both greater in value and greater in number.  Universities presidents as CEOs and CFOs have ridden rather than bucked this trend.  In the modern academy, university leadership and elite professors (i.e., people like me) earn ever increasing salaries for teaching less and less, while tenured track position disappear and ordinary staff face repeated salary freezes and benefits cuts.  We do not yet resemble the American economy as a whole, but academic institutions are far less egalitarian than previously the case.  University attacks on Trump, given these realities, are far more likely to be attacks on Trump the person rather than on the constitutional politics of inequality responsible for our present constitutional condition. 

The Trump experience suggests that the United States is experiencing a crisis of constitutional culture as much if not more so than a crisis of constitutional institutions.  Our governing institutions do not work well because a people who take such political actors as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin seriously cannot run democratic institutions.  These people are as much produced by an educational system as by the electoral college or state equality in the Senate, some other favorite causes of our constitutional condition.  If these thoughts have any merit, constitutional reform should begin at home by asking what university leadership and universities must do to fashion better constitutional citizens.

Older Posts
Newer Posts