Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Trading in Benefices

Every human system has various forms of corruption; the specific forms of corruption to which it most tends are a matter of the structure of the system. Among these forms of corruption there are always chameleon or camouflaged corruptions that, in a sense, speak the language of the system so well that for the most part it is hardly noticed that they are corruptions. They are corruptions that often pass for normal parts of the system, they blend in so well. They usually only come to attention for purely accidental reasons. Academia, like every human system, has its own camouflaged corruptions, and academia being very much a positional game, its corruptions tend to have a lot of analogies to camouflaged corruptions in other positional systems, like corruptions that grew up in the ecclesiastical practice of bestowing benefices. It's an old story; Plato describes it in terms of the interaction of timarchy, based on glory and reputation and appearance of honor, and money. Academia, like Plato's timarchy, is an engine for converting other things to prestige and reputation, and, alas, nothing converts so easily as money -- much more easily than actual hard work. And there we have a beachhead for corruption.

Here is a common form of camouflaged corruption. A foundation or some other organization with a lot of money wants to increase its prestige and reputation, or the prestige and reputation of its cause, as the case may be; it strikes a deal with a college to create a prestige-piece, whether by endowing a chair or lectureship or by building a center or institute on campus or by anything similar. The organization gets academic respectability for money; the college gets money by which to have something flashy that can be used to increase its reputation. It looks very much like many of the ordinary ways colleges get along, sponsorships and donations and the like. But what actually has happened is that colleges (and in particular college presidents), exploiting the fact that these things can sometimes by happenstance create natural and spontaneous biases in the direction of general academic inquiry, have begun to sell the creation of artificial biases in general academic thought. The exact form will vary depending on exactly how the bias is to be created; but the form doesn't really matter, as what matters is that academic attention, and sometimes the particular shape it takes, is now for sale. Once that happens, there is no way to avoid corruption; the system is already corrupting, even if no one notices it. But every so often, some accident or other puts a spotlight on it here or there and people start seeing that something is off. One of the more recent examples is that of the Confucius Institutes, in which the non-profit organization Hanban, closely associated with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, was forming 'educational partnerships' with foreign universities for Chinese language centers called 'Confucius Institutes'. 'Confucius Institute' was a deliberately constructed brand name -- who can be against Confucius? The agreements always gave the parent organization a considerable amount of power in funding and managing the centers. Most of what happened in Confucius Institutes was relatively benign, ordinary Chinese language study, although there were curriculum limitations on how things like Tibet or Taiwan were handled. But even if that had been all, the corruption is in the very fact that an organization affiliated with the Chinese government was able to pay to create its own artificial bias in general academic inquiry in universities across the world. As it happens, much of this was handled clunkily, in ways that got academic hackles up for independent reasons, and this happened to intersect with growing political worries about Chinese influence, so that it was in the spotlight to an unusual degree. But it is not an unusual event.

We have seen another flavor of this kind of corruption. Knight Foundation is a non-profit organization with a $2 billion endowment. Its purpose is promote excellence in journalism, but of course promoting excellence in X always involves a particular idea of what that means. One of things Knight Foundation does is endow Knight Chairs in Journalism to (as it puts it) bridge the divide between the journalism classroom and the newsroom. To put it in different terms, it buys academic positions for professional journalists.  We see again the deliberate funding of an artificial bias, a camouflaged one that looks to the outside like ordinary chair endowment (e.g., when someone endows a particular chair to make what an academic faculty already teaches and researches more sustainably taught and researched), but is not quite like, either. The journalists are chosen by the colleges (who thereby get to add to their reputation by associating themselves with famous names), but besides the professional journalism requirement, particular chairs are themed. One of the Knight Chairs was at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, a reasonably prestigious school with a widely recognized journalism program, the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. It is in particular the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a well-known Pulitzer-winning journalist who had attended the school, was chosen. If you ignore the fact that the Chair is itself a bought position for influencing the course of academic teaching and inquiry, there's no question that she was, despite the controversies that surround her, a reasonable candidate.

People who receive Knight Chairs are eligible to apply for academic tenure, and the previous two people had received it. The tenure committee recommended tenure for Hannah-Jones; but the UNC Board of Trustees declined to approve it, and offered instead a five-year contract. This is the controversy that has recently been in the news. It is irrelevant; what is relevant and important is that it is another accidental controversy that throws a spotlight on another layer of corruption here. In a system notorious for its active exploitation of hard-working adjuncts (and the Hussman School hires over thirty adjuncts), a bought position like a Knight Chair gives a route for a celebrity to be slotted into a well-paid tenured chair. That is corruption in broad daylight: the buying and trading of academic honors over the heads of the very people for whom they were ultimately meant, active academic teachers and researchers. But again, it's only accidentally in plain light; these things happen all the time, and are hardly noticed. It is all done in the academic vernacular, almost but not quite like the way things are supposed to work. And many academics are quite complicit in it; when Hannah-Jones was not given automatic tenure for the position, many of them protested, quite vehemently, in fact, and far more vehemently than they ever protest the ongoing exploitation of their academic colleagues. They're used to this process of celebrities being slotted into bought academic offices; they have come to accept the corruption's camouflage at face value, and the corruption itself as normal working of the system. And again, this is not unusual or even distinctive to academia; it is similar to how corruption develops and grows in church and government bureaucracies, as well.

Hannah-Jones, in any case, is not hurt by it. Academia is a reputational game, and if you apply the right reputational pressure to a college, it will sooner or later buckle, and the UNC Board of Trustees eventually buckled and offered her tenure. She declined, going instead to Howard University, which has a recently established Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, where she will get her rubber-stamped tenure. Frankly, I wish her well; while she happens to be a beneficiary of it, the corruption lies not with her but with the academic system itself. There's no point in attacking particular individuals for receiving plum benefices when the whole system is riddled with the same kind of practice.