One of the more difficult challenges in the midst of the Salaita affair is to hold onto the possibility that a university could handle the Israel-Palestine debate in ways that are worthy of a university. Virtually all sides of this debate seem to agree that, of course, Chancellor Wise was going to capitulate to the combination of outraged donors and potent constituencies. I myself have gotten so used to the cycle of call and response—administrators succumbing to donor and political pressure; massive counter-mobilization mounted by students, faculty, staff, and citizens; administrators reversing (if we’re lucky) their decision—that I sometimes forget that administrators need not toggle endlessly between powerful donors and mobilized publics. Political theorist Bonnie Honig, whose letter to Chancellor Wise went viral on Sunday, weighs in as a guest blogger today, meditating on the possibility of a different response from Chancellor Wise. Inspired by the luminous example of the classicist Mary Beard.
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This week, the New Yorker features a great article about the fabulous Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classicist who, in addition to writing many great books and training a great many students, appears on TV and radio in the UK discussing the ancient world and contemporary topics.
Beard, an “older” woman, does not toe the conventional female appearance line:
Beard does not wear makeup and she doesn’t color her abundant gray hair. She dresses casually, with minor eccentricities: purple-rimmed spectacles, gold sneakers. She looks comfortable both in her skin and in her shoes—much more preoccupied with what she is saying than with how she looks as she is saying it.
Her appearance is often the occasion (though not the cause) of rather vicious and awful tweets, emails, or postings. Beard is philosophical about it all. She sees it as a kind of silencing that is gendered:
“It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.” Indeed, Beard goes on, “’Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain” and these often come with threats, what she refers to as a “predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder, and so forth.” She mildly reported one tweet that had been directed at her: “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”
Beard’s response? When one “commenter posted a doctored photograph in which an image of a woman’s genitals was superimposed over Beard’s face,” she posted the image on her blog “and suggested possible responses for her supporters to take, such as flooding the offending message board with Latin poetry. The story made international news, and the message board soon shut down.”
In another “highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: ‘You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.’” Asked by the BBC what she would say to the student, Beard replied, “‘I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom.’”
In practice, though, she does something a bit different: she writes back to her detractors. and soon discovers they are somehow thwarted in their lives and taking out their frustrations on her. She listens, she may even help out with a problem, and so some sort of relationship takes the place of the prior antagonism; “often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation.”
The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”
In the context of recent events at the University of Illinois, in which Professor Steven Salaita was “de-hired” because of things he tweeted this summer, commenting on Israel’s bombing of Gaza, you might think that what I am drawn to here is Mary Beard’s charitable attitude toward tweets. But that is not it. That is just icing on the cake.
Instead, I find myself thinking about what life would be like if Mary Beard was chancellor of the University of Illinois. What I am enjoying right now is the idea of Mary Beard, or anyone with HALF her character, in university administration receiving an email from, say, a donor expressing concern about the likely unfairness of a faculty member with strong views about a political matter.
WHAT WOULD MARY BEARD DO?
I do not think she would defer to said donor, nor meet with university fundraisers, nor telephone the Board of Trustees. Instead, if the New Yorker article is any indication, I imagine she would listen and then invite the protesting or concerned donor or alum to come in for a lunch or a coffee with the faculty member whose views are so disturbing to him.
I imagine she would arrange the lunch, have it paid for, and perhaps have a word with the faculty member in advance, specially requesting s/he be patient and respond to concerns expressed with care (as s/he likely would do anyway). (We know, for example, that Steven Salaita sometimes responded to tweets of disagreement with offers to meet in person to discuss).
I imagine she might tell the donor—after lunch, with a nice wine, provided courtesy of the University of Illinois’ fundraising arm—that this lunch is a model of what universities are supposed to do: bring people together from diverse backgrounds and put them in challenging positions where their assumptions are in question and they can talk and learn from each other or respectfully disagree.
If she were American, she might then suggest that the donor could, with a nice donation, make such lunches a regular feature of student life at UIUC. They could be called something like, I don’t know… Salaita Salons, perhaps, and they could be featured monthly at the university.
WHAT WOULD MARY BEARD DO? It would not be a bad idea to have THAT emblazoned on some chancellors’ desks…
(with apologies in advance to Professor Beard, whom I have not met, if this post is too familiar, and with thanks for the inspiring example)