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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Columns

With attacks on academic freedom, solidarity is necessary


During his imprisonment under Benito Mussolini, philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote an essay on the history of intellectuals in which he theorized the new intellectual would break away from academia and engage in “practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator.”

In short, the isolation of intellectuals and professors would be broken, and they would be engaged in political struggles.

Since the essay’s publication, the ivory towers of academia have been crumbling into history for better and, as of recently, for worse. There are now many professors who have proven their courage by risking their job security to speak on the constantly shifting dynamics and ruptures of the current political crisis.

The benefits have not been plentiful, and the backlash has been great.

Over the past year, many progressive scholars and professors have become a target for harassment, death threats, doxing — when a threat is issued to release personal information — and calling the universities to get them fired. 

To know that academic freedom is under serious threat, one needs to look only at the cases of George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University, Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa, Johnny Williams at Trinity College and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton University, who have all been targets of repression.

The groups engaging in these threats to academic freedom vary along the far right-wing political spectrum, from conservative media outlets to the online trolls of the alt-right.

One nearby victim of these attacks is Tommy Curry, an African-American professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. Although the groups that targeted him are affiliated with the alt-right, the story was broken by The American Conservative, which took Curry’s comments on the right of African-Americans to defend themselves as a call to “kill whites.”

The controversy that ensued resulted in Curry receiving death threats, racist pictures of monkeys and calls for him to be fired. Instead of giving him support, the president of the university released a statement denouncing Curry.

Why the president of a major university chose to believe the accusations against Curry without an internal investigation is surprising, to say the least. The likely answer is the short-term public relations concern, but if that was so, then they likely damaged the long-term reputation of Curry in the process.

The denunciations led students to respond by creating a petition in support of Curry and called the president’s comments “a mis-characterization of Dr. Curry.” Within the university administration, only the department of philosophy showed any real support by releasing a statement of solidarity with him and calling on the university to defend his academic freedom.

Curry’s department displaying  their solidarity with him is exemplary, as is the example of the students who voiced their concerns. The students recognized that the president’s comments set a dangerous precedent for the well-being of the minorities on campus and that his words legitimized the larger campaign to alienate Dr. Curry.

If this past year has proven anything, it’s that we students cannot sit in our dorm rooms and eat sheet cake. We need to be politically mobilized. Doing so implies joining causes on campus from supporting undocumented students to opposing settler-colonialism against Palestinians.

There are many student organizations that you can stand with in solidarity against oppression. Get involved.

The alt-right is on the march, and any of our professors could be subjected to political attacks that could destroy their livelihoods and harm our education. It is not far from likely that such an event could take place this semester, and we need to be ready to display our solidarity when such attacks come.  

Staff writer Brant Roberts is a history graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]

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